They sat in the section of chairs to the far right in the "Celebration Center." Ten women dressed in brightly colored dresses with beads and beautiful embroidery spread out in a section that holds forty or fifty people. Some sat in silence, others nervously pulled at their clothes and paced around the front. One looked for a safety pin, calling out to all who gathered early, worried that her apron was hanging too loosely. Another checks to make sure all of them had their song books. One left hers in the hotel room. Her roommate laughs and asks, "What did I tell you this morning? Huh? What did I tell you?"
They are from different tribes, located in a region that spans three states. All of them are pastors, students, mothers, and employees in jobs outside the church and home. They were invited to lead worship for the second day of a conference of clergywomen for their region of the denomination to which they belong.
It snowed five or six inches the night before, so the conference participants were slowly trickling in. I arrived early to tear down my display and load it up to leave as soon as the opening worship is over. One of our students belongs to the group leading worship. I wanted to hear her prayer, to be a supportive presence. She shared with me the night before that she was nervous, that they were all nervous.
They opened with music, nine of them standing like a choir, each dressed in the traditional style for women of her tribe. Another stood in front of them to lead them. They sang several hymns in the different languages of the tribes from which they come. They are Methodist, so they have made a commitment to itineracy. For them, that means learning the languages of new tribes each time they move to a new church. All of them are multi-lingual.
I sat and listened, aware of a growing discomfort. I watched as they stood representing cultures that have been overtaken by western ways and felt sadness for the losses they've experienced. I heard the tunes of hymns so familiar to me that I could sing them in my own language without looking at a hymnal. They are part of my culture, many of them passed down through many generations, and the best way I know to describe the feeling in my gut hearing them sung in the languages of Native American people is disonance.
I wonder what they would sing if Christianity, the faith of a foreign people trying to escape persecution in another world, hadn't been imposed on their ancestors. The host pastor for the conference thanked them as we transitioned from worship to the plenary session. She told them what a blessing it was to have them share their culture with us.
I slipped out and got into my car to begin the long drive home, and as I drove, I was haunted by the questions, "Why does it make us westerners feel so good to hear our story sung in another's language?"