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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.

The cooperative ministry, founded in 1995, provides congregations the opportunity “to envision and become involved in ministry they would not do individually.” Through the cooperative, the 13 member churches join together in social service outreach, whether education programs, mission trips or house-renovation work teams. It’s through the cooperative that local United Methodists try to meet current physical needs and also train a new crop of leaders to become the next generation of mission volunteers and lay speakers.

The passion button

With leadership development efforts such as an annual vocational conference for youth, the cooperative has raised up dozens of Native American clergy to serve its own churches and others in North Carolina -- about 20 from the small Sandy Plains congregation alone. Its community-empowerment efforts over the decades have encouraged the belief that Native American people ought to lead themselves -- so they do.

“For too long, Indian people have been treated as children -- told what we should think, how we should think, where we should go, how we should do it,” said the Rev. David Hill, a native Lumbee from nearby Scotland County, N.C., and the pastor at Living Saviour Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Charlotte.

The leadership initiatives have been one part of the cooperative’s effort to marshal the resources of the small churches in a long-term, collaborative effort.

This summer, the cooperative sent 25 kids to study math, some at UNC-Pembroke and some at a new math academy. It also organized a team of youth to visit local schools and educate their peers about the dangers of tobacco, and it used a $25,000 grant from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to open a computer lab for local youth.

“Lay people are some of the movers and shakers,” said the Rev. John Kalz, a Kentucky pastor who interned at Sandy Plains UMC in 2008 and brought some of the workers who repaired Hernandez’s house. “There’s a really deep spiritual life, and that is lived out publicly.”

The Indian leaders foster a sense of unity that moves people to serve, said Collins-Ball. A ready sense of trust allows native leaders to tap into tight-knit family relationships to motivate groups of people to action.

“When we have Native American pastors in place who identify with the community, who come out of the community, who understand the community, the church does better,” she said. “It pushes the passion button.”

One of the places that passion surfaces is in worship. Laypeople’s involvement in the powerful worship of the church has drawn many into leadership, including ordained ministry, said the Rev. Jeremy Troxler, director of Duke Divinity School’s Thriving Rural Communities initiative.

“You just had this sense of a roomful of people genuinely crying out to God. The worship life of the church arises out of a history of pain, but [also] hope,” Troxler said. “It’s in that context that they’re able to hear the call to ministry.”

Reaching south of the borders

The cooperative has leveraged its resources to look beyond its own community. For 14 years, the group has led regular mission trips to Bolivia. It also supports a food pantry in Lumberton and a soup kitchen in Pembroke.

In addition, Locklear tries to channel efforts -- like the work team at Hernandez’s house -- toward the two UMC churches across the border in South Carolina that serve the Pee Dee Indians, a related tribe.

That state’s Pee Dee Indian community is so small and so remote that the North Carolina United Methodist Conference absorbed the congregations so they could be in the cooperative with the 11 Lumbee churches in North Carolina.

There is still significant poverty among the Lumbee, but observers say the Pee Dee Indians are much worse off. The Lumbee have some political clout in North Carolina, but across the border, a Pee Dee population in the hundreds doesn’t have the same sort of power.

“In South Carolina, the Indians are very invisible,” Locklear said. “There’s no such thing as an Indian there; you’re either white or black. This abject poverty … in South Carolina, it’s pretty much the norm for Indian people.”

One of those Pee Dee churches is Hickory Grove UMC, which hosted work teams from Pennsylvania this summer that delivered clothing and home goods to a picnic pavilion outside the church as sort of a free flea market.

“A lot of the people in that community kind of look at that church as the place where you can find food if you really need it,” Locklear said.

The cooperative provides not only material assistance but also spiritual leadership.

Terry Hunt, a Lumbee from North Carolina, leads adult Sunday school at Hickory Grove two or three times each month. He was trained as a lay speaker through Prospect Church, now one of the largest Native American churches in the U.S. He said churches are trying to build in South Carolina the same hope for a better life that grew in the Lumbee community. Almost none of the Pee Dee finish high school, and illiteracy makes it almost impossible for them to rise out of poverty.

“It’s almost like the Third World,” said Hunt, who is retired from a job in home construction. “It’s sort of become accepted as their fate. It’s just carried on and on for generations. We’re hoping we can take the word of the Lord and break that.

“You can change and make a difference. Your life isn’t necessarily determined by fate. It’s not fate but faith.”

Hernandez’s 12-year-old daughter, Catalina, was one of five kids from Hickory Grove to attend the math academy. Catalina’s father returned to Mexico years ago. Hernandez’s late fiance Lonnie Samuel had been helping her raise the three children, now ages 14, 12 and 8. But since the accident, Hernandez has depended on public assistance to feed her kids and pay the rent.

“I’m up and down, because the kids have me stressed out, but God is there,” Hernandez said. “I thank God every day. God’s never turned his back on me.”

Catalina plans to join the military or become a nurse when she grows up.

“I hope she goes with the nursing,” her mother said. “She’s always talked about going to college, and I want to see her succeed in what she wants to do.”