Where Christianity blends with Native American culture
There are no hard wooden pews when discussing underground theology.
Hosted by the Reverend Racquel Gill of Duke Chapel, Minister of Intercultural Engagement, the series creates space to explore faith and underrepresented cultures. Students sit on oversized purple sofas as young children play in the background.
Reverend Alex Stayer-Brewington of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Durham participated in the series’ first discussion on Indigenous theology. Stayer-Brewington is a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and earned her master’s degree in theology from Duke.
“My belief is that the Christian tradition is much broader, wilder and stranger than its present presentation allows,” Stayer-Brewington said. “And that if we give ourselves permission to express our faith in that way, then I think there can be some very beautiful results.”
Here are some excerpts from the discussion. The next event in the series will take place on November 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the same location: the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity on the top floor of the Bryan Center.
Visit the Underground Theology website for a full list of events.
Rev. Racquel Gill: Who are you? Who are your people? And how does your identity inform your relationship with the divine?
Reverend Alex Stayer-Brewington
“I am a citizen of the Lumbee Nation. We are a community, a tribe that was formed through contact with Europeans when we were driven off the coast into the swamps of what is now Robeson County, North Carolina, currently the poorest county of State. There isn’t a lot of cultivable land, and it’s all cut up with swamps, streams and a very beautiful river from which we take our name.
“We have lost our language. We have lost many aspects of our traditional culture. But over the past 500 years we have developed an extremely strong and beautiful network of traditions, our own way of speaking, eating and worshiping.
“I have lived all my life – but for a year and a half – on or near my ancestral territory. The older I get, the more I realize how special it is. I can relate to animals and interact with the same plants and leave under the same sky as my ancestors.
“Coming into this conversation, I want to say that it’s important to come in with a spirit of humility. I don’t speak for everyone, I certainly don’t speak for all Indigenous nations.
“My community taught me how to be a good parent – come forward and say, ‘What can I contribute? What can I do?’ And then also be the parent who accepts help and assistance.
“The other big lesson is to build a relationship with the land you currently occupy…. Be a little curious about where you are and how you got there.
Rev. Racquel Gill: A place of criticism in many Christian traditions has been around the conversation about ancestral reverence, ancestral connection and community. Why are these connections important to Indigenous peoples?
Reverend Alex Stayer-Brewington:
“Having spent most of my life near my ancestral homeland is to be aware that the land is, literally, the bones of my ancestors. It’s where, for 15,000 years, my people have been. I think that connection and that deep awareness, for me, there’s a lot of competence that comes from that. You feel like you’re in the right place.”
“We talk a lot about the post-apocalypse or what it’s going to be like on the other side of a climate meltdown. But I come from the people who have been through the apocalypse before. We’ve already lost everything: life as we knew it, our language, our relationships with each other. All that is gone. And yet, we are still here.
“If you look at the ministry of Jesus, and you look at the story of Ruth, they are the ancestors of Jesus. You look at the hospitality in this story, you look at the story and you think, “Oh, clearly, Jesus is shaped by the stories told to him about these women and his family.”
“I think once you open your scriptural imagination, which I think is sometimes difficult for us in the West, you start to see more creatively when you look at some of these things.”
Rev. Racquel Gill: I’ll read you a quote: “Native American cultures tend to understand the world in terms of the infusion of the sacred through all of life and all of creation. Growing up, did you experience this infusion of the sacred into all of life and all of creation? Can you share examples?
Reverend Alex Stayer-Brewington:
“No, I haven’t experienced that. As a child, I grew up as a citizen of an occupied country. I grew up under white supremacy and capitalism.
“The only time I really approached this was completely outside of an Indigenous context when I learned to surf when I was in ninth grade. And there was this kind of organized game, where you just spend time and pay attention to the ocean, you learn the rhythm and where you have to position yourself in front of a wave, so that it will carry you and you can get up to experience maybe 30 seconds of fun and then fall back into the water.”
“But looking back now, when I go back to that beach, I realize that I can look at the water and see exactly the same as my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. dad.”
“Now that changes, doesn’t it? It’s hotter. Some animals die. I don’t know if my daughter will live this experience in the same way as me. But certainly not my granddaughter.
“What I know is that when the Europeans came here, they destroyed a lot of things. And they used Christianity as a tool of destruction. But then we took it and turned it into medicine. And we made it a shelter. And we made a house shape for it.