Hundreds of people – including leaders and elders of Native American tribes from across the U.S. – assembled yesterday under a large tent at Agape, a Christian community in the woods of central Massachusetts that is dedicated to social justice, non-violence, and sustainable living. We were there to mark the 35th annual celebration of St. Francis Day at Agape, and it was a thrilling, even transformative day, a day of listening, drumming, and sacred ceremony, a day of mourning and celebration.
The keynote speaker was Chief Arvol Looking Horse, whom I had last seen in December, when I accepted the invitation that he extended to religious people across the country to come to Standing Rock for an interfaith day of prayer. A descendant of Sitting Bull, Chief Arvol Looking Horse was chosen at the age of 12 to become the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe. Now in his 60’s, Chief Arvol carries his long, lanky frame with the sorrow and dignity of a person who has looked deeply into suffering and who finds hope in the wellspring of sacred ceremony and practice.
I was honored to join two other Christians representing the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care in giving the Chief an award. Bishop Doug Fisher of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and my husband Robert Jonas, founder of the Christian-Buddhist prayer sanctuary, The Empty Bell, joined me in making brief remarks. We noted that members of the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care (NRCCC) come from the Abrahamic faiths, including Jews, Muslims, and Christians from various traditions – Roman Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, and Orthodox. Every year, the NRCCC bestows The Steward of God’s Creation Award on an individual who exhibits “courage and commitment in the caring and keeping of the earth in a heroic, distinguished and effective manner.”
The crowd erupted in applause when my husband announced, “This year, for the first time, NRCCC wishes to give its award not to a single person but to an entire people. In recognition of the spiritual and moral leadership of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Nations, the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care would like to present its 2017 Steward of God’s Creation award to the Sioux Nation.”
Bishop Fisher and I exchanged a glance. The mood was joyful. Should we change the mood and press on with our planned remarks? We made the decision swiftly and without a word: Yes, we would keep going and say the hard stuff.
Bishop Fisher delivered his remarks with clarity and conviction: “We are painfully aware of the history of Christian participation in the oppression, marginalization, and murder of First Nations peoples. We recognize the tragic consequences of the Doctrine of Discovery, which gave the Church’s blessing when colonialists claimed the lands of indigenous peoples as their own. The Episcopal Church has formally repudiated and renounced the Doctrine of Discovery, as have several other Christian groups. Like Pope Francis, we grieve the ‘grave sins’ and ‘crimes’ of colonialism that were ‘committed against the Native people of America in the name of God.’
He went on to say, “Today the members of NRCCC come to you in humility, wanting you to know that we see your steadfast courage and that we cherish your spiritual vision of an earth-centered, earth-honoring life. Yours is a vision that we want to lift up across this country and around the world. It is an honor to give you this award.”
Then Chief Looking Horse stepped to the stage and accepted on behalf of the Sioux Nation the 2017 Steward of God’s Creation Award, which reads: “Presented in acknowledgment of your inspired courage, leadership and non-violence in protecting God’s sacred land and water.”
Later that day, Christians had another opportunity to express our deep respect for indigenous peoples and our deep repentance for the ways that Christianity has been used to commit and condone genocide. Racism has been justly called “America’s original sin,” and it began with the decimation of our land’s Native peoples. As Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in Why We Can’t Wait (1963),
“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race… From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its Indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode.”
Well, today was the day we would permit ourselves “to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode,” an “episode” of racist domination that continues into the present, though more covertly.
After participating in a sacred water ceremony led by Beatrice Menase Kwe Jackson, the crowd gathered around the sacred fire and listened to a Mohawk explain the ceremony of the Great Tree of Peace. According to Iroquois tradition, the cycle of conflict between separate Nations was broken when a Peacemaker – whose actual name is sometimes considered too sacred to utter – persuaded the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas to unite as the Five Nations Confederacy. As a pledge of their intention to live in peace, the Nations buried their weapons under a tall pine tree.
We intended to carry out a similar ceremony of confession and reconciliation that very afternoon, this time between Christians and First Nation peoples. Facing the crowd, I stood on the edge of the small amphitheater, with six Christians of various denominations standing beside me. Behind us was a deep pit in the ground and a young white pine tree, its roots wrapped in burlap, which was ready to be planted.
Since there was no microphone, I called out loudly:
This small circle of Christians has gathered to pray for peace. We are painfully aware of the ways that Christianity has been used over the centuries as a weapon to justify violence against indigenous peoples and violence against Mother Earth.
We are here to express our remorse and regret for this painful history.
We are here to dedicate ourselves to a renewed quest for peace with Earth, peace with our neighbors, and peace above all with our First Nations brothers and sisters.
We are here to lay our weapons down.
Today we intend to burn the Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine of Discovery is a principle of law developed in the 15th and 16th centuries by Popes and European Kings, and eventually applied by our own Supreme Court. The doctrine held that Christian sovereigns and their representative explorers could take possession of lands that were held by non-Christians, and could do so with the full blessing and sanction of the Church. Much of the ongoing injustice and colonization suffered by Native Americans in this country over the past 500 years can be traced back to the Doctrine of Discovery.
The time has come for all Christians and all people of faith and good will to renounce this doctrine and its violation of the inherent rights that individuals and peoples have received from God.
Today we will deliver a copy of the document to the sacred fire and place its ashes at the base of our peace tree as a symbol of our intention to lay our weapons down.
Before we do, I invite everyone here, especially those who are Christian, to take a few moments to examine our own hearts, for it is in our hearts that we carry the seeds of violence that lead to injustices like the Doctrine of Discovery. It is in our hearts that we also carry the seeds of peace. So let us look well to our hearts, and open them to the Holy Spirit who searches for truth deep within us.
I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer.
One by one, each Christian speaker offered a prayer, and the crowd responded by chanting, “Lord, hear our prayer.”
Gracious God, we have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness, pride, and hypocrisy. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
We confess our self-indulgent appetites, our greed, the idol we make of our wealth, and our economic exploitation of other people. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
We confess our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty, especially the oppression and genocide of Native peoples. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
We confess our waste and pollution of your creation and our addiction to fossil fuel that disrupts our climate and threatens our very life on earth. We confess our lack of concern for those who come after us. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
Accept our repentance, Lord, and give us grace to amend our lives, that we may do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
After praying Amen, I said, “Now with sacred fire we will burn the Doctrine of Discovery. As we watch and listen to the burning, we ask God to burn away everything in our hearts that is not love.”
The Rev. Nathan Beale unfurled and lifted up the Doctrine of Discovery, which was printed in Spanish on yellow parchment-like paper. Brayton Shanley, one of the founders of Agape, walked down the hill to the sacred fire, lit a torch, and walked back up. The three of us bent over the pit. A violin played. I watched as the fire bit into the paper, dissolving and destroying it before our eyes. It melted away into ash, and out of the corner of my eye I saw my fellow Episcopal priest, Nathan Beale, make the sign of the cross. I wished I’d thought to make that prayerful gesture, but it was too late: I’d already pumped my two fists in the air as a gesture of triumph: the sacred fire had consumed the Doctrine of Discovery.
I trust that both gestures are a faithful response whenever we lay our weapons down.
“Plant the tree!” Brayton cried, and at once several men set themselves to hoisting the pine tree and maneuvering its root ball into the pit. Down into the ground it went, to be fed from below by the ashes of a doctrine that was wielded as a weapon. May all our renounced and buried weapons turn into good compost, so that many trees of life can spring up and bear fruit!
After the peace tree was planted, hundreds of people streamed up the hill. One by one they knelt down to place a bit of sacred tobacco at the base of the tree, praying to release trauma and receive healing. Whatever race they belonged to, whatever language they spoke, whatever religion they held dear, I trusted that we shared a common intention: to become peacemakers and to head together toward healing and fullness of life.
VIDEOS of the day
Robert A. Jonas filmed the Christian ceremony of repenting the Doctrine of Discovery, setting it on fire, and burying its ashes under a pine tree. The 12-minute video is here.
David Legg created a photographic record of the day’s events, featuring flute music by his Native American friend, Standing Bear, and singing by Elisabeth von Trapp. The 11-minute video is here.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 2, 2017
Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at The Church of the Covenant, Boston, MA
“Lazarus, come out!”
A Christian response to the climate crisis
What a blessing it is to be here this morning and to join your Lenten exploration of “Fierce Love”! Thank you, Rob (Rev. Robert J. Mark), for inviting me to preach, and thank you for your steadfast witness to God’s love for the Earth and for all its communities, human and other-than-human. I was arrested with you last spring at an interfaith protest of the West Roxbury fracked gas pipeline, and just a few months ago, each of us felt called to make a trip to Standing Rock to stand with the Water Protectors. We are allies in the struggle for life, and it is good to worship with you and your congregation this morning.
I have the longest job title in the world. I serve in both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC as Missioner for Creation Care. This unusual joint position is a marker of good things ahead, for Christians of every denomination, and people of every faith tradition, are drawing together to proclaim with one voice that the Earth is sacred and that we intend to work together – boldly, lovingly, without swerving, without delay – to renew its health and to protect it from further harm.
Today’s Gospel reading brings us to the turning point in Jesus’ ministry. Raising Lazarus is the crowning miracle or sign that reveals Jesus as the giver of life, and that also precipitates his death. The raising of Lazarus provokes a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the official Jewish court, which reaches the decision that Jesus is dangerous and must be killed. And so next week we come to Palm Sunday and begin the anguish and ultimately the joy of Holy Week.
Today’s story begins in a place of desolation, loss, and despair. Lazarus has died; he has been dead for four days; and his sisters Mary and Martha are in distress, grieving with family and friends. The story begins right where we are: in a world that is full of death, full of grieving, full of loss. Mary and Martha taste the same bitterness that we taste when a loved one dies. They know, as we do, the pang of sorrow that can seize us in the middle of the night. They know the anguish that can empty life of zest or meaning.
This morning you and I may be in the very same place in which Mary and Martha begin this story, for there is plenty of death in the air these days. My particular concern is the climate crisis, and right now, even as I speak, burning fossil fuels is pumping carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere and further disrupting the delicate balance of the world’s climate. In just 200 years – a blink in geologic time – human beings have burned so much coal, gas, and oil and released so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that atmospheric levels of CO2 are higher than our species has ever experienced before. Last year was the hottest year on record, which crushed the record set the year before, which crushed the record set the year before that. As global temperatures rise, every living system of the world is affected and in decline. Sea ice is melting rapidly at both poles. Land ice is melting and sliding into the sea. Tundra is thawing. Storms are becoming more intense. Droughts are spreading in some areas, extensive floods in others. The ocean is absorbing heat and excess carbon dioxide, and in just decades has become 30% more acidic. Last month scientists reported that large sections of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have died.
The climate emergency is not just a quote-unquote “environmental” problem. It’s not just about polar bears and coral. It’s about people in Southern Africa, where rains have failed, crops are withering, and starving families are “reduced to eating cactus and even rocks or ashes.” It’s about Pacific islanders whose homelands are already flooding. It’s about impoverished people here and abroad who are hit first and hardest by a changing climate, who have the fewest resources to adapt to it, and who are the least responsible for causing it. It’s about coastal communities and great cities the world over, including Boston, which face rapidly rising seas.
So that’s where we find ourselves: on a beautiful, precious, but ailing planet, with the web of life unraveling before our eyes. When we hear bad news like this, it can be easy to shut down. It is difficult to face the grief, helplessness, and fear that our situation evokes. Most of us aren’t climate skeptics; most of us don’t deny outright the conclusions of science – but most of us do engage in a kind of everyday denial: we try to avoid the anxiety of thinking about climate change, so we change the subject and focus on more manageable things. When we feel helpless to imagine, much to less create, a better future, we just carry on with business as usual. It’s as if we fall under a spell and make what former U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon calls a “global suicide pact.”
That’s where our gospel passage begins: in darkness, in the pit, in the valley of the shadow of death. Martha and Mary are bereft. And then – something changes. Jesus arrives. When he sees Mary weeping, and the crowds around her weeping, Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33). As if the gospel writer wants to make the meaning perfectly clear, a few verses later we come to the shortest verse in all of Scripture, a verse that is often translated by just two words: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). He wept. Here is no distant God, no far-off deity untouched by grief, but a God who comes as one of us, a God who meets us in our suffering, a God who shares in our pain. When we feel anguish, it’s easy to look for someone to blame, to conclude that God isn’t real, that God is punishing us, or that God has abandoned us. But gazing at Jesus in this story reveals something different: when our hearts are breaking, God’s heart is breaking, too.
It is a heart-opening, mind-opening revelation to discover that when we weep for the Earth, when we feel outrage and protest, God is grieving with us and through us. God is bearing what we cannot bear alone. The fact that Jesus wept suggests that the first step in healing, the first step in birthing new life, comes when we step toward the pain, not away from it, and when we do so in the presence of God. The God who enters into our suffering knows that new life begins only when we are willing to feel pain. And when we grieve in God’s presence, we move out of numbness, out of inertia, out of the denial that pretends that everything is fine.
So, as the wise Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy puts it, “Don’t ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don’t apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a sign of your humanity and your maturity… We are capable of suffering with our world, and that is the true meaning of compassion. It enables us to recognize our profound interconnectedness with all beings.”
I will ask you the same questions that I asked at yesterday’s retreat at Trinity Church on spiritual resilience and resistance: Where do you feel the pain of the earth and its creatures? Where do you hear the groaning of God’s creation?
And I will add this, too: the unjust powers of this world don’t want us to grieve or protest. They don’t want us to feel outrage and sorrow when we face the deathly patterns that are part of this society: the racism and militarism, the abuse of the helpless, the poisoning of air and water, the relentless assault on the web of life. The powers-that-be would much prefer that we stay numb – zombies who are too busy or bored or distracted, too defended to feel the pain that allows something new to be imagined, something new to be born. “Jesus wept,” and in that weeping begins the healing that leads to new life.
In the vulnerability of his open heart, Jesus opens to a power greater than himself. “Take away the stone,” he says to the astonished crowd. Can you imagine what the throng of people must be thinking just then? Probably something along the lines of, “Hey – is he nuts?” But reluctantly or eagerly, maybe shaking their heads in bemusement, maybe daring to hope against hope, some folks move forward. They lean their weight against the stone and push it away from the entrance of the tomb.
And then comes Jesus’ voice. In the midst of weeping, there comes a voice. “Lazarus,” he cries. “Come out.” It is a voice of power, a summons, a command, and it addresses us by name. You’ve heard that voice before, and I’ve heard it, too. Deep inside us is a presence, a voice, a Someone who calls us to quit hiding in a deathly place and to step out into fullness of life. We can go for a while, maybe quite a long while, not engaging with reality, not engaging with the climate crisis, and just laying low, hiding out, ducking from everything that seems too hard to face, too hard to bear. The powers-that-be want to keep it that way, and they murmur, “That’s OK. Get comfy in that little tomb. Make peace with it. Decorate it. Stay small.”
But then comes that insistent, disturbing voice, calling us by name. “Barbara,” it says. “Come out. Cindy, come out. Rob, come out. Margaret, come out.”
“I love you,” God says to us. “I want you to be fully alive, not just partially alive, not just going through the motions. I want you to grow up into your full stature in Christ. I loved you into being, I sent you into the world to fall in love, and I call you now to serve love without holding back. So come out of your hiding place. Come out of your helplessness. Come out of your fearfulness, and join the struggle to save life on this sweet Earth. The resurrection life that I give you doesn’t start beyond the grave. It starts right now. I didn’t create you to live in a tomb.”
When I look around, I see a planet at risk of catapulting into runaway climate disruption. But also see person after person hearing – and answering – a deep call to step out and to engage in the struggle to protect life.
On a practical level, what can we do? As individuals, we can drive less, use public transportation, put on a sweater and turn down the heat, ignore the dryer and hang our laundry out to dry, eat less meat, eat local foods, recycle, and so on. You know the drill.
But the scope and pace of the climate crisis require change on a much broader scale. Thanks be to God, coalitions are building among people of faith who care about the Earth, about poverty and economic justice, about racial justice, about immigration and human rights – for all these issues intersect. Right here in Massachusetts, a new group, Mass. Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action (or MAICCA, for short) is organizing very diverse communities of faith to work together on climate. I’ve put a MAICCA sign-up sheet in back so that you can connect.
At the end of this month, on April 29, the 100th day of this country’s new Administration, thousands of people – including countless people of faith – will converge on Washington, D.C., for the People’s Climate Movement “March for Jobs, Justice, and Climate.” You can sign up for the march at PeoplesClimate.org, and I hope you will come. A sister march will be held here in Boston on the same day, and that’s a good choice, too, though it may be particularly effective to carry out our witness in our nation’s capital.
The Church was made for a time like this – a time when God is calling us out of the tomb of inertia and despair and into the wholehearted, focused, joyful, justice-seeking, Spirit-led, unstoppable movement to protect the world that God entrusted to our care.
“Lazarus, come out!”
Faith and fear duke it out
I am not a brave person. In fact, I am quite familiar with anxiety. I know what it’s like to wake up wide-eyed in the middle of the night, imagining the future with dread. Deciding to go to Standing Rock was not easy.
I heard in late November that Chief Arvol Looking Horse was urging people of faith to travel to Oceti Sakowin Camp for a day of prayer on Sunday, December 4, 2016. I considered this a holy invitation. It spoke to my conviction that the Earth is sacred. It spoke to my desire that we learn to live in peace with each other and with the Earth on which all life depends. It spoke to my longing to bear witness to our God-given hope that life and not death will have the last word.
I knew that the protest against the Dakota Access pipeline was historic. An extraordinary wave of solidarity was sweeping the world, as hundreds of once-estranged tribal nations and jurisdictions stood with the Standing Rock Sioux and proclaimed with one voice that water is sacred; water is life. Thousands of Native and non-Native people had already come to the camps near the Missouri River to resist construction of a pipeline that would endanger the river, Native lands, and the whole of Mother Earth.
What’s more, a showdown was now at hand. Energy companies had invested billions of dollars in the project; only one mile of pipeline remained to be built; the year-end deadline for completing the pipeline was just weeks away; and – though the announcement was amended almost as soon as it was issued – December 5 could be the day when the camp would be forcibly evacuated.
Strong emotions and commitments pulled me toward Standing Rock for the Interfaith Day of Prayer on December 4, but anxiety nudged me to say No. I talked it over with a friend – a religious leader and climate activist who had been arrested with me last May in a pipeline protest here in Massachusetts. We agreed that making a trip to Standing Rock was too risky. The brutal North Dakota winter was too cold. The night was too dark. The militarized police were too violent, armed with rubber bullets, guard dogs, pepper spray, and water hoses that the police willingly sprayed in frigid temperatures. Hundreds of unarmed “water protectors” had already been injured,
including one young woman so severely hurt that her arm might need to be amputated. In addition, thousands of veterans from across the country were also invited to show up that weekend. Although they pledged to carry no weapons and to serve as “human shields,” they were asked to bring body armor and gas masks. Military chaplains were likewise about to converge at Standing Rock to minister to the veterans. Everything was in place for the conflict to escalate. Would we be walking straight into a massacre? After talking with my friend on Sunday night, I hung up the phone, relieved that I was staying home.
The next morning I got a phone call from another friend, Unitarian Universalist minister and climate activist, Rev. Fred Small. He was going to Standing Rock that weekend. Would I join him?
I didn’t know whether to laugh or groan. Not you again, Fred. Fred is my burning bush. Like the burning bush that stopped Moses in his tracks, Fred has interrupted me several times over the years to invite me to do something righteous but scary. Oh no, not again. I told him I would pray about it.
But I was too anxious to pray. I asked my beloved husband if he would listen to me talk through the pro’s and con’s. In his attentive presence I enumerated the reasons to go, including my desire to bear witness to the sacredness of God’s creation and my desire to stand with non-violent, unarmed people at the place where the struggles for indigenous rights, human rights, economic justice, climate justice and care for the Earth intersect.
In the end, the allure was simple: I wanted to pray. I wanted to pray with Chief Looking Horse and the other Native elders. The call to pray was in my belly, like a fire.
“OK,” my husband said. “The pro’s are clear. How about the con’s?”
To my surprise, a long silence followed. I had nothing to say. The reasons not to go to Standing Rock boiled down to a single one: Fear. I looked Fear over, top to bottom. I was not impressed. Fear did not seem a reliable foundation upon which to base a decision. Besides, compared to the strong, embodied pull to go, the fear that begged me to stay was as flimsy as mist: I could blow it away with one Spirit-filled breath.
I arranged a plane reservation for Bismarck, joined a conference call (hosted by Unitarian Universalist ministers) for clergy going to Standing Rock, and assembled winter gear. I hoped to meet Fred Small on Sunday for the Interfaith Day of Prayer, but the rest of the trip I would make on my own, since my husband did not feel called to come.
I refused to let fear stop me, but fear was still prowling about. I couldn’t chase it away, so I decided to accept it. “Be not afraid” may be one of the great messages in the Bible, but a worried person who is trying to do something difficult may not find these words especially comforting. Fear can’t always be so quickly dismissed. I took greater solace in remembering that Jesus himself felt anguish before his crucifixion (Luke 22:44), yet did not flee. He managed to pray through the fear and to keep his heart steadfastly fixed on what he felt led to do. Audre Lorde got it right: “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
At night I slept as best I could, in fits and starts. A few days before the trip, a man I did not know sent me an email: he’d been on the conference call and knew that I was going to Standing Rock; could we connect on the ground in North Dakota? Sure, I impulsively replied – let’s share the rental car and travel together.
That night I tossed and turned and finally sat bolt upright at 3 a.m. Have you lost your mind? You know nothing about this guy. For all you know, he’s a serial rapist or an ax murderer. I leaped out of bed, turned on the computer, and launched a Google search. Michael Arase-Barham turned out to be an Episcopal priest from California who had received a Doctorate of Ministry in the spirituality of pilgrimage. That seemed a good sign. Plus he had the friendly, bearded face of a Friar Tuck. OK, I would risk it. Jesus sent out his disciples two by two, and I needed an ally along the way.
I packed my bags. I flew to Bismarck.
Faith and doubt duke it out
Michael turned out to be a stellar fellow pilgrim. In the course of the journey, we exchanged supplies: he gave me toothpaste; I gave him hand warmers. He peered into his cellphone and did the navigating; I peered into the darkness and did the driving. At one point, when the car got stuck in snow on the side of the road, he got out and pushed us to safety. And he loved to pray. I have never met a person more devoted to the daily round of services provided by our Book of Common Prayer. As we drove from Bismarck to Fort Yates (population: 195), he led us in Evening Prayer and Compline. That night, along with other pilgrims from far-away places, we slept on the floor of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Early the next morning, on Sunday, December 4, we made our pre-dawn drive to the camp. Michael led us in Morning Prayer.
On the way, I asked him to read the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). When a great battle lies ahead or is already underway, nothing is more beautiful to pray than Mary’s song of praise to the God of justice and mercy who scatters the proud in their conceit, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty. Mary bursts into song because she is bearing the Christ-child, the one whose long-ago birth we celebrate at Christmas and who is born among us every time we allow divine love to fill us, guide us, and act through us, making all things new.
Michael and I drove toward Oceti Sakowin Camp in the company of a long stream of cars. Rounding a turn, we caught sight of the camp, up ahead: hundreds of tents, tepees, and yurts sprawled across a field of snow, with tall rows of flags lining the dirt road that cuts through the center of the campground. We found a place to park inside the camp, and headed toward the sacred fire.
I soon learned that nearly everything of importance at the camp takes place around the fire, which never goes out: storytelling, singing, dancing, drumming and praying. Daily activities are steeped in prayer, rooted in appeals to the Creator and to Mother Earth, the grandmother of everything. As we arrived, Native people were taking turns at the microphone near the fire, welcoming newcomers, offering coffee, and reviewing the painful history of indigenous peoples in this country: devastating wars, land grabs, broken treaties, shattered cultures, murders, betrayals. For these Native people, the weight of the past is palpable, sorrowful, dark, heavy, and immediate. Their current fight to protect sacred lands and water (“blue gold”) and to stop the pipeline (the dangerous “black snake” that legend foretold) is an extension of their long struggle against genocide.
On that Sunday morning the interfaith prayer service began at 10 a.m., attended by a large crowd that included clergy from more than thirty religious traditions. Speaker after speaker came forward to speak or sing or pray. Rev. Karen Van Fossan, a UUA minister in Bismarck, led us in singing a rousing version of “As I went down to the river to pray,” concluding with a prayer to “Give us the courage we need, and the hope that comes from courage, and the courage that comes from hope.”
Rev. Victor Kazanjian, Executive Director of United Religions Initiative, came “in a spirit of sorrow,” acknowledging religion’s “atrocities” to the Native peoples, seeking forgiveness, and bringing with him thousands of prayers for the Standing Rock Sioux from 56 countries around the world. He also brought water collected from 167 sacred water sources. He noted that these waters mingled together without separating into ‘higher’ and ‘lower’; in this, he said, they expressed “the beauty of all humanity.” Water is essential to life and to the human body. “The struggle for water,” he said, “is the struggle for the essence of our being.”
Dr. Cornel West spoke with passion about prayer as a form of reverence and a form of resistance. “I call it revolutionary love,” he proclaimed, adding: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” He pointed out that this was an historic moment. The Dakota Access pipeline is a continuation of the war against our indigenous Native brothers and sisters that began more than 520 years ago and that is still underway. He argued that we should never say that the harsh treatment of Black people was America’s Original Sin. “The enslavement of Black people was the second Original Sin.”
Muslims, rabbis, Buddhist and Hindu leaders spoke, as did Methodists, Roman Catholics, members of the Society of Friends, local Native leaders, and Native leaders from distant countries. Lewis Cardinal, Chair of the Indigenous People’s Task Force of the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, spoke for us all when he said, “We stand here together on this day, at this time, brothers and sisters all, and with our Mother.”
The service went on for hours – urgent and prayerful, scented with wood smoke and sage – yet we could never forget that we were standing in something like a war zone. A helicopter and a small plane kept buzzing noisily overhead, a constant harassment. For now, we ignored these reminders of the police, the corporate powers, and the politicians bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry: we had our own healing work to do with each other. As one Native speaker put it, the Church had told his people that they were devil worshipers and that they would go to Hell. For now it was enough to absorb the miracle that people of every faith, including members and leaders of many Christian churches, were today standing as one with Native peoples, praying as one, cherishing the Earth as one, greeting each other as equals, as kin, and joining the shared struggle to protect our common home.
Another level of healing was going on, too: Native speakers were welcoming and thanking the thousands of U.S. veterans who had traveled to Standing Rock to stand with the Sioux. It astonished me to imagine the reconciliation of Native peoples with members of the U.S. military. I gasped when I heard a bugle play Reveille and other military calls, the sounds that had once preceded or accompanied attacks on Native communities. The former enemies of Native peoples were now inside the camp, seeking forgiveness, offering support, and no longer intending harm.
Near the end of the service, a Native speaker told the crowd that his grandfather had died in 1890 at Wounded Knee, the brutal massacre of Sioux warriors, women, and children by American soldiers on the Plains of South Dakota. The speaker added: “Crazy Horse said that the Sacred Hoop was broken at Wounded Knee.”
Then Chief Looking Horse stepped forward. It was time, he said, to mend the Sacred Hoop. The original plan for the afternoon had been for clergy to walk up to the police barricade, but now, he said, the plan had changed. Instead, everyone at the camp was going to move clockwise, on foot and on horseback, out to the far edges of the camp. There we would form a great circle, hold hands, and pray. People all over the world would be praying with us.
He pulled out an eagle bone whistle. “I will call the eagle to come.”
He blew the whistle. “We are one heart,” he said. “We are one mind. One prayer. One spirit.”
Half expecting an eagle to appear, I looked up. I wanted an eagle to come upon us like a vision, like a sign, but nothing happened. The sky was empty of life. Instead of hearing the whoosh of wings overhead, or the cry of a bird of prey, all I could hear was the chop of helicopter blades.
The crowd began to disband. Dispirited, I began walking with Michael toward what I took to be the nearest edge of the camp. I had no clear idea where we were going or what we would do when we got there. Why had the chief entrusted the crowd with this ceremony? And what sort of ceremony could it be? As an Episcopal priest, I was used to leading orderly services carried out indoors with clear lines of authority, assigned seating, and probably a service leaflet. Sounding more disgruntled than I intended, I only half-jokingly muttered to Michael that if this were an Episcopal liturgy, we would hold a rehearsal and figure out in advance where to stand, where to sit, and what to do. By contrast, this thing was completely chaotic. We ran into stragglers who hadn’t heard about the prayer circle. Would they join us? We saw people pausing to stand in line for the Port-a-Potty or to grab a bite to eat. Would they get distracted, forget about the ceremony, and move on to something else? Would enough people stay faithful to our prayerful task or would people simply drift away and let the effort peter out?
I confess it: my doubt sprang not only from discomfort with a spontaneous, disorderly ceremony that involved hundreds of people. It also sprang from not wanting to depend on other people to get the job done. I didn’t want to depend on their goodwill, their capacity to pay attention, or their ability to follow directions. I didn’t think we could complete the ritual. I didn’t think we could pull it off. I had no faith in my fellows. I was filled with doubt.
Doubt is a terrible thing. It undermines hope and resolve. But the only way to get mighty things done is to do them together, learning to trust each other and to suspend our doubts. Fortunately I was as stubborn as I was doubtful. If I didn’t carry out my own part of the mission, why should other people carry out theirs? And if we didn’t finish this task together and today, would it ever be accomplished? Despite my doubts I stubbornly kept on walking, kept on heading to the edge of camp, kept on reaching out for hands to clasp. I wanted this prayer-circle thing to work.
So, it turned out, did everybody else.
It took a number of adjustments. Should we stand close to the Cannonball River or should we stand further away? Were we the only string of people holding hands in this corner of the camp? If so, should we stand still and wait for other people to find us, or should we search for another string of people to meet up with and join?
Young Native Americans trotted by on foot, offering words of encouragement, as good at their job as any Verger in an Episcopal cathedral. Don’t let go! We’re almost there! Step this way! No, not that way – this way! To your left! To your left! Don’t let go your hands! We’ve almost got it!
Our line of people stumbled sideways, laughing. We took careful steps backward until our arms were fully outstretched and our hands firmly clasped. Excitement rose. As we waited for other parts of the circle to form, strangers introduced themselves to each other. Here on my right was Michael, and then two Quaker women from upstate New York, both of them long-time activists; here on my left was Allison, a young Native American from Minnesota who was visiting the camp for the third time.
Person by person the circle was woven, until at last we could look out and see a distant line of people holding hands in what seemed like the far-off other side of the world.
We’d done it! The circle was complete! The Sacred Hoop was mended!
But, as if that weren’t marvel enough, it was just then that a young Native messenger came bounding past. “Denied! Denied!” he yelled. “The pipeline permit has been denied!” He was breathless with joy.
What? We fell into startled silence, looking at each other. Doubt arose. I murmured to Michael, “I need some kind of confirmation before I’m going to believe that.”
Someone else appeared and repeated the good news. Was it possible? What did it mean? Did we dare to trust what we were hearing? We released hands and headed back to the sacred fire, our jubilation growing as we drew closer and heard the drumming and singing that had already begun. The good news was true: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had denied the final permit that allowed the Dakota Access pipeline to go under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe.
This is what elation sounds like: drumming, chanting, singing. This is what elation looks like: a crowd of people swaying and dancing, with individuals – even strangers – looking into each others’ eyes, wiping away tears, and exchanging an embrace. I joined in the two-step dance around the sacred fire. We danced just as every soul dances when forgiveness, justice, and mercy extend in every direction. We danced because sight had been restored to the blind and captives had been set free. We danced because the mighty had been cast down from their thrones, the lowly had been lifted up, and strangers had become friends.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the LORD,” sings Mary in the Magnificat. “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant…”
In between chants, drumming, and songs, Native speakers took turns at the microphone. Repeatedly they thanked the millions of people worldwide who had expressed support, the thousands who had visited the camps, the tens of thousands who had donated time and money to the struggle to stop the pipeline and protect the water.
Someone said, “Never before have we been at an intersection where everyone is here. It is a strange turn of history when the people taking care of us are the military of the U.S. government.”
Someone said, “We’ve come to this huge, giant ceremony being hosted by Mother Earth.”
Someone said, “I want to thank the person that loves spirituality. I want to thank the person that loves Mother Earth.”
Someone said, “We still have a lot of praying to do. We are not done yet. We are going to keep fighting. We will pray for the Governor” (and he named other individuals that want to build the pipeline). “They do not seek the Spirit in their hearts yet. We will pray for the ones who want to destroy.”
Someone said, “This is about more than a pipeline. This is the beginning of the world united.”
The celebration went on for hours. We knew that the battle was not over: the company behind the Dakota Access pipeline fully intends to complete the pipeline, and our President-elect seems hell-bent on extracting and burning every last ounce of fossil fuels. But for now it was enough – it was more than enough – to touch the deep truth that we belong to each other and to the Earth – to know in our bones that every person is sacred and every community is sacred, that the web of life is sacred, that the Earth is sacred.
It seems to me that we didn’t just mend the Sacred Hoop that day. We were becoming the Sacred Hoop that was no longer broken.
By the fire
On December 5, what I’d feared might happen – violence, forcible evacuation, even massacre – did not take place. Instead, a second ceremony of healing was carried out: the son of General Wesley Clark stood with the veterans and apologized for the centuries of genocide perpetrated by the U.S. military. Coming, he said, “as the conscience of a nation,” he knelt before Leonard Dog Crow, confessed the military’s sins, and asked for forgiveness. Forgiveness was granted. (A brief video is here.) In these dark times, when fear and doubt threaten to tear so many communities apart, a light shines out from acts of reconciliation like these!
Michael and I returned to the camp that morning. After agreeing to meet again at the sacred fire, we went our separate ways and explored on our own. I wanted first to go up high. Picking my way through patches of ice, I climbed the small hill overlooking the camp and gazed into the distance, looking out over the helter-skelter assortment of teepees and yurts, vehicles and flags. Here we all were – a diverse company drawn together by a fierce and spirited longing for justice and healing.
Carrying this image with me, I made my way downhill and walked back to the fire. Small logs were aflame in the shallow, circular pit. A few people were sitting on benches, talking quietly or sitting alone in silent prayer. Bundles of lavender were placed around the rim of the circle, and at the circle’s entrance were bowls of tobacco and juniper sprigs, along with a turtle shell, small skulls, feathers, and sage.
I don’t know the religious traditions of the Lakota Sioux. I was touched that an outsider like me was welcome to participate in their ceremonies. I knelt to take a pinch of tobacco, a bit of juniper. As I cradled these offerings in my palm, a prayer of gratitude gradually collected within me. When the time was ripe, I cast what I was holding into the flames. Then I sat for a while and watched the fire. Gazing down, I could almost see the fire extending deep into the Earth. I could almost see the fire reaching down like roots in every direction and catching up everything it touched. The longer I gazed, the more it seemed as if that strong and living fire could ground our every step on Earth, could be inhaled with every breath of air, and could bring warmth to every human heart.
On our way home
The first flakes of snow were falling. By early afternoon, when Michael and I began our trek back to Bismarck, a ferocious blizzard was beginning to roll in from the Arctic. Eventually the winds would gust up to 50 mph, wind chills would drop to nearly 20 below zero, and the camp would be buried in snowdrifts up to 7 feet deep. For now I simply kept a gentle, wary foot on the accelerator and squinted into the white landscape of driving snow, trying to locate the next piece of highway. When I heard the tires hit one of the rumble strips on either side of the road, I’d hazard a guess: should I make the correction by steering left or right?
“Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy,” I silently prayed, my fingers clutching the steering wheel. Which was worse – sliding into a ditch or into oncoming traffic? Sometimes it’s no small thing to keep to your chosen path.
Michael seemed unperturbed. “Shall I read Noon Day Prayer?” he asked, cheerfully, pulling out his prayer book.
“No, thanks,” I answered through clenched jaws. “You go ahead. I’ll just listen this time.”
Threading our way through love and fear, we prayed our way home.