The sacred drums beat in rhythm from the front of Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church as members of the congregation gathered in the aisles, dancing to the Native American rhythms.
That might not sound like a typical UMC Sunday worship experience, and the congregation at this small church in St. Petersburg loves it.
“They said they wished we could do this every Sunday,” church member Christa Berger said.
Berger, who has been attending Wesley Memorial for about six months, wanted to introduce her Native American heritage into the church’s worship. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
It all started with a meeting between Berger and Pastor John Ekers. After he learned some basics about what Berger proposed, he was supportive of her wish to bring the sacred drum to the church.
"The rhythm is with the idea of singing and togetherness. They had three or four speakers that came at the same time and spoke to us about the different meanings and how Christianity and the Indians have gotten together, and how it is portrayed in our world and their world,” Ekers said.
The congregation learned of the love Native Americans have for Jesus and how they incorporate their Christianity with their tribal customs.
“They talked about how they recognize Jesus, and they walk with him; but they also recognize their old stories of faith and the story of the eagle and why eagle feathers are so important to them.”
Native Americans consider the eagle and its feathers as a symbol of what is highest, bravest, strongest and holiest. In their culture, eagle feathers are given in honor, and the feathers are treated with great respect.
“And they told stories of the drum,” Ekers said.
As the drum vibrations go through the drummers, it symbolizes making a connection with Mother Earth.
“When they pray, it is to the four directions of the compass,” Ekers said. “They start by praying to the east and end up praying to the north, and it includes prayers for the family and the now and the forever world, which we know as Heaven.”
People of multiple age groups joined in the St. Pete gathering. Some brought their families and friends. Typically, Wesley UMC hosts about 50 people for Sunday worship. The Native American ceremony drew about 80.
“Our congregation reacted very positively,” Ekers said. “They loved it, and some of them got up dancing around the room with the Native Americans. They had some dancers with them and did what is called a shuffle dance, going around the church.”
Opening the church to everyone is what Jesus asks of Christians.
“We learn to treat each other as Jesus taught us, and it’s got to help the community, overall,” Ekers said. “It’s about how we care for each other, how we care for our neighbors and how we love each other.”
—Yvette C. Hammett is a freelance writer in Valrico