Native American churches pull together in the Carolinas
Lumbee and Pee Dee Indian congregations offer hope amid suffering through a cooperative ministry of the United Methodist Church.
August 2, 2011 | Tonya Hernandez’s trailer was a mess, and Gary Locklear’s work team from Sandy Plains United Methodist Church in Pembroke, N.C., was there to fix it.
They inspected the rotting boards on the roof eaves, the holes in the front door and a broken window. The roof had been leaking, and the carpet was stained brown and black.
A single mother of three, Hernandez had been paralyzed two years ago in an accident that killed her fiance. She uses a wheelchair, which makes it hard for her even to reach the shelves in her home.
“Brother Gary, you’ve got enough work here for about four teams,” said the Rev. Kelly Hunt, the pastor at nearby Hickory Grove United Methodist Church in Clio, S.C.
Locklear knew the work wouldn’t be done in a day, but he was undeterred; he planned to bring more teams throughout the summer.
“We can make her life a little better,” said Locklear, a home missioner and church and community worker with the UMC’s Global Ministries.
Making life better has been a focus for the Lumbee Indian United Methodists of North Carolina in this poverty-stricken part of the Carolinas for many years.
Drawing on the strength of God and their Native American heritage, they have seen their efforts pay off in steady progress. The community’s investments -- particularly in the education and nurturing of youth -- have raised the community beyond the subsistence level and have created places of vitality and hope.
The Lumbee Indian community
Locklear is an example and embodiment of this ethos. The youngest child from a Lumbee farming family, he and five of his 10 older siblings enrolled at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke to become teachers.
After a career in teaching, then as a human-resources trainer, he began serving as lay leader at Sandy Plains. Six months into his retirement, he accepted an assignment as a home missioner and has taken on many leadership roles in the community, including co-director of the Rockingham District Native American Cooperative Ministry.
Locklear has become one of the spiritual leaders of his big family, embodying the lessons he learned from his parents, who always shared their farm produce with neighbors in need.
Along with his co-missioner, the Rev. Sylvia Collins-Ball, Locklear facilitates opportunities for local Native American United Methodists to serve their communities and beyond.
“The most important people in the world are those who share their knowledge with others and those who love unloved people,” Locklear said.
Locklear is one of about 55,000 Lumbee Indians inhabiting four counties in southern central North Carolina. They are descended from people who migrated from South Carolina in the 1700s to live along the Lumber River.
The Methodist Church began making inroads in the area in the late 19th century, eventually developing programs focused on Native Americans.
Throughout their history, the Lumbee have worked for civil rights and, in particular, for public education. The church has been an integral part of these efforts. In the 1880s, for example, Prospect UMC in Maxton, N.C., joined with the Lumbee community in the effort to establish the Croatan Normal School, now the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
The Jim Crow era saw conflict over the white Methodists’ leadership in the Lumbee community but paved the way for the 1960s and 1970s, when Methodists joined Quakers in registering Lumbees to vote and in fighting for Lumbee jobs in local government, sending the message that they could chart the course of their own lives and community.
Many in the area are poor. According to a 2007 Children’s Defense Fund analysis of census data, about one-third of North Carolina’s American Indian children live in poverty, and the tribe’s efforts to secure services that other recognized tribes receive have not been successful.
Still, within that context, the community’s efforts have had some impact. Many local Lumbees have entered the middle class, working as teachers, lawyers and health care professionals, and have benefitted from education and empowerment over the decades. From this position of relative strength have sprung indigenous leaders in service to others, on both sides of the North-South Carolina border and beyond.
Locklear is one of the more prominent lay leaders among Lumbee United Methodists, but he’s certainly not the only one. The 13 Native American United Methodist churches that make up the cooperative have 2,300 members, more than 100 of which have gone through the N.C. Conference’s training for lay speakers. They can lead Sunday school and even fill the pulpit.