By Zan Tracy Pender
The Rocky Swamp American Indian Ministries congregation, which was the South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church’s Native American outreach ministry, has decided to discontinue its ministry.
The congregation has faced a number of challenges over the last several years, which impacted their ability to grow the outreach ministry. One of the first losses was the passing of Keith Hiott. Hiott served as the Native spiritual guide and was a major force with the ministry’s success. He was always there at the church on Sunday morning.
This was followed by numerous break-ins and damage to the church over several years. It is hard when you plan to go to church to worship, but arrive to find a break-in and now have to work with police. Then members have to clean up the damage and make repairs.
Next, a storm tore off the front of the church, damaged part of the roof and took out the electric connections. The conference was able to provide some support with mission teams for repairs. With a small congregation, every other Sunday became a work day. Progress was slow.
We were just about to the point of having a celebration Sunday where we fully reopened, but in March 2020, COVID-19 arrived. In April, the church was hit by an F-3 tornado tearing off most of the roof and damaging the inside to include water damage. Many of the trees on the property were damaged or torn down. The church was covered by insurance through the conference, and the roof was repaired and repairs had started on the interior.
Then, the conference informed the members there was a possibility they would sell the church and property. The conference was willing to relocate the ministry, but for the members, the idea of having to relocate was not favorable. There were strong connections with the church. It would be hard to relocate considering Sunday worship began around 11:30 but often did not end until late in the afternoon, 3 p.m. or later. The congregation also ate a meal together almost every Sunday.
Yet the major factor in the closure was that the membership had significantly decreased. A number of current members were older and some are having major health issues. As a result, members were unable to commit the time to restart and meet the goals of growing the ministry. Thus, the decision was reached, although painful, to discontinue the ministry.
As this journey ends, I reflect back on the years, and I have learned so many things. I arrived in 2009 at Rocky Swamp American Indian Ministries. At first the welcome was not warm. I found myself being questioned and challenged about Methodism in a way I had never dealt with before. Yet I learned a great deal about my denomination in the process of answering questions.
The members became family to my wife and me. I experienced the death of members to include funeral services. We celebrated marriages. We enjoyed our worship service, the drumming, the meals and the fellowship. We held sweat lodges in the native tradition.
My wife and I would often comment that we did not like the hour-and-45-minute drive, one way, to and from the church, but we enjoyed every minute once we arrived. We greeted each other with hugs and welcome every Sunday. It wasn’t just a scheduled time in a bulletin. We had deep discussions about the Bible and living Christian lives while embracing and encompassing the Native ways. The members will always be family to my wife and me.
In my reflections, there are two aspects that stand out to me above all others. When I first arrived, the members wanted to ensure we would continue Native traditions as part of the worship service. Working with Dr. Tim McClendon, I learned there is flexibility in the structure of worship and the Native way can be done even if it is not the traditional worship service you find in most United Methodist churches on Sunday morning. In Rocky Swamp’s case, it was all day on Sunday. God and Christ were at the center of the worship. If visitors came, they could experience and see that so many American Indian stereotypes were wrong. We arranged the pews in a circle so everyone could see all members. I experienced some of the most insightful discussions and worship experiences I’ve ever been involved in.
The second is the power of the Native drum in worship. The drum was in the center. For Native peoples, the drum is the message, or the tool, for connecting us to Creator and Christ. It is voice of the sermon. It is often said that the drum is the heartbeat of Mother Earth as it is played. Its round shape reminds of the sacred circle and that we begin and end with our Creator.
There are calling songs to call and welcome Creator, Christ, and spiritual helpers to come and worship with us. There are prayer songs to offer up struggles and concerns. Drumming concludes with a thank you song thanking the heavenly host for joining us and hearing our prayers.
The drum united the membership. It was the part of the worship service that everyone enjoyed the most. You could feel its power in your entire being. It is so hard to describe unless you lived and felt it. The drumming connected you to Mother Earth, your human brothers and sisters (your relatives in Native culture) and to Creator and Christ all at the same time—so powerful. It was such a pleasure when Rocky Swamp took the drum to many United Methodist churches in our conference to drum as the sermon for Native American Ministries Sunday. Every time, congregations would tell us that they felt the power of the drum and the connection to Creator and Christ.
We hope to keep drumming and gathering as a family from time to time, but only time will tell.
In the end, this path in my life has ended. It is with sorrow to see it close. Yet, in Native culture, there is no word for goodbye. Instead, it is until we meet again, wherever that shall be. Overall, Rocky Swamp has brought great joy into my life and an experience that I will never forget. I’ve learned so many things to take with me moving forward. I am all the better for the path that I walked with this congregation.
Thank you to each and every one of you for making my life better and more meaningful. I pray I was able to do the same for you. Finally, a special thanks goes to all the churches and members of our conference that reached out and helped in times of need or invited us to come to their churches. Your actions demonstrate the commitment of the Christian family. It was such a pleasure in sharing. I hope each one of you also gained something special for these experiences. Aho!
Pender is the South Carolina Conference’s Native American Committee chair.
By Zan Tracy Pender