Becca Roller stood proudly on the corner of Fourth Street and Walker Street. Smiling, with tears streaming down her cheeks, she clapped as the procession of hundreds made its way from John Stewart United Methodist Church to the Mission Church and cemetery one-mile away.
“I think that today was a long time coming,” she told me. “We’ve always held the Wyandotte in a high esteem because this was their home first. This community wouldn’t be here if not for them.”
Roller was just one of many who lined the streets on a sunny September Saturday morning to witness history as representatives from the City of Upper Sandusky, the State of Ohio, The United Methodist Church, the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma, the Wyandotte of Anderdon Nation, and the Wyandot Nation of Kansas participated in a ceremony that saw returned to the Wyandot/te people land and the Mission Church that it had entrusted to the Methodist Church in 1843.
“Today means the closing of a circle in the fact that at one point this was Wyandotte land,” said Pastor Betsy Bowen. “They had their religion here, they had John Stewart their missionary who came in 1816 on a call from God, and, at that point, they had their church, they had their friends, they had their homes and for that 27 years it worked between the Wyandot/tes and the Methodists. But then the government stepped in and they were forced from their homes and on that day when they left there were tears, not just the Wyandot/tes but from the people they were leaving behind.”
“It’s a miracle that the church is standing and is in the shape that it is today. That’s a testament to this local community and to this group and their dedication and commitment to preserving not only their history but preserving our history for us,” said Chief Billy Friend of the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma.
After presenting a $10,000 check to Bowen to help with the continued upkeep of the Mission Church, which was rebuilt using the original stones in 1889, Friend thanked the committee from John Stewart UMC that has maintained the property for the past 60 years, and, that, for the past 50 years has taught local school children about the history of the land and those who called it home.
“We would not be celebrating this day if it had not been for those people who dedicated and committed themselves – you know our mission in the Wyandot/te Nation for our tribal culture is to preserve the future of our past, and that is what you have done for us and we’ll forever be indebted to you for that,” he said. “In Wyandot/te we say tizameh (pronounced tih-zhuh-may), ‘thank you.’”
Rev. Chebon Kernell, executive secretary of The United Methodist Church Native American Comprehensive Plan reminded those gathered outside the Mission Church that while not all chapters of the journey between the Wyandot/te and the Methodists over the years have been ones of which we could each be proud, this act of restoration is another step in the right direction.
“A new chapter of recognition and intentionality began with a statement by The United Methodist Council of Bishops in 2012 about embarking on a journey toward healing relationships with Indigenous people. And so, we are in a steady, growing, yet incomplete attempt to come to a place of healing,” he said.
Bishop Tracy S. Malone, resident bishop of the East Ohio Conference, and Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, resident bishop of the West Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church, committed that:
“As Bishops, as leaders of The United Methodist Church, we will advocate among our peers for the increased awareness of and support given to Indigenous ministries within our annual conferences and episcopal areas. In our conferences, we will cultivate opportunities for advocacy, dialogue, repentance, and participation in new and meaningful ways. We will remember, elevate, and lift up in prayer contemporary issues facing indigenous people, including missing and murdered women and children. We will seek resources and opportunities for justice, and we will seek to strengthen and support leadership development in Native American communities. We will work toward healing.”
Rev. Dan Hawk, chair of the East Ohio Conference Native American Awareness Committee sees great significance in returning the land to the Wyandot/te Nation.
“John Wesley drawing on John the Baptist talked about bringing forth fruits of repentance and part of our whole Methodist ethos is that it’s not just enough to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ We look toward repairing the damage and healing the hurt and this is one small but, I think, significant step in repentance, reconciliation, restoration, one step in a long journey but it tangibly lives out our commitment to walk in acts of repentance and even though it’s a small plot of land the very fact that we’re giving back land speaks volumes, I believe, about us and to our indigenous brothers and sisters.”
EOC Director of Multicultural Vitality Will Jones sees returning the land as living out the restoration story of the Gospel.
“There’s kind of this process I see of acknowledging that we’ve done harm and then the next step, that we sometimes don’t get to, is this act of restoration and act of repentance so we’re really living into what the General Church has voted on and decided at General Conference but we’re also living into what it means to live like Christ in the world.”
Prior to the transfer of land, a traditional Wyandot/te pipe ceremony was held to bless the grounds and everyone who steps foot on the grounds – that they be at peace with themselves, be at peace with the Creator, and that they be at peace with one another. During the silent prayer which uses smoke to carry words to the Creator, participants faced East, then South, then West, then North before looking down to the Earth and up to God the Father.
General Board of Global Ministries General Secretary Thomas Kemper, on behalf of The United Methodist Church, then returned to the Wyandot/te People the deed for the tract of land that includes a burial ground and the Mission Church, where Methodist Missionary John Stewart began his work with the Wyandot/te.
“From this holy ground arises renewed friendship between the Wyandot/te and the people called Methodist to walk together into a future of shared experience, respect, and growing friendship. From this ground, sanctified by death, grows hope and new life in a common struggle to live out God’s love and justice in this world. Chief Billy Friend, on behalf of the Methodist people and the Methodist mission I return to you and the Wyandotte People and Nation the land entrusted to us 176 years ago. We have indeed buried friends here. May God continue to bless our friendship. May God continue to use us so that together we preserve the past so we can fight for a just, inclusive and joint future for all of us. May God bless us,” he said to the applause of hundreds.
“Today is a powerful witness of how God continues to use the Church as an instrument of healing, hope and transformation. The transfer of the land and the act of remembrance and repentance created an authentic path for creating and restoring the relationship between The United Methodist Church and the Wyandot/te peoples. God is always reconciling and making all things new!” Malone exclaimed.
“There is so much more that we have before us but it’s a journey,” Hawk said. “This isn’t the end, it’s a beginning, it’s a step in that direction. But I think it guides us and gives us a good trajectory to move forward and to build on.”
If you have a story of how God is using your local church to transform the community, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The East Ohio Conference Communications team wants to tell your story.
*Rick Wolcott is the director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.