Missionizing the Missionaries and Healing the Broken
By Bude VanDyke
My core belief is that the economy of God pays both directions. That means that if I do something for someone, and I am not willing to receive their gift, the action is not God-centered; it is something else, something not healthy. For that reason, I struggle with the notion of “mission” to Indigenous peoples. It sounds like the dominant-culture folks have the only stuff of value. And that is not true.
This is especially true concerning the creation in which we all live and on which we all depend. Western civilization came to Turtle Island (North America) with the notion that land and nature were to be exploited without consequences. Before European arrival, rivers, streams, and lakes all flowed with safe water to drink. As a result of European “civilization,” many of our waters are so polluted they are no longer safe to drink. The Earth was habitable for thousands of years under Indigenous care. In a fraction of that time, the Earth has become uninhabitable in many places because of the exploitation of natural resources and people.
Maybe now we should wake up and see the gift of the Indigenous worldview, and seek to understand its role in healing our world. It seems the tables have turned. The dominant culture saw the need to missionize the Indigenous peoples. Now, the Indigenous peoples need to missionize the dominant culture in order to preserve the world for future generations. People who see the trees, the rocks, the animals, the fish, the birds, and the water as their relatives can teach Western-focused culture what it does not seem to have the capacity to figure out for itself.
This can happen in concrete ways, and here is one example: The Church of the Good Shepherd in Decatur, Alabama, wanted to organize a garden, but they wanted to do so with greater intention and respect for Indigenous ways. First, they recognized the need to preserve the native corn, squash, and bean seeds that were the foundation of the diet of the Cherokee people and were carried to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. Second, they demonstrated a method (Three Sisters) of planting these crops so that they could help each other and replace the need for fertilizers and insecticides. (The runoff of fertilizers from dominant-culture farming methods is a significant contributor to water pollution.)
Next, they encouraged a return to small family gardening, which does not require a large piece of land and which also helps children to understand the role of land, water, and air in producing food. Finally, it was important to thank the Cherokee people who were good stewards of the land before Western civilization pushed them away.
This garden did more than grow fruits and vegetables. It became a way to bring healing and to make amends for historic injustices and wrongs.
The project started as the Cherokee Heritage Garden, but we have changed the name to the Cherokee Healing Garden. Heritage sounded like a museum; healing is an action. We hope to participate in healing a sad history and to heal ourselves as we grow into a greater awareness of the burdens our footprints press upon the Earth. We hope to heal our attitudes toward people we have viewed as “heathen” and “backward” by learning from them better ways of feeding ourselves and coexisting with our environment.
This project would not have been possible without the powerful work and encouragement of the United Thank Offering. Our UTO grant is helping us start with what we hope to be an ongoing ministry to our environment, the people who used to call this land home, and our neighbors who will visit, learn, and act.
The Rev. Bude VanDyke lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, and serves as rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Decatur, Alabama. He is a Chickamauga Cherokee descendant; his Cherokee name is Tsoi Nunyah Agomatiha (Three Stones Seeing).