The first morning of the ELCA Indigenous Leaders Gathering began with a blessing. Some 40 attendees stood in a circle in the courtyard of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in San Diego, ready to begin a day of sharing and growing with one another. They included representatives from nine Indigenous ministries across the ELCA and students from multiple ELCA colleges and universities. Several came from North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota; Shannon Klescewski (Inupiaq) journeyed all the way from Nome, Alaska, where she serves on her synod council. The gathering, held Dec. 8-11, 2022, gave them all the chance to stand under a blue sky, free from mittens and heavy coats.

Three women from the Fargo, N.D.–based ministry the Way sang a traditional prayer song while a volunteer made his way around the circle with a bowl of burning sage for smudging. One by one the participants dipped their hands in the cleansing smoke and drew it toward their faces and over their bodies.

“Why don’t we show everybody else that we can maintain our tribal identities and still be Lutheran?”

The previous evening, as the gathering participants introduced themselves around a fire in the same courtyard, some had spoken about the tension they sometimes felt between Christian and Native traditions. Patterson Yazzie (Navajo), executive director of the Navajo Lutheran Mission in Rock Point, Ariz., reported that for the annual Christmas pageant at House of Prayer, located on the mission’s campus, children wore traditional clothing or regalia. Yazzie said that when he introduced this idea to the congregation, he asked, “Why don’t we show everybody else that we can maintain our tribal identities and still be Lutheran?”

Many of the participants have faced challenges, inside and outside their communities, as Indigenous people who are Christian. Yet throughout their time at the gathering they proclaimed their commitment to being their authentic selves, both Native and Lutheran. Here, as song and smoke filled the space between church buildings, there was room for a more expansive expression of faith.

The power of fellowship

Vance Blackfox (Cherokee), ELCA director for Indigenous Ministries and Tribal Relations, planned the gathering primarily to develop leadership skills among Indigenous lay leaders in the ELCA. Kelly Sherman-Conroy (Lakota), the first Native American woman in the ELCA to earn a doctorate in theology, helped Blackfox develop the leadership program.

At the gathering Sherman-Conroy delivered a series of presentations and led participants in conversations to help them discern their unique callings. In her opening talk she explained, “I truly believe that God calls us in so many different and beautiful and unique ways, that when we talk about that word ‘ministers,’ we are. It doesn’t matter if you work at Burger King, or if you work in a church, or if you work at a camp. Everything that we do is a part of our call to be a beautiful part of God’s creation.”

Manuel Retamoza (Cherokee), a pastor of St. Andrew, led the group on a tour of nearby Chicano Park, which contains the largest collection of outdoor murals in the United States. Many of these murals tell stories of the Kumeyaay people, who are indigenous to the land on which San Diego was built. Retamoza spoke about the connection between the Kumeyaay and the gathering participants. It was the same connection the participants had to one another: They came from different tribes and ministries across the country but were all linked as Indigenous people.

“I’ve gotten really emotional just listening to their stories and knowing that we’re not alone.”

Blackfox felt that, in addition to leadership development, participants needed a chance to “just be together.” Some members of this group hadn’t seen one another in years, and some had never gotten the chance to connect with the others.

The young adult participants especially affirmed how meaningful the fellowship was to them. Me-Li Jackson (Cherokee), a student at Lenoir-Rhyne University, Hickory, N.C., founded the Native American Student Association on campus so that Native students could express their identities together and non-Native students, staff and faculty could learn about her culture. She spoke at the gathering about the power of being surrounded by Indigenous leaders from across the country.

“I’ve gotten really emotional just listening to their stories and knowing that we’re not alone,” Jackson said. “A lot of the people here have been through the same experiences as me, and they’ve prospered. They’ve used the trauma that they’ve been through to be able to help other people. … That’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

On the gathering’s final morning, participants attended Sunday worship at St. Andrew, where Blackfox thanked the congregation for hosting the group. In between traditional Lutheran Advent hymns and liturgy in English, gathering attendees shared songs in the Lakota and Inupiaq languages. As they had throughout the Indigenous Leaders Gathering, these leaders celebrated being fully Lutheran and fully Native.

Caitlin Sellnow
Caitlin Sellnow is an ELCA communications manager.

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