A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
Sacred Harp Sunday
February 24, 2019
University Baptist Church
I’m so honored to sing this music and share in the intersection between the Tuesday evening church that happens upstairs and the Sunday morning church that happens down here. I also honor and appreciate the connection between our communities and our new friends from the Brothertown Indian Nation.
I confess that Christianity and conquest have a bloody and intertwined history. And I think that confession is an important step in healing. Thomas Jefferson learned that the best way to take land away from the first inhabitants was to make them Christians. And a certain kind of Christians. A docile kind who were peacemakers. Make them generous. Have them sign treaties in good faith without any intention of keeping the treaty. The first missionaries were commissioned by the department of war.
We all know this, and most of us in this room are descendants of immigrants. Much of Minnesota was “settled” on land that once belonged to the Ojibway and Dakota. And once the Indians vacated their land, it was open for white settlement and ownership. Indians, blacks and other non-white folks could not own the land. And this set in motion a permanent wealth advantage for white folks.
The Psalm says that the wicked will be paid back in equal measure the pain they inflicted. But has this happened yet? Many are still waiting.
My great grandfather was an American Baptist missionary in the Indian Territory before it was known as Oklahoma. He worked among the Kiowa and Arapaho. My grandfather was born in that community and his playmates and friends were all Arapaho. When he went to college and ran on the track team, he did so in bare feet, like all of his Arapaho friends. That’s one thing that I have inherited, I guess. A certain disdain for shoes and a connection with the earth you can only get when your sensitive soles come into contact with the soul of the earth.
I know very little about my great grandfather’s missionary work. But I know it was one of respect for the Arapaho and Kiowa. Since Arapaho see words as sacred, they did not write them down. He learned sign language to communicate across the tribes and was known as the “signing preacher”. Generations after he died, I understand that Arapaho and Kiowa people were named after him. There’s a story in our family lore that he stood the possibility of losing his missionary post because he had not gotten any converts to the Jesus road. When word got around the community that Frank Lincoln King and his family were going to have to leave, Chief Hale decided to be baptized. This was followed by twenty-two Arapaho converts and the retaining of my great grandfather’s mission work. As far as I know, he was never a part of the boarding school movement, but he was a part of the better homes and better farms program that aided in assimilation. I grew up with a reverence for my Native American sisters and brothers. That’s part of the family legacy.
Here’s what I also have inherited. I learned several years ago that when my great-grandfather left Oklahoma, he left with mineral rights in his hand. I don’t know if these were gifted to him, or if it was simply another in a long line of benefits afforded white people. Over the past century and that mineral-rich land made my extended family rich, at least in comparison to the people living on that land today. We could go to college, buy homes, advance in the ways that it was intended for whites to do since the founding of the country.
Every few years, my mom will get a check—proceeds from those mineral rights. Think hydraulic fracking and oil fields. Is this blood money she should give back? I don’t know. I know she is living on a fixed income in poor health. What should she do with these periodic winfdalls? My uncle gave his most recent check over to Bacone College, an American Baptist College in Oklahoma for Native Americans. That feels like a bit of reparation. Are the gifts given to me from my mother connected to those mineral rights? Is my education or other advantages a result of my complicity with a racist past?
I wonder how I might make reparations. I might be able to trace a money trail, but I think that most of us in this room have benefitted in some way from the subjugation of the original inhabitants of this land.
The psalm comes to mind:
1 Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,
2 for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wither like the green herb.
3 Trust in the Lord, and do good;
so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
4 Take delight in the Lord,
and God will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37)
Our work needs to be in solidarity with our Native sisters and brothers. We need to remember them. Honor them. Advocate alongside them. But never speak for them.
So, one of the reasons I sing these songs is to make a connection to those who have gone before. To honor the stories of the tribes. To remember the Mohegans, the Oneidas, the Shoshones, the Narragansetts, the Arapaho, the Kiowa. When we bring these tunes to life, we connect mystically with those that they honor. To give voice once again to those whom many have forgotten and whom too many have forsaken.
The song White Pilgrim refers to an eccentric traveling evangelist who dressed in white all year round. Some versions of the Sacred Harp call this Lone Pilgrim or Missionary Pilgrim. I would like to think that missionaries left hints of the best parts of the Gospel: the parts about loving neighbors and enemies. The parts about standing with the outcast and creating a world defined not by domination and submission, but by gracious welcome. The part of the Gospel I resonate with sees Jesus as a liberator and the work of the church to tell the truth and help in God’s project of creating the beloved community here on earth.
But today, I see my native friends as the missionaries, reminding us of what is sacred, reminding us what welcome means, reminding us to live in balance with the world and its inhabitants. May we be worthy of their friendship. Hear again the words of the Psalmist:
12 The wicked plot against the righteous,
and gnash their teeth at them;
13 but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for the Holy One sees that their day is coming…
16 Better is a little that the righteous person has
than the abundance of many wicked.
17 For the arms of the wicked shall be broken,
but the Lord upholds the righteous. (Psalm 37)