OIMC Visits the Standing Rock Reservation
By Bryan Tener
Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC) Superintendent David Wilson, two other OIMC representatives, and Rev. Bryan Tener, from Discipleship Ministries and Path 1, traveled December 9 through 12 to the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota to visit the Little Eagle tribal community and deliver Christmas presents to the students in the elementary school and to other children in the community. The presents had been collected through the OIMC churches throughout November. The relationship between the Standing Rock Reservation and the OIMC has been one that has deepened over the last several years. Even before 2016 and the #NODAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline) movement, meaningful friendships had been formed. Since then, those friendships have deepened. Leaders within the OIMC have offered a consistent and supportive presence in ways that have made a difference for water protectors, for tribal leaders, and for the people of Standing Rock.
In 2018, OIMC leaders were invited to attend the Treaty Rights Conference, and the OIMC and The United Methodist Church were acknowledged by the leaders of the conference as one of the only denominations that had been consistently present and helpful to the people. It has taken the work of building trust over time through consistent presence, listening ears, and a recognition of the gifts that the people of Standing Rock have to offer—all of which are grounded with humility that has helped this relationship grow.
Another relationship that began out of the opportunity to give gifts to the children of Standing Rock developed with a local Oklahoma City CrossFit gym, Koda CrossFit, and its Deer Creek location. Koda is a Sioux word, meaning friend. Tener, who is of Cheyenne-Arapaho heritage, is a gym member, and he serves as a coach. After talking with the gym owner and looking at the connections between the word Koda and the people of Standing Rock, and the Dakota and Lakota Sioux, Tener invited gym members to donate toys. Several members made donations, along with the non-profit Koda foundation that offers a way for gym members to give back to the community. Several members saw it as a great way to begin to connect, not just with the OIMC, but with the Standing Rock Reservation. They were very excited for that connection to begin.
The work of community engagement takes a consistent presence, seeing the gifts of the community, and being grounded in humility. As we seek to engage the community, we can look to the circles where we gather and see if there are connections that can be made. Here, it is a gym name and recognizing the opportunity for connections to be made—one between the gym and the Sioux people and one between the church and the local community. Then there is an opportunity to bring people together to learn and share in the journey.
In your own community, where can you begin to engage with others and offer a consistent presence with genuine humility, setting aside assumptions and ready-made answers? What gifts do you see or hear from those with whom you engage? What circles of relationships do you have that you might begin to make connections among people? In what ways can you begin to connect people with one another and share in those gifts together?
A Sermon on Isaiah 25:6-9
For Native American Heritage Month, preached November 2021
I’m so glad to join you on this day. It’s an honor to be present with you and to be invited to help honor and celebrate Native American Heritage Month. I’m Bryan Tener, an elder from the Oklahoma Conference. I am of Cheyenne Arapaho heritage; now because of some changes in the use of blood quantum measurements by the tribe, I am beginning to take the first steps to enroll as a member of the Cheyenne Arapaho Nation. It’s exciting for me to be able to take that step; it’s something I’ve always wanted, ever since I was a little boy. After tribal voting in October, I’m filled with excitement and hope in what it means for me as I think about the ways in which I’ve had a foot in two worlds.
A Feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines . . .
[God] will destroy on this mountain this shroud that is cast over all peoples,
this sheet that is spread over all nations;
He will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces . . .
This is our God; we have waited for him . . .
Let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation (Isaiah 25:6-9 NRSV).
These words from Isaiah soar far above the clouds—the words of a poetic promise that can seem so far away, out of reach. Well, maybe for a few of us: we can imagine a feast of rich foods and fine wines, but we may have to stretch our imagination just a bit to think about a banquet where there is room for all peoples at the table and where there is enough so that all get their fill. In a society that teaches scarcity and that has instilled radical individualism and self-preservation over and against the other, where divisions run deep, some of us may say that this kind of banquet is not just hard to imagine, it is impossible. Besides that, would we want to eat and celebrate with those folks anyway?
Before the prophet’s poem is even finished, there is a barrier that’s put up that makes it seem as though this promise is impossible. We’ve grown much too cynical to fall for this one again. We’ve heard this before, and here we are; people are still dying; we’re divided as ever; and the dominant culture has taught us to take care of ourselves and to heck with the community.
Maybe cynicism isn’t it. Maybe we’ve settled into apathy. “It is what it is”; “Ain’t nothing going to change, so why worry about it”; “I’ll just live my life knowing that whatever I do won’t make a difference”—the words of inaction or indifference.
Or maybe we’ve given ourselves over to hopelessness. Maybe we look forward and see no future. Due to COVID-19, political divisions, racism, and our own individual concerns and situations, we come to that point and just say, “It’s too much; I can’t see anything down the road, much less today.”
The words of the prophet come as many might have been dwelling in cynicism or apathy or hopelessness. Just before these verses that were read today, God is praised as a refuge to the poor, a shelter from the rainstorm, and a shade from the heat” (Isaiah 25: 4).
“When the blast from the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm, the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place, you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds, the song of the ruthless was stilled,” Isaiah continues (v. 5).
God is a refuge, for God has done wonderful things. From the days of scripture even unto today, tyrants come and tyrants go, and God is still working things out.
These poetic words are lofty, flying high above human reality. They are lofty words, but they are fuel for transformation and change. We are called to take in these words and let them fuel our hope and allow this hope to fuel our action, as we seek to live into the beloved community. The beloved community is not a faraway land or pie-in-the-sky wishing. It is hopeful knowing and living, trusting that it is possible in the here and now, a way of being and living in which there is no room for poverty; war shall be no more; and racism and bigotry will be replaced with an all-inclusive spirit of creative, redemptive love—a banquet for all peoples filled with joy, life, and peace.
We’ve seen these kinds of situations before, where the fuel from the words seems too lofty and the challenges too great. From Indian removal and the Trail of Tears of the Choctaw Cherokee, Chickasaw among others, to the boarding school strategy begun by General Pratt, the assimilation practices meant to wipe out Native American identities, to the breaking of treaties and taking of lands, to the appropriation of culture for use as mascots, to the pollution of sacred waters and the destruction of sacred mountains—from the past into the present, this poem from Isaiah can seem too far removed.
And yet, there are signs and there are stories that help to turn this poem into fuel for hope. In Oklahoma, as the vaccine against the pandemic began to be rolled out, the tribal nations were there, offering their generosity to the rest of the state and creating access to the vaccines for all people. Their generosity offered hope, which became fuel, as people came together to volunteer at the sites; then people began to return to visiting their loved ones, as things began to open up a little bit more. As more people had access to the vaccines, more hope was fueled—all out of the generosity of the tribal nations.
Over the last several years, the Landback movement has grown as mainstream denominations have begun to rethink the doctrine of discovery and to recognize the wrongs of the past. The return of land to indigenous peoples by the United Church of Canada, Presbyterian Church USA in White Plains, the Oregon-Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church to the Nez Perce, the Global Board of Global Ministries to the Wyandotte Nation in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, are signs that say that the way it was cannot be. There is a great banquet planned, and God is the host. Chief Billy Friend of the Wyandotte Nation—now headquartered in Oklahoma after it was forced from the land by the Indian Removal Act—said he was grateful when the General Board of Global Ministries offered to return the land.
“In Indian Country, there was a lot taken from us over the years. There are very few times somebody comes back and says, ‘We want to give back to you,’” Friend said.
The day the church transferred the deed to the Wyandotte Nation, hundreds of Wyandotte people marched through Upper Sandusky, some proudly wearing ribbon shirts and skirts and regalia.
“The last time that that many Wyandottes were there, we were leaving,” Friend said.
“This time, we’re not walking away from the church; we’re walking to the church and reestablishing not only ourselves with the church, but really reestablishing our relationship with the local community as well.”[i]
In Honolulu, the indigenous peoples there continue to work to protect a sacred mountain, Mauna Kea, from continued construction of a giant telescope. Led by Rev. Piula Ala’ima, the protest is part of a long struggle against colonization, which is part of the revitalization of the culture, the language, and a reawakening. And The United Methodist Church, a presence that helped foster colonization, is now working to support those who are protecting the mountain. The church has sought repentance for making colonization possible in the past. The churches and clergy now stand in solidarity with the indigenous elders and others who are working for justice and working to protect the sacred mountain. Repentance, reconciliation, and solidarity are the fuel for hope that empowers us to live into Isaiah’s lofty words.
There continues to be fuel for hope for the living into these words through our actions.
Whenever the church remembers its role in colonization and then offers repentance and works for reconciliation, whether it’s returning land or standing in solidarity with water protectors or mountain protectors, it facilitates a turning point in which the fuel for hope burns brightly. To learn from, to lift up, and to stand with those who have been pushed aside for generations and generations creates more fuel for hope.
Native Poet Joe Harjo speaks to this in her poem “Once the World Was Perfect”, which you can read here.
We have been offered a promise from Isaiah. Seek to live into this promise and let all of your actions become a fuel for hope, a light passing from you to others.