Last year, Rev. Dr. Kelly Sherman-Conroy and two colleagues traveled to the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss the liturgy, weekly reflextions, and Bible Study they had been asked to create for the 2023 International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. “They wanted the perspective of Black and Indigenous people,” said Sherman-Conroy, who is Lakota.
What should have been positive experience was traumatic, as Sherman-Conroy’s Christianity was called into question.
The World Council of Churches asked the Minnesota Council of Churches (MCC) for help creating the 2023 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity event. The request came in 2020, after the police murder of George Floyd had put Minneapolis in the international spotlight.
Sherman-Conroy was one of several people MCC asked to serve on a committee to design the event. They worked on it for a year and a half.
She recalled one of the committee meetings, held outdoors at Bdote, the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, a sacred site to the Dakota people; the place of their creation story.
(Bdote also was the site where Sherman-Conroy’s great-great-great grandmother, a member of the Santee Dakota, was imprisoned following the 1862 Dakota-U.S. War. “She was imprisoned because people didn’t take the time to understand who she was, who her people were, how we saw the world, how we saw God in the world,” Sherman-Conroy said.)
Sitting near the river, she recalled how she grew up understanding water. “As Christians, we know when we see water, we know that God created the Earth,” she said. “Water is Life.”
The group decided to use rocks and water as a unifying theme throughout the liturgy. It also would address issues of racism and colonization.
Fast forward to the 2022 meeting in Geneva, where a small group from MCC met to discuss the liturgy, reflexions, and related study materials they proposed. They sat with World Council of Churches’ members, many of them from the Vatican.
To Sherman-Conroy’s dismay, the review committee started cutting the liturgy apart. She remembered thinking: “They asked for our voice … but they started correcting our insight in how we saw the world.”
A Vatican representative was running the meeting, and asked about the proposal’s underlying theology. “He says to me, ‘I need you to explain to me, why water? … And why rocks?'”
Sherman-Conroy explained their reasoning.
“And he looked at me, and he said — in a room full of people — ‘That’s great. When we come back from break, we’ll figure out how to write it so it’s Christian.'”
Sherman-Conroy wanted to slink away, she said. She wanted to yell.
She stood her ground and spoke her truth.
“I said: ‘Wait a second. What you just told me is that all of who I am doesn’t fit in your definition as a Christian.'”
The man just sat there, she said. No one else in the room spoke up, other than one of her colleagues from Minnesota.
Sherman-Conroy went on to describe how hurtful the man’s statement was, she said. That the wisdom and knowledge she carries, what she teachers seminarians, students and people in general, isn’t something scary.
“I am a Native theologian, because I’m Native and I’m a theologian. But what I teach is theology. Not Native theology. I teach God. And I grew up understanding that God is in and amongst everything.”
The man never seemed to understand why his comment was hurtful and inappropriate, she said. “The remainder of the time he avoided me.”
As Sherman-Conroy saw it, the World Council of Churches’ group had difficulty facing the issues of colonization and racism the liturgy and related materials raised.
“Attempting to convince them of the impacts the Doctrine of Discovery had — and continues to have — was traumatic,” Sherman-Conroy wrote. “Constantly having to explain why we wrote what we wrote” was equally difficult.
Post Script: The International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity this year is Jan. 18-25.
Sherman-Conroy said it was difficult to retain the liturgy’s original words and reflections. The Vatican’s delegates had the final say.
The instructions sent to churches around the world to prepare for worship that week include the following:
The connection between stone and water in the Native Minnesota context is about understanding the value and importance of life. In most Native American wisdom, water and stone occupy sacred positions. Water is life and stones represent the sacredness of the ground upon which many generations have stood. All of creation is endowed with the Spirit of God, therefore we are all related. Two symbols will be used in the worship service: water, representing our baptism into new life and stone representing our personal and ancestral history.Resource document for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Update: Sherman-Conroy said people can trust the liturgy and other materials that are out there.: “Although there are some editorial changes, the group of us did accept the version that is out there and it is still telling our stories and powerful. Although the back story had struggles, the end result still maintains what we wanted enough for people to think about and experience. So they can have confidence it what is out there.”
3 thoughts on “Rocky backstory to 2023 ‘International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity’”
My heart aches. Gratitude to Reverend Sherman-Conroy and to you, Scott, for bringing this forward.
Is it possible to obtain the liturgy’s original words and reflections that the Minnesota
delegation provided to the World Council of Churches? That would be the version that would have meaning for my group as opposed to the sanitized version of the Vatican’s delegates.
Ely, MN and Mesa, AZ
Betsy: Thank you for your question. I asked Kelly and here is her response. “Although there are some editorial changes, the group of us did accept the version that is out there and it is still telling our stories and powerful. Although the back story had struggles, the end result still maintains what we wanted enough for people to think about and experience. So they can have confidence [in] what is out there.”