The church I served in Northern Virginia, had a large staff. So we had a staff meeting every Wednesday afternoon to try to beat back the confusion that was normative! At one meeting, one of us, a Parish Associate, was due to preach that coming Sunday. Wednesday is late in my book to be in the beginning stages of writing a sermon, but that’s where he was in his sermon writing process, poor soul! With his head in his hands, he moaned, “What do I preach on? What would YOU want to hear about?“ I was just getting my feet wet in ministry myself, so I took to heart our head pastor’s response. He said, “Well, I wouldn’t ask US. What do we know? I would just preach what’s on your heart and what you hear God telling you to preach on.”
And that is why today I am going to preach about Standing Rock, which, I realize, you might not have been following; and which I wasn’t either, really, until last Saturday night.
Last Saturday night--That’s when I got a phone call from my eldest daughter. She is married and lives in Nashville. She told me that her husband Adam was on his way to North Dakota—to be part of the protest at Standing Rock. I have got to tell you I was not happy. I tried my best to practice good pastoral care, though. Out of my mouth came, “Well gee, Emily, I will certainly pray for him, and we will pray for him at church, too.” You will recall, if you were here last week, we did that. Good to my word.
That’s what I SAID, but I was thinking, “Emily, Adam is pushing forty for heaven’s sake, and he is going to North Dakota to live in a teepee? Don’t you think it’s time for him to become a responsible adult?”
In Adam’s defense, I should say that he is an idealist. And that is both a virtue and a vice. A blessing and a burden. I have just recently learned that social activists fall into three categories: radicals, realists and idealists: Radicals see inherent structural problems that need remedying if a particular change is to occur—so really they want everything to change. They can be a little out there, if you know what I mean; realists on the other hand, are seeking reform but they don’t want to upset the status quo. That’s most people, probably. And idealists? These concerned and sympathetic people are often more motivated by the heart than by the head; as I suppose Adam is. That is why he spent a small fortune buying warm winter gear, a plane ticket and renting a car, to travel to what amounts to a barren wasteland, to again, live in a teepee.
You know the movie, Bruce Almighty—Bruce is played by Jim Carrey. He is driving along in is car, complaining out loud to God about his miserable life and asking for a signal. He passes under a flashing sign that reads, “Caution Ahead.” Then Bruce says to God, “Just give me a sign,” and Bruce comes this close to crashing into a truck filled with what? Road Signs!
This week, I feel like anyway, I have been on the receiving end of God’s signals and signs—either that, or the universe has conspired to change my attitude, and opinions about—well, about Adam, the plight of the Native Americans and a lot else. So just to give you a brief rundown of the first part of my week:
I had been invited to speak at a meeting of the Charlottesville Peace and Justice Center last Sunday afternoon. That’s what I did after worship here. During the meeting, the president of the Center, announced his plans to go to Standing Rock. I filed that away in my brain. Hum.
Then, Sunday evening, as I often do, I read through the lectionary passages for today, hoping to get a start on my sermon. I was struck by what I read in Isaiah. It has everything to do with the current situation in North Dakota, or so it seemed to me—I mean really. Just change out desert for prairie. The colorful, blossoming landscape—for the colorful clothes of the Native American Indians—and the blossoming tents that now dot the landscape. In scripture, we read about a highway. There is indeed a highway at Standing Rock, one lone highway blockaded by protestors, who call themselves water protectors. I had seen that in a newspaper picture of the standoff at Standing Rock. Scripture says, “Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees,.” Those Native Americans probably have felt perpetually weak and feeble politically, but all of a sudden they have experienced strength; power—due to lots of press, the social media, and the surge of people who have traveled to Standing Rock to protest with them.
Finally, as I had already read and also in keeping with scripture, the protestors have made their will known non-violently—that is--no lion or ravenous beast at Standing Rock. The 2200 or so veterans who joined the cause have vowed not to use weapons, either. I had read that in the paper, too. So for me anyway, obvious parallels—Isaiah and the issue at hand.
Monday morning, a friend mentioned to me that the Associate Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian, Tracy Wisperley, had gone to join the protest. Monday afternoon my Christian Century magazine arrived. On page 13? An article on Standing Rock.
Tuesday, I sat down at my computer to start writing a first draft of this sermon, which I had decided would have to be about the protest in North Dakota. I was just getting started when I received an e-mail from the Presbyterian Church USA, announcing its support for the American Indians at….Standing Rock!
God STILL wasn’t finished though. Tuesday afternoon, I officiated at a wedding. Small crowd—just the bride and groom and their respective parents. No surprise considering, the groom’s parents were from North Dakota. In college, the groom’s mother minored in Native American history, AND she and her husband, good Christians, do occasional mission work at a nearby North Dakota reservation! Of course, they were following the Standing Rock protest closely and hoping the dispute would be resolved in Standing Rock’s favor.
So the rest of this week, I did my due diligence. This is what I now knowA petroleum pipeline was originally slated to be laid near Bismarck, North Dakota. The company laying the pipe is Energy Transport. Because Bismarck is a highly populated area, though, plans for the pipeline were moved to land just outside the Sioux reservation. To be fair to Energy Transport, the land they had intended to lay pipe on is not part of the reservation—it is all privately owned and the company has permission to dig there. Plans called for the pipeline to go under the Missouri River, though—which, the Native American Sioux tribe feared, might eventually become tainted with petroleum. The Sioux and others in the area, some 17 million people total, depend on the Missouri River for their water needs. The Sioux rightly noted that there has been a dramatic surge in pipe-line leaks in recent years.
Energy Transport states that lots of electrical lines and other pipelines lie under the Missouri River already, and no one complained when those were installed—at least not complained THIS loudly. So, why now?
I’m guessing, although feel free to give me your own thoughts on this, I’m guessing that this pipeline controversy was just the last straw—the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak—or in French, it’s la goutte qui fait déborder le vase –the drop of water that made the vase overflow. Native Americans have been pushed around, oppressed, taken advantage of, for centuries. Not this time.
The other question I had this week is why, in particular, religious folk are getting involved? Was this merely a movement to support the oppressed? Something that, you have to agree, Jesus calls us to do. To get an answer to that, I called our Presbyterian Church, USA. Presbyterian worker, Sara Lisherness is the director of Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries for our denomination. She was interviewed for the article I read in Christian Century.
Sara said that she was one of some 500 Christian clergy who went to Standing Rock in early November, before it got so God-awful-cold (negative one degree Farenheit this morning, at Standing Rock, I checked). They were there at the invitation of the Sioux.
The Christian faith leaders expressed their remorse for the way religious folk have treated American Indians across the centuries. While they were there, they officially disavowed the Doctrine of Discovery. I had never heard of that, but it is a 15th century papal writing. The Doctrine mandates Christian European countries to (quote) “Attack, enslave and kill the Indigenous Peoples they encounter and to acquire all of their assets.” The World Council of Churches officially rejected the document in 2012. A long time in coming, I’d say.
Sara and those other 499 Christian religious leaders at the camp read the World Council of Church’s repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery during a religious service. Then they ceremonially burned copies of the Doctrine of Discovery—but not in the sacred fire, a fire that burns continuously at the entrance to the camp—tribal leaders did not want to taint that blaze—they burned copies of the doctrine in a separate fire built just for that purpose.
Two more things I wanted to know from Sara when I called this week. What KIND OF folks were visitors at the camp? Religious folk we know about, but who else? For sure, she said there were people who had come, “just looking for a cause.” Think Radicals. Others though, were from far away—like Bolivia. Sara said, “Indigenous people from other countries identify with the Sioux’ cause—as do Palestinians—lots of Palestinians in the camp.” And there were people like Adam, there to act their conscience.
She finished by saying, “Yes, there were young people in the camp, but actually lots of old people, too;” Don’t know what constitutes as “old,” but it’s a surprising comment nevertheless, when you consider the not-so-comfortable living arrangements: biting weather, hard sleeping pallets.
So there you have it. I’ve done what I believe God has called me to do. Share this information with you. I have also shared what has been heavy on my heart.
As a postscript: The Corps of Engineers has now denied Energy Transport a permit to finish the pipeline. The Native Americans are asking protestors to go home. Adam arrived back in Nashville on Friday morning, with a bad cold. To be expected. The Native Americans at Standing Rock fully expect, though, that this will not be the end of their struggle.
You will have to decide for yourself if you choose to take on the role of realist, idealist, or even radical regarding this issue. In doing that, you might want to pray for God’s guidance. As for me, I have decided to side with my son-in-law, Rev. Tracey Wisperley, the Presbyterian Church, USA, Sara LIcherness, the parents of the groom whose wedding I performed this week, and maybe even Jim Carry—but most importantly, with the Native Americans themselves at Standing Rock, Amen