The Conejo Valley Interfaith Celebration of Thanks has attracted Mormon participation in the last few years. As a recent schism, the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) appears to feel obligated to broadcast its political alignments. That was expressed in rather lengthy and unexpected mini-sermons that celebrated freedom of religion and events during the formation of the United States that brought their presider, George Washington, to the conclusion that divine agency was at work.
I’ve offered my thoughts on separation of church and state before. But these specific observations resonated far more deeply in me.
On the birthday that marked the end of my seven of sevens year, I was out at Taos, New Mexica, where my parents shared that I was conceived in the mountains that in the last half of the twentieth century become known as “Sangre de Christo.” Without foresight, my visit coincided with the Taos pow-wow. I arrived early and settled under the awnings that had been raised around the circular field. I tried to quiet my thoughts and sink into the ground, not wanting to disturb the proceedings.
As I sat there meditating, one of the elders came up to the nearest drum circle and asked “Would you like to start us off?” I remarked upon my good fortune, and let the wild thrum and staccato percussion wind its way through me. It drove me deeper and out, again the familiar stranger riding on a celebration of life. It wasn’t all simple – a just grief fills the people. I accepted their judgment, and drifted through it towards a red veil.
Piercing it, I found myself with Tecumseh, the Shawnee warrior-shaman who had rallied the Indians against the perfidy of William Harrison, then governor of the Indiana territory. When he turned his attention to me, his great hunger found its way to our first African-American president. In self-consolation, he observed “So there is some justice.”
Tecumseh’s summation of the Native American experience of the European invasion is compelling:
Brothers, we all belong to one family; we are all children of the Great Spirit; we walk in the same path; slake our thirst at the same spring; and now affairs of the greatest concern lead us to smoke the pipe around the same council fire! Brothers, we are friends; we must assist each other to bear our burdens. The blood of many of our fathers and brothers has run like water on the ground, to satisfy the avarice of the white men. We, ourselves, are threatened with a great evil; nothing will pacify them but the destruction of all the red men. Brothers, when the white men first set foot on our grounds, they were hungry; they had no place on which to spread their blankets, or to kindle their fires. They were feeble; they could do nothing for themselves. Our fathers commiserated their distress, and shared freely with them whatever the Great Spirit had given his red children. They gave them food when hungry, medicine when sick, spread skins for them to sleep on, and gave them grounds, that they might hunt and raise corn. Brothers, the white people are like poisonous serpents: when chilled, they are feeble and harmless; but invigorate them with warmth, and they sting their benefactors to death. The white people came among us feeble; and now that we have made them strong, they wish to kill us, or drive us back, as they would wolves and panthers.
Only thirteen years after Tecumseh’s death, Joseph Smith reported his encounter with the angel Moroni, guardian of the teachings of the Book of Mormon. As many, I did not conjoin the two events. But when I read the book, having been given a copy by my supervisor at work, I clearly heard this heart-broken plea from the angels entrusted to guide the Native American peoples:
We will submit to the authority of your Christ. We will chain our people to the glory of your nation. But please, be merciful: Do not destroy our children!
I doubt that the speakers at Wednesday’s event will read these words, but I wonder how they would react, given their celebration of American exceptionalism including freedom of religion, to an understanding that their faith originated in a desperate attempt to survive cultural aggression of the worst kind – one of the two great Holocausts of America’s founding.
While I only spent a few months with the man who shared the Book of Mormon with me, we had several conversations after hours on religious and cultural topics, in which he struggled in particular with my support for same-sex marriage. What made those conversations memorable, however, was the phenomenon that accompanied them: the room would fill with light as we spoke. It was clear to me that my friend was seeking for Christ with all his heart.
A year or two later, the day after the pow-wow in Taos, I encountered an Indian elder in the pueblo craft shop. We fell to talking about his experience as an artist, which started with silver jewelry in the aftermath of his service in World War II. I asked how he learned the skill, and he said “I taught myself.” I bought a two-throated vase, noticing the defects of hand crafting. As we spoke, I walked to the door and looked out into the afternoon sky, feeling his awareness spread with mine. After wrapping the purchase, he concluded the encounter with these words:
I feel that we have touched the world today.
We need these people so much – their humility, their love of nature, their patience. I hope that if Christ should choose to return to them the power that he received in trust from the Great Spirit, the people that have assumed the name of Mormon will not fight against that restoration.