Making the invisible visible

Red Bank UMC’s Native American Sunday dispels myths, offers truths about Christianity and America’s first people

By Jessica Brodie

RED BANK—We may be invisible, but we are still here.

That was the message underscored Aug. 21 at Red Bank United Methodist Church, where the congregation got the chance to hear important truths about America’s first people from the chair of the annual conference’s Native American Committee.

Zan Tracy Pender, South Carolina UMC’s NAC chair, delivered the sermon to all three services at the church that Sunday as he helped dispel myths about Native Americans and offer a number of important truths.

Pender taught how Native peoples have experienced blatant and fully legal discrimination in the United States despite being on this soil long before European settlers and despite mandates throughout the Bible to care for others.

Pender drew from two key Scriptures in his message: Leviticus 25:23-34, which emphasizes that the land belongs to God and we must care for it, and Matthew 25:35-40, which notes that we are caring for Jesus when we show care for others, particularly the “least of these.”

“We have an obligation, a mandate, to help those in need,” Pender said, which certainly includes people’s physical needs but also their mental spiritual and relationship needs.

But to be in relationship, we must know something about each other, Pender said.

Pender, whose paternal grandmother was an American Indian of both South Carolina’s Wassamassaw and Santee heritages, spent time explaining various untruths about indigenous Americans, as well as detailing how certain customs came into existence. For instance, he shared how the typical Native greeting—a raised hand and the word, “How”—is a gesture of peace. The raised hand indicates a person has no weapon and, therefore, no intention to harm them, and the word “How” describes what the people would ask: how are things going with you and your community? How can I help?

He noted that what Native Americans are depicted as wearing many feathers, this is true for the plains Indians, but not the tribes in South Carolina.

He also shared that a teepee wasn’t the typical house for a Native American. Teepees were much like today’s recreational vehicles—temporary places people could stay while out on the road. For South Carolina Natives, who weren’t off bunting buffalo, there were generally no teepees, Pender said.

He also noted that the clothing we see worn by Naïve Americans is not a “costume” but rather traditional dress.

As well, what to call Native people varies by area, and the terms are all technically correct, whether that is First Peoples, First Nations, American Indians, Native Americans or Los Indigenas.

“We were the first but the last,” Pender said—the first to live in what is today the United States but the last to receive their rights. It wasn’t until 1924 when Native Americans got their rights—after White women—and today, they are still required to carry their tribal identification.

“No other race must do this,” Pender said.

For far too long, it was perfectly legal to take—that is, kidnap—Native American women and children from their homes. And even though Native Americans served in the Civil War, they remained legally indentured until 1968 in Marlboro County.

Pender said there are also a number of misconceptions about Native Americans and faith. He explained that Native Americans are monotheistic. They believe in one God only, calling him “Grandfather God”—superior above all else. “Grandfather,” as the elder in the tribe, was the person who commanded the most respect, so they typically refer to God in this way. There are also Native stories about a Jesus-like figure—a savior who walked on water, Pender said.

Still, many Native Americans face much discrimination. One member of the conference’s NAC, a Catawba woman named Beckee Garris, was told she can’t be Indian and Christian, Pender said.

But, Pender noted, in The United Methodist Church, you can.

“Open doors, open hearts, open minds really means something,” Pender said, lifting up the inclusiveness of the UMC.

He closed his sermon with a traditional Navajo blessing: God is before us. God is behind us. God is above us. God is below us.

Chris Galvin, a member of Red Bank UMC, organized the Native American Sunday and introduced Pender to the congregation.

Pender presented him with a friendship bracelet at the end of the service as a token of gratitude and appreciation.

To join the UMCSC Native American Committee email group or receive a newsletter, email [email protected]. To schedule a speaker for your church’s Native American Sunday, one of the official Special Sundays in the UMC, email Pender at [email protected].

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