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American Indians Becoming More Open to Christian Worship Services

March 25, 1989|JOHN DART | Times Religion Writer

Mainline churches have had encouraging signs lately that the American Indian population in the Los Angeles area may be increasingly open to Christian worship services.

The estimated 70,000 urban Indians living in Los Angeles County have been served for years by only a few evangelical Protestant churches and sporadic ministries.

Mainline churches, typically slower than evangelicals to begin ethnic-oriented ministries, have also hesitated lest their efforts appear paternalistic to American Indians, who recall the 19th-Century missionary attempts to reshape the Indian culture.

Yet, a Presbyterian survey taken last year among 829 American Indians in the Los Angeles area found 64% interested in attending a Presbyterian worship service and 82% who said they would be interested in an ecumenical, nondenominational service.

"It was surprising," said Roxanne Burgess, the survey coordinator and a Hupa Indian. "I felt that if we had 40% or 45% interested, we would have done well."

Prelude to Project

The survey was a prelude to a three-year project funded initially this year with $61,000 from national, regional and local levels of the Presbyterian Church (USA). A committee of Indians and Presbyterian officials is exploring what form the ministry should take, Burgess said.

Indeed, even as the survey was being analyzed in recent months:

- An Episcopal service held on the third Sunday of each month in Immanuel Episcopal Church in El Monte recently attracted more newcomers when the priest, Gary Turner, who is one-quarter Chippewa, incorporated more emphasis on spiritual healing. "I think Indian people appreciate that approach to spirituality; about 40 people showed up," Turner said.

- For the last four months, about 50 Catholic Indians have been attending a monthly Mass for the Indian community and twice-monthly prayer services in downtown Los Angeles, primarily at St. Joseph's Church. The direction of the ministry has been guided by leaders of the Kateri Circle, a group named after a 19th-Century Mohawk woman who has been beatified (one step short of sainthood) by Pope John Paul II.

- Also since November, a service has been held by the Rev. Paul Soto on Sunday evenings at the South Pasadena Church of the Nazarene. "It's a general service open to all tribes, though currently we have people from just two tribes based in Arizona," Soto said.

- The Native American United Methodist Church, which has worshiped jointly with the Norwalk First United Methodist Church since 1983, will conduct a separate Easter service at 11 a.m. in the fellowship hall of the Norwalk church. "We've sent flyers throughout the whole American Indian community inviting them to the service," said Cynthia Abrams, daughter of Pastor Marvin Abrams.

The United Methodist Church, beginning this year, has asked its congregations to designate one Sunday, preferably April 9, as Native American Awareness Sunday and to solicit donations toward seminary scholarships and ministries for Indians.

Methodist, Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian and other mainline church representatives, in addition to the evangelical Church of the Nazarene, have met monthly in the Los Angeles area as the Gathering Table in efforts to coordinate plans to minister to the American Indian community.

What they have in common, in contrast to many conservative Protestant ministries, is a willingness to consider using expressions of Indian spirituality and culture in worship.

Cultural Symbols

At the recent Episcopal healing service in El Monte, Turner said, "I tried to use cultural symbols meaningful to Indian people. We used the smoke of sweet grass and cedar as signs of God's blessing and healing--as some Christians have used incense as a symbol of prayer."

The integrity of such practices is questioned by Mike Belcher of Los Angeles, chaplain of the Native Orthodox Church, which is a non-Christian, outdoor youth ministry that encourages the practice of traditional tribal religions.

"Mainline churches are all using Indian symbolism in services, such as burning sweet grass, sage and cedar and asking for blessings from heaven, Earth and the four directions," Belcher noted. "The question is: Are they doing it in a token or symbolic way--as in rituals by certain Boy Scout and Woodcraft Ranger groups--or do they accept it as true spiritual worship?"

A partial answer came in a recent article by the Rev. Norman Jackson, executive director for the United Church of Christ's Council for American Indian Ministry. Jackson noted that Indian ceremonies, such as passing of the peace pipe, are occasionally held in conjunction with, or as part of, Christian worship.

"But I have rarely seen a conscious attempt to interpret their meaning within the context of the service," Jackson wrote. "I think Indian people who make Christian commitments would benefit from a thorough exploration of how these various Indian ceremonies can be used with integrity for both Indian traditions and Christian worship."

Accommodating Traditions

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