by Kaze Gadaway
Five Native young adults from eighteen to twenty-one walk somberly up the aisle to receive the sacrament. Their hands hang comfortably by their sides and they proceed confidently to kneel at the front of the altar. They act like they belong. “This is so awesome,” one of the youth whisper. “Everyone here treats us like we should be here.”
It’s been a long journey. I remember when they first came to the youth group with heads down and not looking at anything too closely. For some this is the first time being in a Church building. For others they had been burned with the ‘in your face’ evangelism. Most had someone in the older generation who had taught them something about Native spirituality. Wariness is a mild description of their general attitude. They always made sure the exits were clear if they wanted to leave. They grudgingly responded to comments and questions. Unsure of how even to sit comfortably, they squirmed constantly. One youth who was invited by a friend told me a year later that “You had a Simpson cartoon on the TV when I came in the first time and that told me that this would be different. I kept coming back because we always had fun.”
So how did they change?
Their journey evolved sometimes with the help of some caring congregations and often in spite of those who are still focusing on replicating itself for the sake of its own members. Youth are not always valued, especially when they bring something new into the milieu.
We began by transporting them to a local Church service and having a traditional youth meeting after the services. That didn’t work at all. There was no interest.
We started meeting in smaller groups in homes, parks and cafes. Every time we met we tried something new until we found what worked for us. Being retired, I was able to keep my focus and spend a lot of energy for this group of at risk, unchurched Natives living in a border town of radical poverty that treats them with abuse and disdain.
1) We connected to the Native spiritual tradition and began having Native ceremonies alongside our Christian ones.
2) We took trips outside our local toxic situation to expose them to people who did not despise them on sight and to give them alternatives to their reduced future.
3) We sent them to National youth programs that opened them up to meeting diverse ethnic groups and discovering others with whom they could talk openly about their sacred experiences.
4) We found Churches that would welcome the Native youth and began to participate in their ceremonies. There are still not that many Churches who welcome them.
5) We created our own study curriculum that combined Native, Christian and youth elements.
6) We created our own worship service based on the Episcopal service but with adaptions.
7) Relationships were created slowly with the youth and their families and promises were kept.
8) And above all we learned how to pray and to recognize the sacred in all things by reflection and spiritual exercises.
Now we have forty two Native youth who want to be a part of something larger than small town dreams. There seems to be a lot of complaints from local parishes that they are losing members and yet are not willing to spend the personal effort it takes to develop spirituality in youth.
With the trend of cutting off national programs and leaving youth formation to dioceses, I am afraid of what is going to happen to these youth when I retire in one year and six months. Dioceses don’t have extra money for youth programs. And new youth programs will not be generated simply because they are not being supplied from somewhere else. In talking with other youth ministers we realize that many do not appreciate how influential National programs have been for youth in all ethnic groups.
I am guessing that with the present direction of the Church I will have to create the plan to provide spiritual formation for these youth when I leave.
The difficulty is that I have been a volunteer for almost twelve years who had the time to establish the relationships needed for this ethnic group. Since we are not on the diocesan budget, all funds have to be raised slowly through grants, family and friends. Since we are isolated in Northern Arizona in a town of 5,000 people and with no local priest, we drive long distances for Church services or for relevant youth activities or even traditional Native ceremonies. Something new has to come into being.
Creative discussions are taking place on house churches and alternative forms of community worship. That’s all good. But how do we not lose these awesome youth that are now on a roll who need mentorship? I refuse to let them be cut loose to find their own way and be lost back to an unviable environment of poverty and addiction.
The only suggestion made to me that show promise is to pair off each of the youth with someone in the larger Church who will agree to mentor and advise the young one on their continued spiritual journey. This will most likely be done on line. Perhaps once a year we can meet for a community gathering.
Another suggestion is to find Churches in different places who will sponsor a youth and spend time with him or her and give encouragement as needed.
I don’t know what is going to happen to other youth groups who will be vulnerable by this change. If they are from rich white Churches who have the money to have programs, they will endure for a while. If they are ethnic groups in isolated situations, I fear they will die out. Without programs that push the young ones to think Globally and not be stuck in the local situation, only those with financial resources will be able to get beyond their village.
My prayer is that there will continue to be enough people in the Church who care about the youth that they will help with creative approaches to keep youth formation alive in one fashion or another.
I pray that Easter may continue to be a reality in their lives.
Kaze Gadway has worked with the emerging leaders of the Episcopal Church within the Native American community of Northern Arizona as a volunteer for eleven years. They are youth of promise from ages twelve to twenty-four. The Spirit Journey Youth is an outreach program of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona with forty young people. She is on Facebook and blogs at infaith’s posterous