The Monacan Indian Nation in Central Virginia : Building Bridges Between Cultures
Many years ago a friend invited me to the Monacan Indian Nation's Community Center to meet with a delegation from the Virginia Council of Churches. They were visiting the leaders of the Monacan Nation to explore how the Council of Churches might provide resources to support the People of the tribe. There was concern on the part of tribal leaders that the delegation from the Council of Churches might feel some conflict between Christianity and Native American spirituality. For reasons I still don't understand, some of the members of the Monacan Nation thought that perhaps I could help explain the similarities between the two spiritual philosophies in a way the "white Christians" might understand.
I was honored to be asked but felt a huge weight of responsibility. This is where I should probably confess. I have not been in a church in over 20 years, except to attend a funeral or a wedding. I am no expert on Christianity, although I have a strong faith and am deeply spiritual.
Out of respect and love for the Monacan People, I have always been very careful when speaking on their behalf. On this day, I realized I had been given very little time to prepare what I should say and, honestly, I had no idea what the Council of Churches might want to know. I was more than just a little nervous.
It is a short drive from my house to the Community Center but I found myself praying harder with each passing mile. "Creator, give me the words. I am not worthy of this responsibility and I need your help. Prepare me and let me speak in a gentle way; in words they will understand. Creator, open the hearts and minds of those who may not know and let them feel your presence in this meeting. Give me courage and humility. Creator, give me something to say that will open doors." I repeated those words silently all the way to the Tribal Center.
Out of nowhere, I heard (in my mind) the words of a little song I remembered singing as a child growing up in the Christian church.
"Jesus loves the little children; all the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world".
Now, where did that come from and how could it help me today? Well of course, in the words they would understand, their Christian song, it says that God loves all children, even Red (Indian) ones. I would start there.
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We gathered around a table, introduced ourselves, and the Council of Churches explained that their mission was to offer themselves in friendship to the Monacan Nation. Perhaps they could help with establishing a food pantry or health care access or elder care. I sat quietly and listened. I was there to support the Monacans if asked but not to speak for them. The meeting was just about over and I was feeling relief that no one had asked me to speak. Things had gone well and it appeared that the Council of Churches genuinely wanted to help rather than force their beliefs on the Indians.
As we were about to close, one of the delegates from the Council of Churches asked the big question. "Who is your God?", he asked. Silence fell like a blanket over the group.
Religion and spirituality is one of those subjects that rattles some people. It is so personal and some just are not comfortable opening themselves up in such a personal way. I am no different. But suddenly, I felt the eyes of most of my Monacan friends staring at me, waiting for me to take this one. I took a deep breath, hoping that one more fraction of a moment would give someone else time to respond. Nothing ! Not a word. So I opened my mouth and silently said one more time - "Creator, give me the words." This is what came out.
"Our God is the same, the Creator of all things. We may call our God by different names - Creator, God, Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka, Grandfather, Lord, Heavenly Father, Great Mystery, but our God is the same God. And then I shared the story of praying on the drive to the meeting and how that little song, Jesus Loves the Little Children, had come to me. I explained that the song tells us that Jesus loves all races equally. But then, I knew that I had to explain what makes us different. It was the only way to help them understand. The difference is our church.
In your church (the Christian Church), you worship on a schedule. The doors of your church are locked most of the time and if you want to kneel at the altar privately, you have to call and make arrangements to do so. Your choir performs according to the church calendar. Your congregation only gathers on designated days.
In my church, there are no doors. Nature is my church and I can sit quietly in my church anytime, anywhere. I do not have to make arrangements to pray at my altar. My altar can be constructed from things of nature, in any place. I too have a choir, but it is always present. It is the voice of the wind, the song of the birds, a cricket chirping in the distance. These are the true songs of God; the voices given to nature's choir. You might think that my Church is lonely, that there is no congregation in my Church. But you see, in my Church, I am never alone. There is always a congregation present. I share my Church with the trees, the flowers, the Sun or the Moon. I am never alone in my Church."
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It is difficult to express in words the feeling that came over the room. I think it is best described in one word - understanding. Looking back, I think that perhaps this lesson was as much for me as it was for the Council of Churches. So often we let the world complicate our lives to the point of forgetting the really simple, most important things. I needed this reminder; a reminder to start spending more time in church. God, the Creator, has always taught me my most important lessons through nature. On the drive to the meeting I prayed for the right words, for open hearts, and humility. My prayers were answered.
To my knowledge, the Council of Churches never returned to the Monacan Nation Community Center. I am not aware of anything that came from the meeting that actually changed things for the Tribe. And so it is that I am once again grateful for the Creator's guidance; that I was put in a place to remind me of things I was forgetting. It is good. It is done. I am relieved.