CONAM bridges gap between Christianity and culture




A core belief of the Florida Conference is that disciples of God are called to discover their gifts and live out their unique mission. Ed Taylor, a truck driver from Groveland, embodies this principle on his daily walk, but especially on the third Sunday of every month.

That’s when he dons a Western shirt, embraces his Native American heritage and serves as the spiritual leader of the American Indian Christian Circle of Lake County at First United Methodist Church in Clermont. “We worship in a way that our ancestors would recognize,” said Taylor, chairman of the FLUMC’s Committee on Native American Ministries (CONAM).

This year's summit gathering in Fruitland Park included workshops for making acorn flour and gourd rattles, along with an introduction to experiencing a sweat lodge. Shown here, a participant uses a stone to create a copper pot.

“We pray to one God. Our God is father, son and Holy Ghost. We pray to the creator, not the creation.”

‘Lifted to the sky’

The Clermont circle—a native-friendly word for church—is one of four facilitated by CONAM, which formed in 2005, with the other three meeting in Thonotosassa, Plant City and Fernandina Beach. Like other congregations, all Christian circles are different, but they share common elements such as wearing native dress, drumming, playing the Native American flute or burning white sage to signify purification.

“Four walls and listening to one orator is just not native style,” explained Taylor, who has traced his ancestry to the Miami Indian tribe of Central Indiana. “We’re sitting in a circle. We’re listening intently to what is being said. I usually read scripture, and I use a talking feather.

“We pass the feather, and that indicates who can talk. Every person gets to tell their input, how the scripture affects them and how they plan to use it.” Prayer, he suggested, also might look a little different.

“Typically, we don’t bow our heads or fold our hands,” Taylor said. “We might have our heads lifted to the sky with our arms outstretched.” Ultimately, for those with American Indian heritage or a strong connection to native cultures, a circle is an opportunity to sing, pray, reflect and fellowship without fear of scorn or reprisal.

“When I attended my first native gathering and heard the big drum, I stood there and bawled,” recalled Vickie Swartz, a former CONAM chairwoman and member of the Sacred Thunder Drum group. “It was a big welcome home kind of feeling.”

Righting a wrong

In late April, CONAM hosted its 12th annual Native American Gathering at the Life Enrichment Center in Fruitland Park, drawing 66 total participants from across the conference. “It’s a very Christ-centered, but culturally relevant event,” Swartz said. The Gathering featured guest speakers Terry and Darlene Wildman, pastors of the Northport Indian United Methodist Church in Northport, Michigan, and the founders of RainSong Music and Storytelling.

Ed Taylor, chairman of the FLUMC's Committee on Native American Ministries (CONAM), reads scripture using a talking feather in his church. Passing the feather, each person in a circle takes a turn describing how the scripture affects them in their own lives.

The gathering included workshops on making copper pots, acorn flour and gourd rattles. It also included an introduction to the sweat lodge experience, taught by Casey Church, director of Wiconi International, a Native American ministry headquartered in Vancouver, Washington. “One of the things I appreciate about this gathering is that they really want to help native people who are followers of Jesus and give them opportunities to express their faith together in contextual ways,” said Wildman, who shared a message of reconciliation and peace during the three-day event.

“Native people, in some sense, we really have a love-hate relationship with the American church. We really love Jesus and the teachings of Jesus, but we feel we’ve been forced into a way of worship that wasn’t really part of who we originally were.”

Swartz and Taylor say CONAM exists to right that. It partners with a variety of Native American ministries within the UMC, but also outside of it. For example, the committee recently helped purchase a portable kitchen for Nene Hutke, a Creek Indian ceremonial ground near Chattahoochee.

Another aim is to establish CONAM representatives at more of the 641 churches across the Florida Conference and encourage those churches to observe annual Native American Ministries Sunday—held this year April 21-23—and its special contribution.

“That would be so helpful,” Swartz said. “Then we would have a contact person and they could let us know the needs in the area.”

Taylor’s greatest hope is that more Native Americans and those with strong ties to native cultures will find a place where they can worship freely. “I have great hope that we will be able to do more,” he said. “We don’t want to take people out of the mainstream church, but we want to let people know there are other things available.”

--Kari C. Barlow is a freelance writer who lives in Pensacola
 


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