Three Historic Gatherings for Indigenous Peoples

Three historic gatherings: one to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding congress of Sami peoples that was held between February 6 and 9 in 1917, and another to celebrate the role of the Methodist Church in Trondheim, Norway in the life of Sami peoples by hosting this first congress.

Still another was a solidarity visit and gathering in Norway by a delegation of 19 United Methodists from around the world, mostly indigenous peoples, joining with Norwegian and Swedish counterparts, brought together by the commemorative occasion.

The Sami are the indigenous peoples in the Arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia.

In all, there were more than 30 United Methodists involved in events that were held in two places, Trondheim and Soltun, not including members of the Trondheim United Methodist Church which became the venue of both official commemorative and related activities, including a ceremony to mark the designation of this church as United Methodist historical site #524. On site to deliver the marker was the Rev. Alfred T. Day III, top executive of the United Methodist General Commission on Archives and History

Members of the delegation participated in a church service on February 5 and heard the Rev. Yngvar Ruud, a Norwegian Sami, preach about his faith journey leading to acknowledgment of his Sami roots and heritage. The delegation also joined in a public seminar organized by retired United Methodist pastor and professor, Dr. Peder Borgen. Dr. Borgen wrote a definitive history of that gathering based on a scholarly research he conducted in 1997. The seminar highlighted the significance of the Sami Congress of 1917 through different perspectives.

Act of Repentence

The Rev. Dr. Liberato Bautista, assistant general secretary for United Nations and international affairs of the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church and lead organizer of the delegation to Norway, participated in the seminar by presenting an international perspective on the significance of the Sami commemoration. He focused on what it means for the church to enter into acts of repentance, and how to truly realize that by way of acts of justice.

The 2012 and 2016 general conferences of the United Methodist Church have highlighted the role of the church in the subjugation, colonization and marginalization of indigenous peoples, especially Native Americans in the United States, but also of indigenous peoples around the world, through what is called an “act of repentance”.

An Inter-Agency Effort

The United Methodist gathering in Norway was the first time ever to bring in one venue and program, and in an international setting Native Americans (eight), representing the Native American International Caucus (led by its chair, Ms. Cynthia Kent, and Raggatha Rain Calentine, vice chair, and board member Mr. Brian Larney), the Native American Comprehensive Plan (led by its director, the Rev. Anita Phillips), and the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (led by its Conference Superintendent, the Rev. David Wilson). The United Methodist Women was represented by a director, Ms. Daryl Junes Joe and staff executive Elizabeth Lee.

The delegation was joined by two participants from the Philippines (Ms. Ofelia Duldulao and Mr. Kerlan Fanagel), and one participant each from the Democratic Republic of Congo (the Rev. Dr. Bety Kazadi Musau), Mozambique (the Rev. Victoria Chifeche), and Nigeria (the Rev. Ande Emmanuel). Dr. Richard Grounds of the University of Tulsa led a keynote discussion on the Doctrine of Discovery, including a plea for the preservation of indigenous languages that are increasingly vanishing.

A board director of Church and Society, Rev. Kari Hay, together with her husband, Tore Hay, a writer and novelist, were also in attendance. Swedish Sami and pastor of Ecumeniaqyrkans (which now includes the former United Methodist churches in Sweden) was also a full participant.

Dr. Katalina Tahaafe-Williams, a Methodist from Tonga and current programme executive of the World Council of Churches in charge of migration, indigenous peoples and multicultural ministry programs, joined the group in Soltun as a resource person.

Urgent Need to Bring People Together

After the event in Soltun, Dr. Tahaafe-Williams had this to say: “It was a privilege and joy to spend the time with the United Methodist indigenous peoples’ group at Soltun, Norway. I was reminded of the continuing and urgent need to bring a strong cohesive united indigenous peoples front to the global political and ecclesial landscape. Which is why the close working relationship and collaboration between the WCC Ecumenical Indigenous Peoples Network (EIPN) and the Global Working Group of United Methodist Indigenous Peoples will be absolutely critical for the foreseeable future, particularly with a theme so timely yet challenging as ‘act of repentance to acts of justice’. I really look forward to our work together, bringing hope as aspiration into hope in action.”

The Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe, top executive of Church and Society who attended events in Trondheim, expressed gratitude to the participants saying, “What an amazing group you are. The fact that many communities were represented enriches, deepens and pushes forward the relationships as we move toward justice”.

The Soltun gathering also looked at the United Methodist Social Principles. The Rev. Neal Christie, assistant general secretary for education and leadership formation at Church and Society, invited the participants to examine the Social Principles “in relation to the voices, perspectives, desires, strengths and needs of indigenous peoples and communities.” He invited indigenous peoples to give special attention to these questions especially in light of the ongoing process of revising the Social Principles.

The gathering in Evenskjer, in the Arctic region of Norway and in Sami territory, was hosted by the Folkehogskolen Nord Norge - a United Methodist folk school that is soon to be fully assumed as a YMCA/YWCA of Norway school. The rector of the school, Lutheran pastor Rev. Rolf Steffensen, graciously hosted the gathering at minimal cost. Rev. Steffensen has emphasized his desire to continue building on from the solid foundation that United Methodists had given to the school. He has offered continuing collaboration on many levels but especially collaborating in the school’s program called FaceNorth which is focused on bringing young indigenous peoples from around the world for a 9-month residential study.

From Acts of Repentance to Acts of Justice

At the gathering in Soltun, the focus was to explore moving from acts of repentance to acts of justice, and how to address both historic and contemporary injustices committed against indigenous peoples. Worship, reflections, analyses, story-telling and conversations were around four agreed-upon themes of land, water, spirituality and self-determination. Many examples of how indigenous peoples are working on these themes were highlighted, among them the ongoing struggle in what is simply referred to Standing Rock, in North Dakota, that highlights the resistance of Native Americans against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The gathering in Soltun ended with a strong resolve by the participants to organize themselves into a Global Working Group of United Methodist Indigenous Peoples. A design team was identified that will include two from Asia, three from Africa, two from Europe (Norway and Sweden), and four from the United States, including the Rev. Glen Kernell, Global Ministries staff executive for indigenous peoples and Ms. Cynthia Kent, the chair of the Native American International Caucus. The two other members will be decided among the participants from the United States who attended the Norway program. Staff executives of general agencies whose ministries relate to indigenous peoples will advise the working group.

Gathering Allows for Collaboration

The journey to Norway and related programs was an initiative of the General Board of Church and Society and the United Methodist Church in Norway. The Rev. Yngvar Ruud served as lead organizer onsite in Norway, together with leaders of the Trondheim local church and district and annual conference leaders in the area.

Bishop Christian Alsted, the episcopal leader of the Nordic and Baltic area of the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference participated in Trondheim, while retired Bishop Oystein Olsen participated in both Trondheim and Soltun events. Bishop Olsen and Rev. Ruud are brothers who have registered themselves of Sami descent and have spoken of their faith witness and journey discovering their indigenous roots and heritage.

This historic gathering of United Methodist indigenous peoples were made possible also with the active collaboration of a few general agencies of the church, especially the General Board of Global Ministries, the General Commission on Archives and History, and United Methodist Women. Each of these agencies was represented by staff whose work relates to indigenous peoples. Financial grants that made possible the success of this travel program came from Church and Society and Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church and the Karibu Foundation of Norway which helped subsidize participation of indigenous peoples from the Global South.

For related story on the events in Trondheim, see http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/indigenous-people-celebrated-in-trondheim-norway and for the official commemorative events, see the site of Tråante 2017 at http://www.xn--trante2017-25a.no/en/about-traante-2017/).

Letter to the Editor