Native Assembly in Choctaw Territory
For five days during the last week in July I attended the biennial Mennonite Native Assembly in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The weather was sweltering hot, muggy and oppressive, but this was more than made up for by the welcoming reception we received from the Choctaw people who were hosting this year’s gathering. We spent our time singing and worshiping, listening to speakers, attending workshops, seeing some of the cultural sites in the area and eating together. This was my first experience attending a Native Assembly and I greatly appreciated the opportunity to get to know First Nations Mennonite folk from Canada and the US.
I travelled and bunked with Brander McDonald, MCBC’s Indigenous Relations Coordinator. It gave me a great opportunity to get to know him better, hearing his stories and learning about the challenges he is working through being both First Nations and Christian. I felt honoured to get some more insights into this journey both for him as well as for our sisters and brothers who are working through these theological and faith questions.
Three things particularly stood out for me during my time there:
We spent one day travelling around the area and I was surprised to learn that one of Choctaw churches had been bombed during the early 1960s at the height of the civil rights movement and conflicts in Mississippi. The Nanih Waiya Church was fire bombed three times during this period by those who were angry that the congregation was working at integration.
I attended a number of workshops that addressed the question of how First Nations Mennonite Christians could embrace their particular culture and understanding and celebrating those elements that had often been vilified in the past by European missionaries. This included talking about the drum, healing circles, sweat lodges and the medicine wheel. I found it particularly moving to hear of the struggles of people who had been taught for many years that elements of their culture had been deemed ‘evil’ but who now were beginning to be able to embrace them as ‘God given gifts’.
And finally, I was honoured to twice be able to join drummers on the big drum during our times of worship. This was an inclusive gesture by those who were leading our worship that touched me deeply . Thanks to these brothers and sisters for their gracious welcome and hospitality during my time there.