Vancouver-Area Church Uses Christian, Indigenous Traditions

The Columbian

VANCOUVER, Wash. (AP) _ The Rev. Joe Scheeler thinks Christian and Native American spiritual journeys aren't so different from one another, nor are they incompatible.

``The closer you look, the more alike we are,'' he said.

God. The creator.

Hymnals. Native songs with drums and flutes.

Holy communion. Sacred pipe ceremonies.

Confession. Sweat lodges.

Scheeler, 67, is the vicar at All Saints Episcopal Church, a west Hazel Dell church that blends Christian and Native American traditions in its services. Scheeler belongs to the Lenape tribe. His family's ``ancestral stew'' also inlucdes Ojibwe, Cree, Northern Cheyenne and Assiniboine tribes, in addition to being Irish, French and German. All Saints has families that are Mohawk, Yakama and Nez Pearce.

Every Sunday Scheeler plays his flute and there are some Native American prayers, including an Onondaga gathering prayer:

Today we have gathered, and when we look upon the faces around us, we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now let us bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as people. Now our minds are one.

On Good Friday, a holiday commemorating Jesus' crucifixion that's typically marked by penance, the church held a ceremony involving smudging and burning bundles of sage alongside traditional drum songs to ``release burdens.'' It's analogous to asking for forgiveness from sin.

``Much like in the Christian or the Buddhist or the Hindu traditions, those ceremonies are meant to be shared and meant to be used _ because at the end of the day, they're simply tools,'' Scheeler said. ``They're simply tools to connect: to connect us, to connect us to the creator as we have an understanding of the creator. So, whatever tool works for someone to do that, by all means that's the one we should do.''


Reverend Scheeler playing flute at the World Labyrinth Walk Celebration

Scheeler was ordained in 2002 in the Diocese of Montana specifically to launch a First Nations ministry at St. Peters Cathedral in Helena, Montana. People were skeptical at first. The ministry met at a community center rather than the cathedral, and it was identified as a society rather than a church.

``The concept of church never really existed in native culture,'' Scheeler said.

Tribes rarely use the word God either. There's typically a term in their native tongue that translates to creator. However, the First Nations spiritual journey relies heavily on ceremonies and traditions to recharge that spiritual connection, much like Christianity.

``The true compatibility between Christianity and the First Nation spiritual walk is both look at the imminence of God or the sacred spirit. God is here. God is now. God is around us. God wraps us,'' Scheeler said. ``The elders say that we walk through a sacred mist of the creator all the time. . The spirit world is intimately close and associated to us. As we get better and better at recognizing that, we're able to connect more and more with God, with the spirit world _ however you choose to call it.''

The Episcopal diocese is interested in reaching out and finding the similarities among the two traditions. It's a kinder and more correct approach, Scheeler said, than the church's history of boarding schools and wiping culture and language. Missionaries didn't recognize Native American traditions as legitimately spiritual or religious.

``All the pieces of society that the First Nations people relied on, the church took those away,'' Scheeler said.


Sheryl Haase, 66, is part Tsimshian, a Pacific Northwest Coastal tribe primarily in British Columbia and Alaska. As she learns more about her Native American roots, she's also on the path to becoming a deacon at All Saints. Her late father was half Native American and half Greek and didn't feel he belonged in either culture.

``I'm having to learn about it now that he's gone,'' Haase said.

Helping her on her journey is the Talking Day Society, a ministry of All Saints that focuses on the healing powers of native music.


Members of the Traveling Day Society 

``What we've found is that urban native populations that have been removed from their ancestral lands for generations have sometimes been distanced from their own cultures, as well. And so, they are hungry to reconnect with some of their own cultural traditions,'' Scheeler said.

Some Talking Day Society members belong to the church; others do not. Some are Native American, like Haase, but most are not. Lots of non-native people are drawn to these spiritual traditions, which can be viewed as hijacking Native American culture.

So long as they're done with respect and honor, Scheeler said, ``the spirit elders who are renowned say no one owns sacred ceremonies'' and that they're meant to be shared.

Suzanne Philbrook has been a member of All Saints since 1986 and is part of the Traveling Day Society. Although she's not Native American, the 72-year-old, whose father was an Episcopal priest, grew up going to an Episcopal church on the Windy River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. The experience, she said, ``lived with me'' and now she enjoys playing her buffalo skin drum for the Traveling Day Society.

They've gone to community events and Episcopal conventions, but the small group primarily plays at funerals, hospices and Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center, where Scheeler is an associate chaplain.


Clare Imel playing her Twin Grandmother Flute

Music is shown to decrease pain and heart rate, said Heather Keller, music-thanatologist at Legacy, and it supports relief and decreases fear of dying. It helps people let go.

``The idea is to accompany people and their families as far as we can,'' said Keller, who plays the harp during her palliative rounds at the hospital.

The Traveling Day Society performs in the hospital's healing garden on the first Monday of every month. It's supposed to recognize the births and deaths that happen every month, the circle of life. A lot of the songs are contemplative songs about healing or traveling, and the big, energetic native drums are absent.

``This place is sort of like a spiritual airport'' in that people are coming and going, Scheeler said.


In a world that's hungry for spiritual connectedness, there's a lot of joy and richness in the First Nations traditions, he said. The Traveling Day Society doesn't evangelize when it is out in public, and it's not meant to be a device to hook people into coming into church. It's about spiritual care.

For its audience, Scheeler said, it's simple: ``The flutes are amazing. They just unwind your spring.''


Information from: The Columbian,