Relationships and Land Acknowledgements
October 12, 2023
One cold fall evening, when the sun began to set before the earth barely warmed itself and the wind and the wet seeped under doors and through window casements, my cell phone rang. The caller ID read the name of an elder from the Lenni-Lenape Nation and a prominent layperson from St. John United Methodist Church of Bridgeton, NJ. She called to tell me that their church, the fifth oldest Native American church in The United Methodist Church, comprised of members of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, had suffered a terrible blow. Their pastor retired suddenly and died soon after. As we spoke, we shared sad stories reflective of the chill outside. We began to discuss concerns about who might be appointed by the resident Bishop. Their pastor had been Native American, and Indigenous pastors are hard to find in the Lenape traditional homelands covering New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and parts of New York and Maryland.
Because I want to honor everyone as best I can, let me clarify some of the language I am using. In this article, I will endeavor to name each person’s identity as they describe themselves. Also, I will use the names of each Nation and the terms Indigenous and Native American at times. Indigenous Peoples is a term determined by the delegates to the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and described in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Admittedly, the term Native American is problematic because it indicates some homogeneity among the over 500 Indigenous Sovereign Nations within the US. I use it here since it is the term used by my denomination at this time.
Until last year, I was privileged to be the Communications Director for the Northeastern Jurisdiction Native American Ministries Committee for The United Methodist Church (NEJNAMC). I met regularly with elders from various Nations within the Jurisdiction, including the Lenni-Lenape. Members of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation are the descendants of the original people of the land our Seminary occupies.
The Lenape elder who rang me that night was a colleague. We planned meetings and educational opportunities across the northeast. Her guidance for white settlers like me has been integral to the NEJNAMC advocacy work. As you can imagine, our personal relationship quickly went to a deeper place that night as I listened, and we shared our worries, fears, and sadness due to COVID-19. We prayed that God would lift up a pastor for St. John, and we both agreed a person who identified as Indigenous would be best. A Lenape leader would be even better. I was honored by this conversation and that this incredibly gifted leader would reach out to me. We spoke a few times that winter, sharing joys and concerns and keeping each other in prayer. I experienced the devoted faith of a woman and her seemingly tireless efforts to continue the work of feeding people throughout Lockdowns with one of the most vulnerable populations in the United States.
It’s no wonder I thought of her and the Lenape people as I began to serve as the Director of Mast Chapel at NBTS. Through our interactions, I began to recognize the importance of acknowledging the original inhabitants of the land and composed a statement to open our chapel services. However, as our relationship deepened, I also realized that I had begun the work of writing and sharing that acknowledgment without consulting the Lenape people. I had been taught that writing these statements is the work of ongoing repentance for the assimilation and violence that led to these lands being occupied. Around the same time, I was invited by Rev. Dr. James Brumm to speak at a Reformed Church Center Event: Land Acknowledgment, Truth, and Reconciliation: A Place to Begin.
When so many aspects of our lives intersect, it seems a good time to pay attention, so I rethought what I was doing. To my own shame, I realized I dishonored the Lenape Peoples by writing a statement without the input and approval of the elders. I allowed myself to feel ashamed, apologized for not reaching out earlier, and asked for help. Thus began an important conversation about a Land acknowledgment that would honor the Nation. This conversation continues not only with me at NBTS but with some Reformed Church in America pastors and laity who took a chance and reached out to her. She has generously given her time to many of us seeking to honor the Original Peoples of these lands.
Part of the challenge when working at the crossroads with non-Native settlers and Indigenous Peoples is stressing the importance of long-term relationships and nurturing those relationships. My work on my dissertation, Beloved Speech, outlines some of the underlying values and critical historical reasons for this starting point, but even so, I needed reminding. When denominations and institutions want to appear relevant and socially conscious, we may sidestep the relationships to accomplish an end, in this case, a formal written statement. Even what seems like good intentions can cause organizations to place these statements on websites or at the top of communications pamphlets and consider their work finished. But without relationships, these statements are just words on a page. It is when we seek out the elders and begin to listen and learn that the real work begins.
But this work also involves listening to ourselves. Many of us have narratives we aren’t even aware of running around in our minds. Exploring the history of colonization and racialization that birthed racism and brought death and destruction to Indigenous Peoples around the globe is only the beginning. Continued work by non-Native settlers around our own identity and all the complexities of our own privilege becomes an essential part of the work. In my case, it meant answering the phone, staying in touch, and talking about how I might honor the Lenape in Mast Chapel. This is an ongoing journey, and those who attend Mast Chapel at NBTS experience the continuing conversation.
Similarly, when students at NBTS enroll in the workshop Analyzing The Systems Of Privilege and begin to discuss the effects of power and privilege, they start the dialogical journey around the origins of systemic racism and colonization and the impact they have on our identity, our worldview, our churches, and other institutions. Honest conversations that begin here form a community that walks together towards thinking critically, acting justly, and leading faithfully. As with all meaningful journeys, what we learn on the road together matters most.