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Native American Elders gather in Grand Rapids

Native American elders ministry leaders

STEP TWO: The United Methodist Church celebrated Native American Ministries on Sunday, April 23, 2023. This offering supports ministries like Pawating Native American Elders Program at Northlawn UMC in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Mealtime. What is it all about? Plates of food ready to eat. Smiling faces seated across from each other at the table. Nourishment for the body as well as the spirit.

For over 50 years, Pawating Native American Elders Program (PNAEP) has provided meals and a place for people to come together. Pawating means “gathering place.” The elders gather at Northlawn United Methodist Church every Tuesday and Thursday during the school year.

Supporting ancestors is an aspect of Native culture that Native American people hold dear. Rhonda Loonsfoot, Director of PNAEP, says the program started as a meet and greet and then expanded into a feeding ministry. She reports that an average of 50 people attend the biweekly meals and services. These people represent 15 tribes. Rhonda herself is a member of the Navajo Nation.

Today, the Pawating program cares for elders in the Grand Rapids community by providing meals, social engagement, recreation, and health services. The PNAEP partners with Calvin University nursing students to offer screenings, including blood pressure and blood sugar tests. “They come in, and they’ll do blood pressure and blood sugar checks,” Loonsfoot said. “Then they’ll give the elders a folder and a paper they can bring with them next time to see where they are and also if they need any information on how to help them.” In addition, special clinics are sometimes held on topics such as alcohol abuse awareness. These wellness services are appreciated, but the bingo games are what bring laughter and fun into the afternoons.

“There are a lot of elders that I have met and who have now passed on,” Loonsfoot said. “It’s a really neat experience for people because a lot of our elders have much knowledge. You need to have that knowledge passed down to us young ones.” Loonsfoot says volunteers learn so much from interacting with the elders, even as the elders benefit from the services provided to them.

Young adult Native Americans learn from older adults
“Pawating” means “gathering place.” While meals are served every Tuesday and Thursday at Northlawn UMC, people are best fed by relationships. It’s a time for generations to learn from each other. Here a young man shares time with Tribal Chair Ron Yob of the Grand River Ottawa Indians. ~Facebook-Pawating Megedwin Kikaajik – Grand Rapids Anishinaabe Senior Lunches

Rhonda Loonsfoot networks with many agencies to resource the Pawating program. She is excited that State Senator Mark Huizenga is interested in learning more about the culture and needs of Native Americans in Michigan. His assistant, Emerson Silvernail, has visited with participants in the elders program to determine what additional services might be helpful to them.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, drivers delivered food to homes. So there was rejoicing when the meals program returned to the Northlawn UMC dining room in 2021. Northlawn has always offered great hospitality.

The elders not only use the church’s kitchen and social hall but have access to pastoral care from Pastor Zach McNees, who has been the spiritual leader of Northlawn UMC since 2019.

McNees says the program’s volunteers are a lively bunch who are passionate and loyal to their community and do their best to serve and honor their elders. McNees has volunteered to help prepare meals for their guests by operating the grill and spending time with them around the table.

“I have the privilege of being able to go down there and connect with the elders,” McNees said. “I help with things they need, and I get to be the one to pray and connect with all the people.”

McNees says he has intentionally reminded his congregation of the Pawating program and tries to engage them with the elders, too. The pastor acknowledges that Native Americans have suffered much hurt over the centuries. In the news, most recently, is the harm that was done in “Indian boarding schools.” But McNees is hopeful that rebuilding relationships can happen and is glad to be part of that.

“Our best as the church is to honor and respect their leadership, their authority, and to learn from these elders as much as possible,” McNees said. “We still must be about the work of reconciliation and helping people to see the church as a place of healing and support rather than a place of brokenness and control.”

Loonsfoot and other PNAEP leaders would like to offer the ministry twelve months of the year. Currently, there is a break from May through August. For now, she celebrates an elders program “that is strong and growing.”

Native American Ministries Sunday promotion
And did you know that eight of them are in Michigan? There are 50,000 Native Americans living in Michigan, belonging to 12 tribes. The tribes that lived around Grand Rapids, MI, in earlier days were the Odawa, Ojibwa, and Potawatomi. ~ graphic courtesy ResourceUMC

In the past, the Pawating Native American Elders Program has received funding from the Native American Ministries Sunday Offering of The United Methodist Church. Half the dollars received during this annual denomination-wide appeal return to the Annual Conference to support Native American Ministries there. To learn more, visit ResourceUMC. Gifts to the Native American Ministries Sunday Offering may be made here. Or you may contribute at your local United Methodist church.

Those wanting to support Native Americans by direct participation in the Pawating Native American Ministries Program can contact Rhonda Loonsfoot at [email protected], to learn more

Kay DeMoss and Meghan Hartley contributed to this report. The Pawating Native American Elders Program is a Ministry Partner in Step 2 of EngageMI, the mission engagement program of the Michigan Conference of The United Methodist Church. To support Pawating, contribute or write a check and give through a local United Methodist church (memo Pawating CCMM #3023).

The Michigan Conference