In order to understand the perspective in which this article is written I must first introduce myself. I am an enrolled member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma on my father’s side, and of the Tohono O’odham Nation of southern Arizona on my mother’s side. I was reared with dual understandings of my cultural and Christian heritage — and God, the Creator, has gifted me with the knowledge that comes from each. I also thank my professors at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary who encouraged me to use Native lenses in my studies. These lenses have helped me greatly in my ministry with and among our Native American Presbyterian communities.
As I started to write this article, my first reaction was: “I can tell you what peace is not.” Too often we think of peace as the absence of violence, but that is not the complete picture. Yet neither is peace just holding hands, feeling good about ourselves and patting ourselves on the back for our willingness to hold hands with a person of a different skin color. Peace is not a kumbaya moment. It is not something we see.
Peace comes from being balanced deep within ourselves, in our personal lives, in our communal lives and in the world around us. My Tohono O’odham grandfather taught us that everything has its place, a purpose, a life. As I walked with him and my mother in the desert as a child, I started kicking a rock ahead of us down the road. But the first time I did this, I found that when we arrived at our destination, he told me to go and put the rock back where it was before I had started to kick it. I had kicked it away from where it belonged, and I needed to put it back in its place.
Similarly, when we walked through the desert shrubbery, my grandfather would caution us children not to break the branches, but simply to push them aside. He understood that everything has life and everything has a purpose and a place within the creation. It was all about keeping that balance.
In our society today, we too often find ourselves overscheduled with meeting after meeting on Zoom. We are driven by deadlines to write and file reports, to prepare for Sunday mornings, project deadlines and even article deadlines. We also have responsibilities in the household: to make sure everything is in working order, to clean, to take the dog to the vet and to remember all the sporting events on the family schedule. We try to watch the news, but we just get depressed or angry. We find ourselves being led by so many things that we even forget to take care of ourselves.
We become unbalanced, and find ourselves quick to be angry, to be resentful, to lash out. We are tired yet restless. We are out of balance and there is no peace. But if we can find the balance deep within ourselves, then we can do all those things with neither the pressure we put on ourselves nor the pressure that has been put upon us.
But how can we find that peace?
For me, it means getting away. In my work as the Native American consultant for the southern churches in Grand Canyon Presbytery, I visit churches to meet with their sessions or even moderate their sessions. Most are located on the reservations surrounding the Phoenix metropolitan area. To get to them, I travel through chaotic interstates and highways for an hour or so, but once I am on the reservation, the pace slows down. One church I visit is north of Phoenix on the edge of the Sonoran Desert. When I visit that church, I see the ocotillo, the saguaros and all that this beautiful desert holds. To get there, I travel about five miles off the busy highway, passing many homes and fields of cotton. On this slower drive I see coyotes, herds of javelina, hawks and, on rare occasions, a bald eagle flying above. After a meeting I have been known to linger a little, to lean against my car and look at the Four Peaks that are the sacred mountains for this people. They are sometimes snow-capped and sometimes covered with low hanging clouds, but mostly they stand out against the azure sky. I feel the wind blow away all that keeps my mind cluttered with deadlines. The wind carries away that which keeps my soul jumpy as I try to achieve all that needs to be done right now and that keeps me harnessed to the chaotic world. I have learned over the years to take the time on these short trips out to this church to smell the desert, especially after the rains. I pause to smell the wet creosote that refreshes the souls of those who take deep breaths and let this medicinal plant work its magic.
It is a cleansing that takes place if only I take the time. I am refreshed. I am renewed. It is as if I have returned to my baptismal moment and have been filled with the Spirit again. I am balanced. I am at peace, deep within.
On day my cousin asked me, “How is it you are handling this COVID-19 so well?” She worries for herself, her family, her colleagues and her students. Death is all around her as she loses family members and colleagues to this disease. It almost keeps her paralyzed. “It doesn’t seem to bother you,” she said to me. “Why is that?”
But it does bother me. I too am worried about my family. I have lost people, both friends of the church and personal friends. It does bother me that I cannot be with families face to face in their time of grief to give them a hug, to share words of comfort and assurance and to hear their stories of their loved one. I am scared for myself as I try to keep safe during this crazy time. I worry about the members of the congregation I serve — especially our elders and our children.
But if I let the fear of this disease consume most of my waking hours, then I will be out of balance. If we let fear, anger, resentment, prejudices, politics or conspiracy theories consume us, there will be no calm. There will be no peace. We will truly become the frozen chosen.
So, I take the time to regain my centering in the midst of this creation. Take a drive, go for a walk, relax in a park, reread a favorite book, step outside to see and feel the sun and wind and smell the wet earth, the new-mown lawn, the cherry blossoms of spring. These are simple reminders that these things of the Creator are greater than any deadline, any schedule and any busyness that keeps us from noticing them.
We have been given these amazingly simple reminders from the very beginning. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and it was balanced. God created all the plants and all living things — the two-legged, the four-legged, the winged, and the creatures of the sea, and they were balanced. God did not create one over the other, naming one to be superior to all, nor did God create sides. God created all to live in balance. It was, and remains, the peaceful kingdom of God.
I believe we were meant to be creatures of balance, creatures of peace. In our yearning to please, to demonstrate faithfulness to God, we have taken it to extremes to the detriment of a generation of Native Americans, losing language, culture and tradition. We have unknowingly created a struggle that pits church against people. There is an imbalance in our Native churches, left over from those early missionary teachings, that our language and culture are ways of the devil.
In this day, when Indian schools teach language and culture as part of their curricula in order to instill pride and not embarrassment, our Native churches need to hear the good news that our languages and cultures are gifts from God and are not evil. Our churches need to welcome those who drum and sing and those who dance traditionally in order to find their balance. If we can do that, our attendance may just increase! But it is about balance deep within, even in the church.
When the church is unbalanced there is trouble. Conflict can cause great pain, pitting members against members. Feeling like they must choose sides, folks may leave rather than pick a side. If they leave, they may not return. But for those who remain and do the work of rediscovering their faith through new lenses and of reminding themselves what the church is about and what its mission is, there can come a positive outcome. They can be the church that God has called them to be, do the work God has called them to do and become peacemakers. The work is not easy, but it is worth the effort to be a church at peace.
When you find your balance, it is amazing what you can do. I think of many of our civil rights activists: Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and the many who walked beside them and endured suffering, but did not give up working for equality for all people. For as much as their work took them to various cities, their faith led them to moments when they could be with family or lead a Bible study or preach on a Sunday morning, leaving the streets and the crowds behind. And isn’t that what Jesus did? Jesus took those moments to get away from the crowd, to go to the hills and pray, to be alone, to feel the wind, to smell the earth and to be refilled by the Spirit. Maybe he too recalled his baptismal moment and was renewed to face the crowds again and continue his ministry in balance, in peace.
Peace is more than a word we toss around to the point of not knowing what it means. Peace is not an emotion. We are familiar with its meaning as a noun: a state of order, tranquility or quiet. But if we want peace, we must wield it as a verb. As the song says, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” Peace begins with the individual work we must do to find the balance within our lives.
That is God’s peace. It took walking back and returning the rock to its place to learn the importance of being balanced. There is peace for the rock and for me.
Martha Sadongei is part-time stated supply pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in Phoenix. Central is the only organized urban intertribal congregation in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).