In a sermon she preached this summer to General Assembly, Sadongei spoke of listening for God — suggesting that “the answers we’re waiting for will come in God’s time and not necessarily in our time constraints.” But she told the task force that listening and waiting patiently for the answer isn’t always the Presbyterian way.
Sadongei is from the Kiowa nation; her mother was from the Tohono O’odham nation. She stressed that she wasn’t speaking for all Native peoples, just of those traditions. And she said she was raised with a strong sense of community, and the understanding that it wasn’t proper to think only of the individual. The language of the traditional peoples have no personal pronouns, Sandongei said — “there is no `I’ in our languages.” She was taught, “You don’t talk about yourself” — to write a personal narrative for a college entrance exam, she had to get past the idea of “how rude it is to speak of `I.’ “
So when she or others from her community speak, “we don’t speak for ourselves, but for those who come behind us,” always aware that whatever they say has a bearing on others. “So decision-making in our communities is a long process,” Sadongei said.
Sadongei, a pastor from Arizona, said she’s had to learn to adapt to the predominantly white culture of the Presbyterian church — she’s constantly switching back and forth between cultures, and said “it’s a real struggle for Indian people living in both worlds.” Presbyteries sometimes get frustrated with Native American churches when those congregations are slow to meet deadlines or turn in paperwork, she said. But her people think, “If it’s ready, we’ll turn it in. If it’s not, so what? An emergency on your part is not an emergency on our part . . . Give us time to think about it.”
Often, in the task force meetings, Sadongei is quiet for long stretches — although when she speaks, people sit up to hear what she has to say. She has also asked for a less hectic schedule — for less to be jammed onto the agenda, for more time to reflect.
At her session meetings, things are done very differently, Sadongei said. There’s an agenda, but people aren’t stuck on it. If the meeting’s supposed to start at 9:30, they’re not always there promptly at that time — the idea is, come starting at 9:30, or after that, and when folks get there the meeting will begin. People talk, about their families, what’s happening in their lives, and yes, in time, about the business of the meeting too. If they feel ready to make a decision, they will. If not, they’ll wait for another day.
The decision-making is “spirit-driven,” Sadongei said. And when a choice is made, “those decisions stand. They’re not taken back.”
Oliver, a pastor from Georgia, argued that for the body of Christ to really be whole, it needs all the parts, not just the white European ones. And he questions whether, at a “gut level,” Presbyterians understand that all the parts are vital, they won’t have the full revelation of God.
Oliver spoke in part of his own experience, saying that in 1963, he and two other African American students were chosen to help desegregate the schools in Hampton, Va., and that “part of my journey is still trying to detox from that experience.”
He played football, and recounted how his high school team had lost its first four games. When coach asked why, Oliver answered it was because whenever he was open, no one would pass him the ball. They looked at the game films, and the coach saw Oliver was right. So he told the team it didn’t matter what they thought of him, but “when Lonnie Oliver catches the ball and goes across the goal line, Hampton gets six points.” After that, his team started to win.
Oliver also spoke of his mother, a woman of deep faith and an instinctive understanding of the importance of the Bible. With only a grade-school education, she couldn’t read all the words, but as she read the Bible she mouthed the words, guessing what they might be.
“There was a spirit inside her that said, `This book is important,’ ” Oliver said of his mother. She understood that “the Bible was used to oppress us, to keep us down,” but also to liberate African Americans. (“Didn’t the Lord deliver Daniel?” Oliver asked.)
Like his mother, his community is by nature spiritual, sensing the connections between people and God and nature, Oliver said. “We don’t talk about whether we believe in God. God is. God is part of us.”
Oliver said he’s interested in the wholeness of things — how God speaks through the influences and insights of many cultures, how what he’s exposed to through the task force can also help his congregation, how things are understood through the heart and through experience — the oral tradition, what’s passed down — as well as through the mind.
And there is a sense in his church that “God is in charge,” so Oliver said he doesn’t worry about things — not even the task force’s difficult work, because he believes “that God is in this.” That also means he welcomes creativity, spontaneity, flexibility, the unexpected, because “that’s how God operates.”
JOSE LUIS TORRES-MILAN
When Torres-Milan speaks, stories flow easily — stories of his family, his church in Puerto Rico, the history of his experiences some years before that as pastor of a multi-ethnic congregation in Los Angeles. And Torres-Milan listens for the stories of others — he wants to know what’s on their minds and hearts.
Torres-Milan presented to the task force the idea of “life as a sacrament” — that community matters, praying for one another, paying attention to what’s happening in one another’s lives. When he goes to meetings of his session or presbytery, people don’t start right in with business. They’ll ask, “Hey, Joe, how’s your family” — because they know Joe’s family or what he’s said about them, they remember what good and hard things are happening with those people, and they care.
Torres-Milan also is conscious of how it’s not uncommon, in a predominantly white denomination, for things to happen that make him question whether there really is a place for people of color, for someone like him. His family has been Presbyterian for many generations, but when Torres-Milan was called to a congregation some years ago in the Los Angeles area, he was asked questions by the committee of ministry that indicated to him they thought he might have come from a Catholic background — the type of questions, he said, that he found out later were asked of other Spanish-speaking ministers as well.
And when the task force at first resisted the idea of making a Spanish-language version of a videotape it’s preparing to make available to the rest of the church — an idea that was first pushed aside, when he raised it, as being too expensive — Torres-Milan did not let the matter rest. He thought about it overnight, prayed about it, then the next morning told the task force he thought that was a wrong decision — and that the lack of consideration given to the concern he presented also raised questions in his mind about how open to diversity the task force was willing to be.
Sadongei said she, Torres-Milan and Oliver talked about it, about how “right away that knee-jerk reaction was it’s too expensive, we just can’t do it” in Spanish or Korean, even though the PC(USA) says publicly that those are important groups within the church.
“The impression I got, and I know we’ve kind of talked about it, was well then, where do we belong?” Sadongei asked. “Those kinds of words said to me you’re a problem. In this case it was a financial problem . . . And for the first time I really questioned, `Do I belong, not only to this church but to this committee?’ I’m glad to say it’s resolved” — the task force did decide to pursue making versions of the videotape in Spanish and Korean. But with that kind of knee-jerk reaction — and that white-focused way of doing things — “we don’t realize the pain that we cause,’ Sandongei said.