Learning From the Past, Living Into The Act of Repentance


NEW YORK, N.Y. – Is an act of repentance by United Methodists for the treatment of indigenous people a waste of time?

That question was posed early on by Bishop Melvin G. Talbert as an advisory group began to plan for a mandated act of “Healing Relationships with Indigenous Persons” at the 2012 General Conference. The denomination’s top-legislative body of nearly 1,000 delegates from around the world will meet in Tampa, Fla., in April. The Act of Repentance is scheduled for April 27.

At the earliest meetings of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns General Secretary’s Advisory Council on the 2012 General Conference Act of Repentance Talbert expressed concern that an Act of Repentance might be an unproductive use of time, based on past experiences.

Bishop Talbert“I participated in Acts of Repentance in 2000 and 2004 dealing with African Americans and racism,” said Talbert. “I felt like the experience was just a show. When the General Conferences were over the issue was put on the shelf and it was business as usual.”

However, as plans have progressed, Talbert has concluded that such an event for indigenous peoples, including Native Americans, should not be delayed. “I came to the realization that maybe this is the right time,” he said. “We can’t simply wait until we are all ready. We could be waiting a long time. Our Native brothers and sisters deserve better.”

The Rev. Stephen Sidorak, staff executive for the GCCUIC, agrees that now is the time for the healing process to begin. “The United Methodist Church is being called to confession. We need to own up to our part in history and work toward a demonstrable denominational contrition for our collective responsibility. It’s the only way to move forward.”

Sidorak points to denominational support of the Sand Creek Massacre National Site Research and Learning Center in Colorado as one example of how an Act of Repentance can move from words to action. “The United Methodist Church has a shocking connection to Sand Creek,” Sidorak explains. On November 29, 1864, Colonel John Chivington, a Methodist clergyman, led the attack on a Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment along the banks of Sand Creek. At least 165 were killed, mostly women, children and the elderly.

The United Methodist Church has committed $125,000 to the center which will be matched, thereby providing a quarter-million dollars in seed money. The donation will go towards research materials as well as tools needed to set up "virtual" connections between the Center and other institutions, including United Methodist-related Iliff School of Theology, tribal colleges in Oklahoma, Montana and Wyoming, and the extensive archives, libraries, and museums that house the Sand Creek Massacre research materials.

With Talbert’s concern at the forefront of the planning process, the GCCUIC governing board and staff are taking a resolution to the 2012 General Conference titled, “Trail of Repentance and Healing.” The resolution includes a request for $325,000 to ensure credible church-wide follow-up. The Council of Bishops will be asked to direct the implementation of the resolution. One provision in the proposal asks that land and property be transferred to “an indigenous community,” as described in Paragraph 2547.2 of the church’s Book of Discipline. The paragraph currently gives guidance to deeding church property to other denominations represented in the Commission on Pan-Methodist Cooperation and Union or to another evangelical denomination.

“The goal of the proposed resolution is to make sure the Act of Repentance will be followed with tangible results,” said Sidorak.

Talbert says he hopes that when the Tampa conference concludes the bishops of the church will be committed to giving visible leadership to the Act of Repentance in their respective areas. “I also hope the delegates will carry that commitment with them and begin the process of healing in their own communities.”

GCCUIC logoIn preparation for Act of Repentance event in Tampa, the GCCUIC has held nearly two dozen listening sessions with indigenous people in the United States and two in regional conferences outside the United States.

To help prepare United Methodists for the Act of Repentance the GCCUIC will be publishing commentaries and stories in the months leading up to the General Conference. A study resource will also be made available. For more information about the Act of Repentance, visit www.gccuic-umc.org .

The General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Affairs is a general agency of The United Methodist Church that “engages and works with other Christian denominations toward greater visibility of our essential unity in Jesus Christ; it also works toward better interreligious relationships with all of God’s children.”