A Homily on Justice for Native Americans and Care for Creation

A homily preached at St. Camillus Church
by Fr. Jacek Orzechowski, OFM

Third Sunday of Easter
St. Camillus Earth Day celebration
April 19, 2015

Fr. Jacek Orzechowski, OFM

Fr. Jacek Orzechowski, OFM

Three stories: first one about the St. Francis Builds Mission trip to Pine Ridge reservation; second, the story of Christ’s resurrection and its impact on the early Church; and the third one is our story in the context of Easter and the Earth Day celebration.

On Monday morning, right after Easter Sunday, a group of 27 St. Camillus parishioners, including our pastor Fr. Mike and I, traveled to a Native American, Lakota reservation in South Dakota. The week that we spent there has left, impressed upon my mind and heart various memories and images: an enchanting landscape of the open prairies, gentle, rolling hills with wild horses along its ridges; breathtaking canyons and pine-tree covered Black Hills mountains.  I can still hear an echo of a thundering sound of the traditional Lakota drum. It resembled a palpitating human heart, or rather, a mysterious beat in the heart of mother earth. There, there is a lingering scent of a burning sage swirling around me as I was being smudged.

A group of St. Camillus parishioners spent three days repairing and renovating two Lakota homes that were in a pretty bad shape. Four of us worked alongside several Lakota men loading up the 18-wheel truck with thousands of pounds of lumber and transporting it onto the reservation.

We wanted to do more, but our Lakota guests said: “It’s enough. We really want you to have time to hear and understand us.” And so we spent the rest of our time learning about the Lakota history and way of life, its rich spiritual tradition and wisdom. We also witnessed some of the challenges that Lakota people now face.

We were shown where the Wounded Knee massacre took place. As many as 300 Lakota men, women and children were killed there, their bodied dumped into a ditch and buried in the middle of the Pine Ridge reservation. Despite 125 years that have passed since then, it’s still like a fresh, open wound. What happened at the Wounded Knee was not an isolated incident. Rather, it epitomizes a long history of systemic violence that has been inflicted on the body, mind and soul of the Lakota people. The Native Americans were labeled by the dominant white society “savages”, “half-civilized parasites,” and rendered as deserving to be exterminated or, at least, forced to assimilate. Up until early 1970’s, thousands of Lakota children have been forcibly removed from their families and sent out to boarding schools, sometimes thousands of miles away. Those schools were designed with the purpose of stripping the Native children of their cultural identity and imposing upon them the Euro-American, Christian, “civilized,” worldview and lifestyle.

Those who dared to speak their native language or clung to their cultural identify were severely punished. Many of us didn’t know that, ironically, in this land of the free and home of the brave – until 1978 – there was an official U.S. government policy to suppress the indigenous languages, cultures, religious beliefs and ceremonies.

Unfortunately, Christianity –that is, both Catholic and Protestant churches – had played a role in facilitating the colonization and subjugation of the Native peoples. Notwithstanding the work of missionaries such as Antonio de Montecinos O.P, Bartolomé de las Casas, O.P. or Bernardino de Sahagun, OFM – just to mentioned a few – the Christianity, all too often, justified the cultural, political and economic dominance and exploitation of the indigenous peoples. The history is, of course, very complex. One should be careful not to past harsh judgment on the past missionary efforts without considering the larger context and taking a critical look at ourselves. Who knows what kind of judgment the future generations will past on the Christian churches that, while professing their faith in Jesus are giving tacit or explicit support to unfettered Capitalism, militarism or consumerism?

During my visit at the Pine Ridge reservation, several members of the Lakota tribe mentioned the so-called Doctrine of Discovery. It is likely that you have never heard about it. Well, it’s based on the three papal bulls issued in the 15th century. One of those documents, for example, granted Pope’s blessing “to capture, vanquish, and subdue … pagans and put them into perpetual slavery and to take all their possessions and their property.” The Doctrine of Discovery justified Christian domination and violence against indigenous peoples, their cultures and religious faiths. It also influenced, not just the public attitudes but also the civil laws of settlers’ nations such as the Unites States.

Back in the year 2,000, Saint John Paul II issues a sweeping apology for the Church’s mistreatment of various groups, including indigenous people. However, the Doctrine of Discovery still remains on the books and it has not yet been publicly repudiated.  This exacerbates the old, festering wound on the body of the Lakota people, making it more difficult to heal.

My trip to the Pine Ridge reservation has opened up my eyes not only to the historic injustice committed against the Lakota people, but also to their contemporary wounds of deep poverty, unemployment – as high as 80% – of substance abuse and of teenage suicide. All these vignettes, made it feel like it was a Good Friday – an experience of the Way of the Cross of the Lakota people.

And yet, I’ve witnessed the signs of resurrection on the Pine Ridge Reservation. One of them came in the person of Ramona. This middle age Lakota woman have had a tough life. She is not a stranger to adversities, personal trails or a dark-night of the soul. And yet, strengthened and guided by the Holy Spirit, Ramona has been able to out-stare the darkness. Despite the circumstances, she keeps her head up: proud of her native language and culture – of being Lakota. She also reaches out to many children and youth in her local community. With very little resources, she manages to organize for them every year a summer camp. She teaches them to speak and fall in love with the language of their ancestors. She reconnects them with their Lakota roots and empowers them to deal with adversities and trauma. Ramona is a woman that exudes courage, pride and hope. To her family and community – she is a rock – just like the apostle Peter was one to the first Christian community.

Another person at the Pine Ridge reservation who witnesses to the power of resurrection is Basil Brave Heart. He’s an 82-year-old Lakota man. Though he was raised and influenced by his deeply spiritual grandparents, he did struggle to find his way in the contemporary American society. First, Basil fought in the Korean War then, he fought with the alcohol addiction. He survived both, and was able to find a path towards peace and integrity. Reclaiming his traditional Lakota spiritual path and reconciling it with the Christian faith played a pivotal role in Basil Brave Heart’s conversion. He is the wisest and most spiritual man I’ve ever met. He amazes me with his sense of wonder and ability to integrate the insights of the cutting-edge science such as quantum physics with his profoundly Christian faith and Lakota spirituality.

Several times, Basil shared with me and other St. Camillus folks the sacred Lakota phrase: Mitakuye Oyasin. It means: we are all related. Each time he uttered those Lakota words, I could see how much he relished them. For Basil and his people, the truth of that phrase is at the core of the Lakota’s identity, their beautiful way of seeing and relating to the world. I could not help but to think how profoundly Franciscan it was: that we’re all amazingly interconnected, that we’re all brothers and sisters within the larger web of Life. A 13th century Franciscan mystic, St. Angela of Foligno used to express the same insight during her celebration of the Eucharist, when she would spontaneously exclaim: “the earth is pregnant with God!”

Basil Brave Heart challenged us to live out the truth of Mitakuye Oyasin. He was calling us to retrieve what was best in our religious tradition and, with it, help overcome the alienation and fragmentation of our contemporary society and its institutions. The ideologies of materialism, secularism, and consumerism create an illusion that we’re separated from the rest of the human family, from God’s creation and even from God. And so, we’ve forgotten our true identity, and turned a blind eye on the amazing worth and dignity bestowed upon us by God. Saint John Paul II said that this “anthropological error” was at the spiritual root of much of the world injustice, violence and the environmental crisis, which threatens the survival of our civilization.

Let me segue now into the Scripture story. In the Acts of the Apostles, we hear Peter speaking out. He has witnessed Jesus’ agony in the Garden. Then, in a moment of weakness, he betrays Jesus and runs away. But having experienced Christ’s forgiveness, Paul now bares witness to the power of Christ’s resurrection. With great courage, he calls his fellow countrymen to “repent and be converted so that their sins may be wiped away.”

We notice the similar theme playing out in today’s passage from John’s Gospel. When the risen Christ appears to the disciples, he almost immediately summons them to “preach repentance, in his name, for the forgiveness of sins, to all the nations.”

The word “repentance” may conjure up an image of a priest in a confessional listening to penitent confessing sins or bring to mind some other, traditional penitential practice. However, the biblical notion of repentance is far more encompassing. It calls a person to a “metanoia,” which means a profound transformation in a person’s way of seeing and acting in the world. In the best of our Judeo-Christian tradition, repentance/conversion is not a path to a spiritual, narcissistic self-perfection. Rather, it is a profoundly communal call to attend to the quality of the web of our relationships. This web of relationship extends beyond an exclusive “me and God” pattern. It acknowledges our bonds of compassion and solidarity with the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters, with the future generations, the land, the oceans, the creatures that live there and with all members of the Earth’s Community of Life.

Jesus’ commission to the Church to, “preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins to all the nations,” ought to be understood within the broader context. That context is defined by God’s actions of creating, redeeming and sanctifying the world and it includes an invitation to a human-divine partnership in the ongoing mission of Jesus Christ.

Having recently spent a week among the Native people of South Dakota, I can’t help to think that, if Jesus were Lakota and spoke that language, he might have chosen to use the phrase “Mitakuye Oyasin,” when speaking about repentance and conversion.

The prophetic strands in our Judeo-Christian tradition do not allow us to fall into a trap of disembodied spirituality.   All too often, this kind of spirituality ignores the divine call for restorative justice as an essential element of conversion. And so, “preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” necessitates uncovering and addressing the root causes of injustices, speaking truth to power, making amends and peace with the land and all the creatures of the earth that God has entrusted to our care.

Today’s Gospel story makes it clear that Peter didn’t call his listeners to passively receive his message. Rather, he challenged them to very specific commitments aimed at turning their lives around, and transforming the world.

Allow me to offer you a compelling example of how to respond in the contemporary context to the risen Lord’s call to, “preach repentance to all the nations, for the forgiveness of sins.” This brings me to the religious Sisters of Loretto and Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. They have listened attentively to the voices from –as Pope Francis puts it – “the existential peripheries,” those whose native cultures have been violently oppressed; of those whose voices calling for dignity and freedom, have been stifled for too long. The Sisters clearly understand that, for the Church to evangelize, she must first be willing to be evangelized. And so, they’ve reached out to other women congregations within the LCWR, took on a prophetic mantle and wrote to Pope Francis. They have been appealing to him as the top leader of the Church to publicly repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and call on the settlers countries such as the United States to follow the lead of the Catholic Church and begin a process of healing and reconciliation with the indigenous communities such as Lakota. The Sisters insist that it’s critically important for us to do it as a Church; not only out of the sense of justice, but also for the sake of our credibility as the Body of Christ in the world.

In this critical time when we are witnessing the accelerating collapse of the life-support system of our planet and when the future of human civilization is so precarious, the Church needs to do everything it can to seek and act in unity with all other faith traditions. Together, we must spare no efforts to amplify our collective voice and champion restorative justice in order to safeguard God’s creation and save humanity. Our Native American brothers and sisters have a profound, Incarnational worldview and spirituality. They have a very important role to play in helping to safe and rebuild our common home – the Earth – that is falling into ruin.  In that context, the Church must make a special effort to avoid legitimizing or giving even tacit support for the powers of dominions that are bent on greed, violence and destruction. The Church can’t afford making more mistakes of myopic vision and triumphalism; neither can she remain on the sidelines in the struggle for a more just and sustainable world.

For us, members of the Franciscan family, it is an essential part of our vocation and prophetic duty to love, support and help the Mother Church to listen humbly to the voices from the peripheries, work together with other faith traditions to harness one another’s strengths and help to heal the world. Then, we’ll be able to re-shape our contemporary society and its institutions. At the present, deprived of the holistic vision, they can be compared to cancerous cells that, while growing, are also bringing about a destruction of the larger body.

May the Eucharist that we celebrate today and the power of Christ’s resurrection empower us to do what is ours to do in helping to steer the world onto a new course. It is our collective, beautiful journey towards a civilization of love and justice, wherein all members of Earth’s Community of Life could flourish and share in the glorious freedom of the Children of God.

Published in: on May 14, 2015 at 12:09 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. What a powerful homily! I want to spend more time reflecting on your message, but at this point I am especially grateful to learn of the Lakota phrase Mitakuya Oyasin: We are all related. Yes, how Franciscan. The more we can put this truth into practice, the more we will live in peace; Thank you, Fr. Orzechowski!

  2. Reblogged this on Felician Congregational Office for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation.

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