Jason DeRose, NPR, October 6, 2023
Each Sunday, Culver City Presbyterian Church Pastor Frances Wattman Rosenau begins the worship service with these words:
“As we gather for worship this day, we acknowledge that the land on which we gather was for many generations stewarded by the Tongva, Kizh and Chumash people. We recognize the enduring presence of indigenous peoples connected to and on this land.”
Wattman Rosenau first began using a land acknowledgement to open services in 2017, after attending a conference in Canada that also opened sessions with a similar land acknowledgement. She took great care crafting the language for her congregation’s version—especially with one word in particular.
“Stewardship is a very theological word for us,” she says, “because it implies care, and providing, tending—a deep relationship.”
It’s a relationship with the earth Wattman Rosenau says Christians should emulate and a relationship with Native and Indigenous people they should cultivate. She hopes placing these words at the beginning of the service is leading her flock to both learn more about their Native neighbors and reflect on the historic violence toward Indigenous people perpetrated by churches during the era of colonization.
“As Christians, we have a deep, long tradition of repentance, of truth telling, speaking truth to power,” Wattman Rosenau says. “Repentance is not just so that we can wallow in the guilt, but so that there can be a mending. So that the things that have been broken can be healed.”
Healed from a long tradition of conquest and colonization started in the 15th Century during the Age of Exploration, including the time when Christopher Columbus arrived in North America. That tradition of claiming new lands for European powers is based on an idea now called the Doctrine of Discovery, says Nancy Pineda-Madrid, professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
Pineda-Madrid says the mindset was that explorers could take the land from people who were not Christians and assume the land in the name of Christianity.
Starting in the late 2000s, more than two dozen Protestant denominations in the U.S. and Canada as well as the World Council of Churches have voted to officially repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. Among them: Presbyterians, Lutherans, the United Church of Christ, United Methodists, and the Episcopal Church.
At St. Michael’s Episcopal Ministry Center in Riverside, Calif., Mary Crist leads worship and oversees the churches ministry to the unhoused.
She is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and an enrolled member of the Blackfeet of Montana.
In addition to her parish duties, Crist works nationally for the Episcopal Church to help the denomination go beyond acknowledgement through education of both clergy and laity – from making Episcopal seminaries more inclusive of Native students to helping average people in the pews understand Christianity’s often negative relationship with Indigenous peoples. She’s glad to be part of a church taking the work of reconciliation seriously and has formally repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery.
“I think that anyone who calls themselves Christian needs to ask why they wouldn’t want to repudiate that doctrine,” she says. “Because that doctrine was explicit in saying non-Christians are non-humans and without rights.”
The movement to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery had been largely based in Protestant churches, but many Roman Catholics around the world rejoiced earlier this year when Pope Francis also renounced the doctrine, says Loyola Marymount University theology professor Celilia González-Andrieu.
At Pasadena Mennonite Church in Southern California, member Tim Nafziger leafs through his denomination’s recently-published hymnal, Voices Together. It includes a template for land acknowledgements that each congregation can adapt with the names of local Native groups.
One concrete way Nafziger’s congregation is dismantling Christianity’s history of colonization is by working with a group of Apache, known as Apache-Stronghold, fighting the development of a copper mine in Oak Flats, Arizona. The proposed mine would be on land the group considers sacred.
When the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case in Pasadena earlier this year, church members gave tribal members beds to sleep in and meals to eat.