General Assembly takes sweeping action toward supporting Native American concerns

Despite the challenges of hosting a General Assembly entirely online due to the COVID-19 pandemic – and working without the aid of committees as with previous assemblies to do the deep dives into so many issues – commissioners to the 224th General Assembly are finding their way as they try to have meaningful discussions about the work and course of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) recommended that a streamlined assembly consider only items determined to be “core and critical” to the work of the church.  However, after much debate during the first plenary on June 19, only two items were pulled from a long list of business referred to the 225th General Assembly in 2022: the Native American Coordinating Council Report and the Native American Church Property Report, which was mandated by the 223rd General Assembly (2018). In two separate votes the 224th General Assembly passed both recommendations by a substantial super majority (446-12 and 446-9, respectively).

Nelson Capitan, ruling elder commissioner from the Presbytery of Santa Fe, who requested the items be considered at this month’s assembly, said afterward: “A lot of time, as Native people, we get lost in the shuffle. … There has been momentum for this, and we don’t want to wait another two decades for something to happen.” Capitan is referring to a mandate from the 212th GA in 2000 to have all Native American Presbyterian church properties inventoried — which was never completed.

As a result of the 223rd GA mandate, 89 of the 92 identified Native American churches and chapels have now been inventoried, assessed and slated for repairs ranging from roof replacements, heating and cooling systems improvements and foundation work.

The 224th General Assembly took up the two reports on June 26 with little in the way of opposition. There were questions about the cost of extending the mandate of the Native American Coordinating Council for four more years (a total of about $9,000 per year for 2021 and 2022 to allow the council to meet) and the repairs to the Native American properties.

Irvin Porter, associate for Native American Intercultural Congregational Support in the Presbyterian Mission Agency and a quarter-time pastor near Tacoma, Washington, told the assembly that much of the support to repair the churches is coming from presbyteries, synods and other Presbyterians who often contact him to arrange work groups that go these often remote communities. “Others,” he said during a teach-in event sponsored by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship prior to the plenary session, “may be more remotely located,” making it harder for them to create partnerships with judicatories and churches.

“The 92 Native American churches and chapels are using buildings that are sometimes over 100 years old,” he said as he and others introduced the recommendation to the assembly.

Maria Cacarnakis, ruling elder commissioner from San Gabriel Presbytery, asked: How many of the churches have viable congregations and how did they get to be in such a state of disrepair?

Steve Hirsh, coordinator for the Native American Church Property Task Force, stated plainly: “Time. Time is basically the problem when it comes to these churches deteriorating.”

Porter reiterated what he had shared during the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship event: “The reason for how they go into this situations in the first place is that these congregations do not have doctors and lawyers and professionals with high paying jobs in their congregations. Whatever they get in the offering plates is what they get.”

During the PPF event, Porter offered a ray of hope for this work, saying” “There is a ‘for instance’ in this, and that is Grand Canyon Presbytery. They have used funds to help these kinds of repairs for the Native congregations in Grand Canyon Presbytery, which there are about 26 in their bounds, using funds that came from departing congregations that have left the denomination.”

In response to the action of the 223rd GA (2018) to mandate the property assessment, the Presbyterian Foundation opened the Native American Churches fund. In the year or so since the fund was created, $10,275.00 have been given to it — with $10,000 of those gifts being from a donor-advised fund to which the board of trustees of the Foundation contributes, according to Robyn Davis-Sekula, vice president of communications and marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation.

“The fund was started as a direct result of the mandate of the 223rd General Assembly,” Davis-Sukula said in a phone interview. She also indicated that PMA is to be promoting the fund to the denomination, which they have in some of the email newsletters that are sent out.

GA began its work this year, as in past years, with a time for “land recognition,” during which the assembly was led in acknowledging that the land upon which the U.S. sits is land that belonged to the indigenous people who lived here long before European settlers claimed it. This has become a standard practice in many presbytery and synod meetings across the denomination in recent years, in an effort to increasingly recognize the harms committed against indigenous people by the church and by the U.S. government.