Trinity Episcopal holds Native American worship service

Native female worshippers lead prayer chants at the Sunday service at Trinity Episcopal Church.

On Sunday in commemoration of Native American Heritage Month, Trinity Episcopal Church of Redlands held its 11th annual Native American Worship Service.

As the program stated, the unique service was designed to “reflect the respectful integration of elements of Native American culture and tradition within the context of the Episcopal Church's liturgy.” The service was well attended; colorful in both flavor and proceedings.

The service began with participating Native Americans worshippers clad in colorful traditional dress gathering in the church gardens for prayers and smudging led by Theresa Paine, Cherokee, and drummer Rudolph Medina, Apache, aka Singing Bird. The group then proceeded into the church behind banners depicting symbols of the Four Directions.

Banners designed and created by parishioner Lucille Von Wolffersdorff are used each year for this event. The opening Prayers of the Four Directions establish the importance of giving thanks for everything on the earth.

Throughout the service various native worshippers offered chanting prayers of thanksgiving, healing and well-being to the tune of tom toms and other percussion instruments. After the service a hearty lunch was served to all in the Great Hall.

The Rev. Canon Mary Crist, newly appointed indigenous theological education coordinator for the Episcopal Church and member of the presiding bishop's staff, gave the sermon. Crist, herself a Blackfeet Indian, has served for many years as a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, and as a longtime university professor. Under her new appointment she is now working with clergy and lay leaders serving indigenous diocese to equip them for congregational ministry and leadership.

Crist’s sermon addressed the question of how does a Native American Christian reconcile the dichotomy inherent in such a mixed heritage, to where one comfortably identifies as both Christian and Native American? To answer this she touched briefly on historical incidents, of both a personal and historical nature, in which indigenous native people suffered due to deliberate policies designed to destroy their cultures.

Tribal children routinely suffered forcible separation from parents into boarding schools in which they were forbidden both language and culture. Indigenous peoples suffered ostracism, the denial of basic human rights and, at times, systematic genocide.

And yet, as Crist emphasized thrice in her sermon, indigenous peoples possess an enduring latency expressed in three words “We’re still here!” There was a palpable concord throughout the service.

The group of visiting worshippers appeared the more energized in their demonstration of worship due to the acceptance of the greater body of the welcoming church, while the church appeared the more enriched and enlivened through this embracing.

As Crist so aptly reconciled the seemingly irreconcilable in her sermon, and as these visiting native-American worshipers so aptly demonstrated through their spirituality and unique reflection of Christianity, to accept Christ, to worship Christ, is a spiritual transformation that rises above and beyond culture, and cultural barriers and limitations.

As has been said, “He takes men’s ideals of blessedness, and deepens and purifies and refines them” so that all may share in the refrain expressed in the Prayer of the Four Directions that was a part of the service: “(O, Great Spirit) We pray that we may be aligned with you, so that your power may flow through us, and be expressed by us, for the good of this Planet Earth and all living beings upon it.”

Smudging Smudging is the ritual practice of burning certain natural plant materials in order to produce smoke that is used to bless items, symbolize spiritual purification, and to symbolize the rising of prayers from earth to heaven.

Why is it done? To symbolize the need to differentiate between what is common and what is sacred and to invoke God’s blessing upon what is being smudged.

When American Indian Christians smudge, they are affirming and celebrating the heritage that God gave them as they celebrate the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ… they are affirming that the gospel belongs to every people, tribe, and nation.

— Smudging excerpts courtesy of 1st Light Missions