Readings for the feast day of Enmegahbowh
1 Peter 5:1-4
Almighty God, you led your pilgrim people of old with ﬁre and cloud: Grant that the ministers of your Church, following the example of blessed Enmegahbowh, may stand before your holy people, leading them with ﬁery zeal and gentle humility. This we ask through Jesus, the Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever. Amen.
–Collect for the feast day of Enmegahbowh
Our readings today center on the act of being a messenger of God’s peace, even when everything about human nature tells us we have every right to be righteously angry. The life of Enmegahbowh serves as a reminder of that virtue.
John Johnson Enmegahbowh was set aside at an early age to be a healer in the traditional Midewewin fashion (the secret society of healers among the First Peoples of the Great Lakes and Maritimes,) yet he embraced Christianity, ordained in the Episcopal Church as a deacon by Bishop Kemper in 1859, and a priest by Bishop Whipple in 1867. His last name literally means, “The one who stands before his people,” (In some translations, literally, “The one who stands and prays before his people,”) and as serendipity would have it, did that in amazing ways.
Enmegahbowh was a deacon in Crow Wing, Minnesota at the time the American Civil War commenced. In those days, it was common practice for young men of means who had been conscripted, to pay someone as a proxy to be enlisted into the Army. Some of the whites in the area took a “Why buy it when you can get it for free?” attitude and started tricking young Ojibway men to accompany them to St. Paul, whereupon they would get them drunk and sell them to other white men looking to avoid conscription. Some parents of the Ojibway youth came to Enmegahbowh from Leech Lake and told him of their plans to kill a Mr. Horn, the whiskey trader behind all this. His response to them was, “I am glad to hear you think me worthy to make known to me your object in visiting Crow Wing. My friends, I presume you all understand what it will bring about. If you kill the white man, you will cause a general warfare and the whites will drive us away from our country and perhaps will eventually sweep us away from the face of the earth.” He begged them to give him seven days to reach General Sibley to obtain the support and paperwork to end the practice. Enmegahbowh made good on his promise, traveling by foot to St. Paul in three days.
Enmegahbowh’s life as a missionary deacon and priest was far from peaceful. He was frequently involved in peacekeeping when the First Nations people had every right in the world to be angry and retaliatory. Two of his children died of exposure. He fled for his life more than once. Despite his efforts, the natives of Gull Lake were removed from the area, first to the Leech Lake reservation and later the White Earth one. Constant tension was the norm–not only tension between the Sioux and Ojibway, but religious tension between the mixed race French-Native Americans (who were mostly Roman Catholic) and the Native Episcopalians, as well as tension between natives who converted to Christianity and natives who, sick of political abuse, returned to native religions and warrior societies. He suffered from depression, and his memoirs reveal great angst and sorrow–rightly so, I believe, given what we now know through the lens of history and the treatment of Native Americans, the residue of which persists, yet today.
Yet wherever Enmegahbowh was stationed, his churches, by accounts, brimmed to overflowing, and he forged the beginnings of what we now consider “a given” in indigenous ministries–the ability to incorporate and nurture native values within the scope of the Christian experience. It’s a reminder that the seeds of hope can still flourish amidst the storms of despair and angst.
None of us, as individuals, can ever fully make reparations for the cultural “sins of our fathers” that dog the American story and the story of the church. Yet God always calls to us in hope, and time and time again, we are given do-over after do-over to get it a little more right than we did before. Where is God calling each of us to put our own righteous indignation aside and hear the teachings of Jesus to spread the Gospel message, not just by words, but by a humble and contrite spirit?
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid