Rev. Irvin Porter, pastor at Church of the Indian Fellowship, shares his remarks from September 17 Presbytery meeting:
I bring you greetings from Church of the Indian Fellowship where I serve as Pastor and also from the Presbyterian Church, USA, for whom I serve as Associate for Native American Congregational Support. Thank you for this invitation to share.
Church of the Indian Fellowship was founded in 1876 by Presbyterian missionaries as a mission for the Puyallup people. In 1950 it became Church of the Indian Fellowship and continues to serve the Native populations of Pierce Country.
The congregation is classified as a “reservation congregation” by the PCUSA because it sits on tribal land of the Puyallup tribe. In fact the congregation does not own this property as of 1975 when the deed was returned to the tribe since it was never purchased by the federal government who gave them the deed.
Yet, the church does reside, realistically, within the Tacoma City limits and for all intents and purposes exists as an urban congregation too.
It’s 56 members and friends are about 75% Native American from many different tribes of which I represent three!
The 25% that is not Native American ethnically are White, Hispanic and African-American.
Though the name of the church seems to emphasize “Indian” it is not exclusively an “Indian” or “Native American” congregation.
I myself am descended from three Indian tribes, Pima, T’hono O’odham and Nez Perce, as well as an English/Norwegian grandmother. So in that way I represent this congregation as a diversity of cultures.
Story: Diversity at Church of the Indian Fellowship does not only imply a diversity of racial cultures but also of tribal cultures as well. Though the congregation was founded as a mission to the Puyallup people there is only one active Puyallup family who are members there though we have many visitors from throughout the tribe.
*Zohndra H. is a 16 year old member of our congregation. She is both Native American through her father’s heritage and African-American through her mother’s heritage.
About 2007, her mother decided to send Zohndra to Sunday school. Her mother had been friends with a Native American family who are members. Eventually, the mother started attending and quickly came to love the congregation because, as she once put it, “I could be myself and nobody judged me.” Her name was Deidra. She eventually became a Deacon and sadly died in January of 2014.
Deidra’s siblings and cousins began to find their way to Church of the Indian Fellowship and her cousin, Tamika, became a member and is now a Deacon as well.
This congregation has done multicultural not in the way that the denomination is encouraging, going out and bringing them in purposely, but through a very Native American cultural way: encouraging people to visit, return and make up their own minds about who we are as a Body of Christ.
People who attend services can come as they are and fashion statements do not exist there.
We are all sinners saved by the grace of Jesus Christ so a person’s past does not disqualify them for anything.
We are Presbyterian in worship style though allow time for sharing which is a uniquely Native American cultural trait. Some churches call it “a time for witnessing” but we call it “a time of sharing the blessings that God has given” to us. Even the pastor gets in on this as I share with the congregation after my many travels to visit Native congregations, conferences and other travels.
Time is not linear at Church of the Indian Fellowship. We do not adhere closely to a 60-minute worship timeframe. Times of “sharing” can be extensive but as in Native American culture, all are given the opportunity to speak.
People feel they have a place they can share openly and that they aren’t judged. Some of the sharing are updates on past struggles which God is helping them through.
When people ask what time our worship service ends, I tell them between 12:00 and 12;15. Basically, for us, when God’s Holy Spirit tells us to go eat!
Though our language is English our connection to tribal cultures, while once prohibited by missionaries, inform our spiritual journeys.
In that way, I share Nez Perce translated hymns, at times, prior to my sermons because, as I tell the congregation, we need to be reminded that God doesn’t only speak English.
If you have ever shared a meal at Church of the Indian Fellowship I challenge you to tell me you left hungry! We like to eat, obviously! Our many Indian Taco Sales not only help with fundraising efforts but are also a time of fellowship with church family and friends throughout the community.
What have you learned though that story:
Diversity is not just inviting people of other races or cultures to worship and participate in the life of a church. It is who that church is.
We have been open to all who love and serve the Lord. Have we had some problems with acceptance at times? Yes – human beings do this. But we have approached apprehensions with the Love of Jesus Christ.
We have learned and been reminded that the church exists not for “Indian” or “Native American” people exclusively, though that is why it was founded as a mission in 1876. The Church is the body of Christ – open to all who seek to follow Jesus Christ, our Wonderful Counselor, our Mighty God, our Everlasting Father.
Olympia Presbytery, Synod of Alaska-Northwest and the PCUSA need Committees on Representation.
The Committee on Representation helps:
Develop lines of communication that will nurture collegiality and trust and strengthen relationships among congregations. This new sense of connection can open new visions and dreams as the Spirit leads.
Serve our world in love, justice and peace: Promote mission participation across the Presbytery, including the evaluation of current mission projects and mission funding.
Supports our churches, pastors and leaders: Supports those who carry out ministry, education and mission in the Presbytery and its member congregations.
And it can support children, youth and young adults for a life of discipleship through faith development and spiritual nurture beyond their own experiences.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” (Matthew 28:19). The purpose of the church is to develop disciples. The purpose of the Presbytery is to support this process.
We have a spiritual mandate to follow Jesus’ calling to go forth and make disciples of not just people who look like us or who live like us or speak the same language as us. No, we are sent out to follow Jesus’ calling to make disciples of all people.
Thank you. Amen.
*In my remarks printed above, I failed to mention that Zohndra H. is now the Secretary for the American Indian Youth Council of the PCUSA.