Coalition Interview: Native American International Caucus, Ms. Cynthia Kent

This is the second in a series of interview reports that Love Prevails is conducting with representatives of every member group of the LYNC as a part of preparing for General Conference 2016 in Portland, Oregon. We share what each group brings to the Coalition, their particular emphases and concerns for GC2016, and the challenges and benefits of working across various kinds of differences related to identity, opinion and action.


Ms. Cynthia Kent hopes that the Native American International Caucus (NAIC) brings a voice to the Love Your Neighbor Coalition (LYNC) that otherwise would not be represented. The presence of the NAIC at the Coalition table influences its members to consider when the native voice is not present elsewhere. She said, “The numbers of Native Americans are so low in so many venues – clergy, bishops, superintendents, churches – we have to become conscious, to ask, ‘How can we consider the voices who are not here?’” LYNC is one way Native Americans bring voice and awareness to United Methodist tables.

The Native American perspective “is very different from the way most of the church values people and processes.” The perspective includes respect for and centering the presence of elders, a focus on a relationship with the natural environment, and a communal orientation. Kent reports that many of the ethnic caucus members of the denomination – Asian, Pacific Islanders, Latinos, and African Americans – share similar commitments to elders and a communitarian ethic. Yet among the ethnic caucuses, she noted, “there are many things we also do very differently in terms of our different cultures. Just because we are all people of color doesn’t mean we know anything about one another. Places like the Coalition are learning modes for us as well.”

According to Kent, in order for groups like the Coalition to work better, “The listening component is most important.” For all people learning to work across differences, “everybody has to learn how to listen. Don’t be ready to jump in too fast. People don’t want anyone to solve their problems, but they want to be heard.” As a Native American, she said, “I don’t want you to take care of me, but to hear why something is an issue for me. What can be done about it so that it doesn’t happen again? And people will say, ‘But we don’t want history, we want to go to now.’ People don’t understand, we need to know our history. We need to listen to elders and how historically we have been able get things done.”

Besides the listening component, understanding and respect are necessary to working across real differences of opinion and practice. We have to find out, Kent said, “where we are together and where we are not together. We may not be together on some things. We may not be able to work on certain things together. That’s okay. At least we can speak that and know that. We spend too much time trying to be together on everything.” Respect means respecting that there may be real differences among us. This includes the matter of how to work towards the inclusion of LGBTQ folks.

Kent talked about the challenges of getting the church to move to full acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ people. She noted that just like population at large, Native American people hold a multiple viewpoints on gender and same-gender sexual orientation. The intersections of what it means to be native, gendered and queer depends on the tribe and particular community. In some indigenous cultures, “where folks understood the wholeness of male and female in their full selves, they were the counselors. In other tribes, women were warriors and the men took care of women.” There may be other tribes where such differences and practices are shunned, she said, “But again, every tribe is different, so I can’t speak on every tribe’s views. Plus, tribal members would also have their own views.” For herself, she explained that she has relatives and friends who are gay and lesbian. “It has been in my community since I was born. I came up with it. We did not judge at all. We were taught that these are our relations. The personality of a person is a gift of the Creator. Differences are gifts of the Creator.”

She described her own experience and theology. “The church told me I could be Native and Christian at the same time. I can live as a whole person. Christ says, ‘I call you, the whole person, you, into the church.’ There is nothing we leave at the door. It hurts me. People just don’t realize that this is not our church, it is God’s church. I don’t want to be there on judgment day hearing, ‘You judged people.’ I cannot tolerate when people judge people. That’s my sadness to see the church as God’s church and people taking it as their own.”

Specific to General Conference 2016, the NAIC is preparing one comprehensive resolution of critical Native American matters that distills seventeen resolutions previously passed by the General Conference. This one resolution focuses on history, contemporary issues and the future of Native Americans within and outside of the church. There will be a one-page list of recommendations that accompany the overarching resolution. Coalition members can be informed of the content of this resolution when it is ready, and work to ensure its passage.

Cynthia Kent is the chairperson of the Native American International Caucus (NAIC), one of the United Methodist Church’s five ethnic caucuses. All of the five ethnic caucuses have representatives to the LYNC. Kent retired from the General Board of Global Ministries after over 20 years as the Executive Secretary for Native American and Indigenous Ministries. She continues to hold many other leadership positions throughout her annual conference (Greater New Jersey), the Northeast Jurisdiction and General Church (including the Connectional Table). Her tribal heritage is Southern Ute. While Ms. Kent represents the NAIC to LYNC, the opinions expressed in this interview report are entirely her own.

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