General Assembly poised to take up Native American concerns

The 224th General Assembly opened on June 19 with a number of procedural actions to allow the assembly to meet online and to limit the amount of business commissioners would have to conduct. However, there have been rumblings leading up the assembly that the docket was too streamlined and that significant matters of justice needed to be addressed this year.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, GA is meeting entirely online this year. The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) had recommended that the streamlined assembly consider only items determined to be “core and critical” – with the criteria for that being threefold, according to COGA vice moderator Stephanie Anthony:

  • That the item is so time-sensitive the assembly needs to address it now;
  • That not addressing it in 2020 would negatively affect PC(USA) finances;
  • That not addressing it would leave important leadership positions vacant.

Other items were recommended for referral to the 225th General Assembly in 2022.

After much discussion, the assembly moved only two items from the list of business to be referred to the 2022 assembly to the list of items to be discussed this year: a multipart recommendation from Presbyterian Mission Agency Board responding to issues raised by the Native American Coordinating Council (Native American Coordinating Council Report; 00-95), and the Native American Church Property Report (00-96) mandated by the 223rd GA.

Ruling elder commissioner Nelson Capitan from Presbytery of Santa Fe – who is a member of the Navajo Nation and married into the Pueblo of Laguna tribe in New Mexico – made a motion during the plenary session on June 19 to have the two items removed from the list of items recommended to be referred to the 2022 General Assembly, and instead to have those matters considered by the assembly this year.

Speaking to the motion, Capitan said: “A delay … would mean that in two years further deterioration of these properties, the ability of our Native American Indigenous peoples to use these properties to do their mission and ministry and the PC(USA)’s commitment to address these needs, which the PC(USA) has long dismissed and failed to address resulting in their current state of disrepair, would continue. Instead, let us consider these items at this assembly and address in a cogent intentional manner our commitment to right our past wrongs as a church.”

When asked this week why it was important to have these items addressed by this year’s assembly, Capitan added: “We don’t want to lose momentum on these things. A lot of the time, as Native People, we get lost in the shuffle. A lot of the major events that are going on keep putting our issues on the back burner. There has been some momentum for this, and we don’t want to wait another two decades for something to happen.”

Capitan’s statement echoed the comments of the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee (REAC) on the Native American Church Property Report: “Since the very beginnings of the Presbyterian presence in this hemisphere healthy, physical and spiritual neighborliness has NOT [sic] reflected the Christian characteristics of ‘loving neighbors.’”

The Native American Coordinating Council Report lays out a broad and ambitious plan for the PC(USA) to further live into its 2016 mandate to denounce the Doctrine of Discovery and repent for the harm done to Indigenous people in America. It seeks to extend for four more years mandates established in 2018 with regard to the Native American Coordinating Council under the Presbyterian Mission Agency, with continued financial and staff support.

The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board recommendation further calls for: a “Decade of Confession and Repentance” from 2020 to 2030; supporting the efforts of Indigenous nations to gain recognition as sovereign nations; and supporting the return of many Indigenous lands and territories to tribal authorities, including those owned by the PC(USA) or under government control. This assembly is convening without committees, which are much smaller and more nimble than the full assembly of over 500 commissioners and advisory delegates. So, it is unknown how the recommendation will be handled without the deep work often done in committee.

The Native American Church Property Report is a response to an overture from the Presbytery of Grand Canyon approved by the 223rd GA in 2018 as part of an effort to expand the 222nd GA’s denouncement of the Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine of Discovery paved the way for the near genocide of Native Americans over the last several hundred years and the enslavement of African people. The Presbytery of Grand Canyon’s overture called for an assessment of the 98 Native American Presbyterian churches and chapels across the U.S., 24 of which are within the geographic bounds of the Presbytery of Grand Canyon, and seek to repair them as needed. The overture passed committee and the assembly by a super majority in 2018. The Native American Coordinating Council’s report to this year’s assembly notes that 89 churches and chapels having been assessed to date and all of them require significant repairs.

However, the mandate to inventory Native American properties and conduct repairs goes back to at least the 212th GA in 2000. For at least 20 years, General Assembly has been developing and attempting to implement a “Comprehensive Strategy for Ministries with Native Americans,” with reports presented to every assembly since 2002. The Native American Coordinating Council made repeated requests for a property inventory and assessment. Native American churches and chapels within the PC(USA) continued to deteriorate, especially in remote communities with few resources.

Conrad Rocha, executive of the Synod of the Southwest, addressed the assembly during discussion on Capitan’s motion: “Today we began the meeting by acknowledging the lands upon which we find ourselves and the people who first inhabited these lands. Given that, how can we delay for two years a commitment to acknowledge our Native American siblings, the indigenous peoples of this land we call the United States of America. In this moment, as the stated clerk said, ‘Let us get off our blessed assurance’ and begin the act of reparation long overdue to our Native American indigenous siblings by lifting up and addressing [these items] as they relate to issues of justice long overdue.”

Brad Munroe, presbytery pastor for the Presbytery of Grand Canyon, upon hearing of the two items to be addressed by the assembly, stated plainly, “If we want to be a Matthew 25 denomination, [these overtures] are a no brainer.”

Munroe also said that the presbytery is not waiting for the denomination and has already begun repairing some Native American churches and chapels with endowment money gained as a result of property settlements from over a dozen congregations that chose to leave the PC(USA). As a result of departures, the presbytery’s endowment jumped from $1 million to $6 million, resulting in more endowment earnings available for such initiatives. Of course, any support from the Presbyterian Foundation and the rest of the denomination would go a long way toward helping complete those projects much quicker, and Munroe acknowledged that not every presbytery with Native American churches has the resources to do even the small number of projects Grand Canyon has begun.

When asked for further comment, Rocha said this week, “The bottom line is that as soon as we can start raising money, the better off we’ll be.” The Presbyterian Foundation established a designated fund for the repairs in 2019. But, according to Rocha, there has been little or no promotion of it.

ERIC LEDERMANN is pastor at University Presbyterian Church in Tempe, Arizona. When not spending time with his wife, two teenage children and two German shepherds, he is avidly reading, aspirationally writing, photographing the world, occasionally blogging or hosting the Brewcast at