In the Day of My Trouble I Sought the Lord

, preached by Melissa Harl on March 07, 2021

This year, our congregation is devoting time and thought to the topic of reparative justice for the Indigenous people of Minnesota. In our readings and conversations one word has been seen and heard time and again: land.

The concept of land recovery is mentioned repeatedly by Indigenous leaders as the most powerful means of reparative justice they can imagine. Return of the land, return to the land: this is what is yearned for, beyond money, beyond contrition, beyond any other gesture or acknowledgement of the many injuries and injustices imposed by our dominant culture in the past, or those continuing today.

The land is found at the center of Indigenous life, both as a symbol and a reality. It is not just where people live. According to Standing Rock author Vine Deloria Jr., ancestral land is a site of complex relationships among humans, water, plants, animals, and spiritual beings. As he wrote, Native Americans “hold their lands—their places—as having the highest possible meaning, and all their statements [about justice and repair] are made with this reference point in mind.”

Recently our congregation has heard and celebrated the news of the purchase of twenty-one acres of ancestral Dakota land near Granite Falls, Minnesota. This land transfer was made possible through Makoce Ikikicupi, the Dakota Land Recovery Project, and funded in part through contributions made by our church and others. The goal is for Dakota people to build traditional earthen lodges on the recovered land and to live there in community, in a sustainable way while practicing the way of life of their ancestors.

One of the project’s leaders is Waziyatawin—the Dakota scholar and activist who will join us for a 2nd Hour three weeks from now. She informed the press that when they began erecting traditional lodges to be their homes, they received a cease-and-desist order for being in violation of state building codes. They need an act of the state legislature to live a traditional lifestyle. In the pointed words of Waziyatawin, “It is illegal to be Dakota in the Dakota homeland.” Nonetheless, based on their progress so far, including support from county authorities and the mayor of Granite Falls, I think we should recognize this purchase as a small but significant first step toward Dakota land recovery.

Like many White people who descend from settler ancestors, I was raised with little awareness of the brutality of how our country worked to displace and dispossess the land’s original inhabitants. I shared part of that personal story in my sermon in January, but since then another moment of clarity has come to mind.

I was twenty years old and spending six weeks travelling through Ecuador and Peru with two women friends. We were in a bar in Lima, where we met a couple of local young men, who made it clear to us North Americans that they were proud of their 100% Spanish ancestry, with no admixture of the region’s Incan or Quechuan DNA. Their racial and racist pride made us uncomfortable, of course, but then one of them shattered my feelings of moral superiority by remarking that, compared to his country of Peru, the United States had done things right. “What do you mean?” we asked. “You exterminated all your Indians,” he said, “something I wish we Spanish had done.” I was completely stunned by the frankness of his comment, but even more, I was cut to the quick by his casual praise of my country’s genocidal intentions and success. Not that I chose to do much about it at the time. Maybe that time has now finally come. Perhaps we now will find the means to face our troubling truths straight on.

“In the day of our trouble,” says the poet of the Psalm we just heard read, as we “consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago,” we are told to seek out the Lord.  But I wonder: how do we, how can we seek out the will and wisdom of God in these modern times? Where are God’s prophets, who are the spokespeople who convey divine wisdom to us today, in this moment?

The American poet and musician Paul Simon made an interesting claim in his song The Sounds of Silence. He sang: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls / and tenement halls.” Today, more than fifty years after those words first rang in my teenage ears, I wonder where the words of prophets are to be found here and now. After all, we have no subway walls here in Minnesota! I would insist that we need to hear and to heed the prophetic voices rising from within our neighboring Indigenous and African American communities.

Back in October of 2019, I heard the Reverend Jim Bear Jacobs give a talk at United Seminary about creation stories passed down by our region’s Indigenous communities, which he contrasted with the Biblical view of creation and of land. Rev. Jim Bear’s name may be familiar to us from his reflections about the Four Oaks of Bdote that we saw him talk about during Advent season. Rev. Jacobs has Mohican ancestry and serves as Program Director for Racial Justice at the Minnesota Council of Churches. He offers “Sacred Site” tours to introduce folks to some of the places in the Twin Cities that are most significant to Dakota or Anishinaabe.

After he gave his talk about Dakota creation narratives centered on Bdote, I asked Jim Bear for suggestions he might make for a congregation like ours in terms of working toward reparative justice. He began by stressing that anything meaningful would have to emerge out of serious relationship building between our church and one or more Indigenous communities. We would need to resist and avoid the “quick fix” approach that he associates with White culture. Financial contributions are appreciated, he said, but the heart and soul of the harm done is the loss of the land and all that the land represents in terms of culture and heritage, not merely in the past, but even more powerfully, affecting the future.

Rev. Jacobs’s next statement stunned me: he asserted that the most significant and valuable action a congregation like ours could take would be to return the land we own, or think we own, to some group of Indigenous peoples. Immediately my mind raced ahead to this notion of handing over the deed to the land on which our beautiful church building stands to an unknown fate. In truth, the idea thrilled me with its boldness and, yet, at the same moment, frightened me with its unknown implications. Jim Bear mentioned that he knew of other churches that were engaged in land return of one sort or another.

So, what do we think? Is offering the return of land in such a radical and powerful way, via the transfer of deed, something we could even imagine ourselves doing? Perhaps. Still, land recovery on our part could take a variety of forms, such as a commitment for us to pay an annual rent for use of the land, sending that money to the Anishinabe Academy or the Dakota Land Recovery Project. We could choose to make a major gift to land recovery from our capital campaign funds. We could use our White privilege to work through the political system to agitate for the return of a portion of the public lands in our state—at least some of the beautiful forests, lake country, parkland—back to the Anishinaabe and Dakota. We could do all those things! We will no doubt continue to support the struggles for environmental justice at places like Standing Rock and against the destructive laying of Enbridge Line 3.

Whatever we chose to do might, I imagine, take courage, or perhaps what some would call foolhardiness. Land return might be a prime example of what the Apostle Paul calls human foolishness; yet it could also be an act that would in the end turn out to express divine wisdom and offer all of us the gift of joy. In contemplating our options, if we do choose to involve ourselves more fully in making recovery of Indigenous land real, and less symbolic, it might help to consider what other congregations have been doing along these lines.

I have spent some time on line researching exactly this question of land return as practiced by church congregations or denominational bodies, and so far I have found half a dozen examples, all happening in the last few years. Two of these cases are located in Ontario and involve the United Church of Canada. It was Lutherans in Denver who were the first to take such action, followed by Presbyterians in White Plains, New York, as well as Methodists in Oregon and Ohio. Circumstances and details differ, to be sure. I have time to make only brief mention of these few examples.

In 2015, the Rocky Mountain Synod of the ELCA transferred the deed for two city lots in Denver to the Four Winds American Indian Council. The land included a former church building that Four Winds had used for decades as a hub for Denver’s Indigenous community. When the opportunity came to sell the land, as Osage theologian George Tinker comments, instead, the Lutheran synod chose to “let go of their property claim and fulfill the Indigenous relationship to the land in that place.” That cost the synod money. And it was often a “messy” process, as Indigenous council leadership and a Lutheran task force met for meals and conversation. The church synod had a lot to unlearn when it came to its “white, Western, European way of doing things.” The Indigenous council, for its part, had to form a nonprofit organization to receive the deed, and wrestled with ideas of property ownership.

In 2017, the United Church of Canada returned 10.5 acres near Kitchener, Ontario to the White Owl Native Ancestry Association. This is a nonprofit that offers counseling and land-based teachings and programming for local Indigenous people. This parcel of land had been purchased by the denomination in 1967 as a potential building site, but had never been used. The relationship between church and tribe started when the youth group at Emmanuel United Church in neighboring Waterloo donated $2,000 to White Owl, “and leaders of both the church and the group got to talking.” The executive director of White Owl, a Mi’kmaq woman, had mentioned that they appreciated the money, but what the group really needed was land.

Elsewhere in Ontario, the United Church turned over five acres of farmland to the Lenape Nation of Delaware in 2019. As the people’s website states, “The landscape is a familiar one in rural southwestern Ontario—a stand of trees surrounded by a farmer’s field. But if this piece of land could talk, it might rejoice at being reunited with the First Nation that settled it 230 years ago.” All these stories of land recovery feature this overwhelming experience of joy—on all sides.

Let’s turn to White Plains, New York. In November of 2019, the Hudson River Presbytery transferred the title of the former Stony Brook Church and all its property to the Sweetwater Cultural Center “to promote the education, health and welfare of indigenous or native peoples, and to preserve their cultures and ceremonial practices.” The general presbyter of Hudson River said the following: “This gift is a pledge of partnership with our Native American neighbors that we will walk into God’s future together.” Think of that! Walking alongside our Indigenous neighbors far off into God’s future. What a stirring image that brings to mind!

Chief Dwaine Perry of the Ramapough-Lenape nation stressed: “This gift has the potential to change everything. We are breaking new ground when Christians take real action to make amends for the harm that has been done to Native American and Indigenous people. There are no words of wonder that can express the gratitude which I feel toward the presbytery; knowing this gift has come through a profundity of thought, giving birth to a global realization of humanity.”

Wow. Listening to the words of Indigenous elders is so inspiring. My final example may be my favorite. In Upper Sandusky, Ohio, United Methodists’ Global Ministries reached out to the Wyandotte tribal nation when it realized it had been holding a church building and small cemetery in trust for that people since 1843. Chief Billy Friend of the Wyandotte Nation—now headquartered in Oklahoma after it was forced from its land by the Indian Removal Act of 1830—said he was grateful when the agency offered to return the land. “In Indian Country,” he said, “there was a lot taken from us over the years. There are very few times somebody comes back and says, ‘We want to give back to you.’”

The day the church transferred the deed to the Wyandotte Nation, hundreds of Wyandotte people marched through Upper Sandusky, some proudly wearing ribbon shirts and skirts and regalia. You can watch the march on line. “The last time that this many Wyandottes were here, we were leaving,” Chief Friend said. “This time, we’re not walking away from the church, we’re walking to the church. We’re reestablishing ourselves not only with the church, but with the local community as well.” In the summer, he said, the tribe brings groups of high school and college students, and sometimes elders, all the way from Oklahoma to stand in the places their ancestors stood and read their names on the headstones in the cemetery. It’s a “journey of understanding” that connects the Wyandotte to the past and to the land.

Each of these stories has its own particular circumstances. For one thing, in none of these six cases did a church transfer the deed to the land or building in which they are currently worshipping. If we were to contemplate such act of repair, the transfer of deed, or perhaps the payment of annual rent in lieu of transfer, we would be setting a new and remarkable precedent for how White people could walk together with our Indigenous neighbors. Each church must seek the wisdom of God in its own way, to find its own paths to work for justice. In any case, each transfer or purchase of land accomplished so far has brought an amazing experience of mutual joy and gratitude.

I want to close with a question that was posed by the pastor of Emmanuel United Church in Ontario. She said that the congregation wanted to go beyond just acknowledging the original inhabitants of the land. Her question speaks as clearly to us as it did to her parishioners: “How do we take that one step further and actually work to reconcile relationships, and listen to the painful stories, listen to our painful history, and ask Indigenous people how they would like to be walked with—because our history is so much one of domination and colonization?”

May God stand with us as we seek our own answers to this most pressing question. Amen.