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Two acres of grace

Group experiencing grace in Saganing

An Act of Repentance toward Reconciliation between Michigan’s Native Americans and United Methodists recently occurred at the Saganing Indian Mission UMC. It was an experience marked by grace.

BENTON HEISLER
Director of Connectional Ministry

It took 135 years and 25 minutes in this case. That is the answer to the question, “Well, what does an Act of Repentance toward Reconciliation with indigenous people take?”

In 1865 Danial Hall acquired 40 acres from the State of Michigan. (No explanation of how the state had “acquired” the land from the people of origin on this land!)

Moment of grace
MI-CONAM chair, Rev. Todd Williamson, left, with the lead archivist for the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, Willie Johnson. ~ photo courtesy Benton Heisler

A few years later, Mr. Hall transferred two acres to the trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church of Sagainin, Arenac. In time, Mr. Charles Sturman transferred 23 acres that surrounded the church and its cemetery “to the United States in trust for the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan.”

On February 27, 2020, nearly 100 people crowded into the cold, but bright with sunlight, sanctuary of the former Saganing Indian Mission United Methodist Church in Standish, Michigan.  The ceremony was titled a “Gratification Exchange”. 

The church had discontinued a few years ago. The two acres that make up this church, fellowship hall, parking area, and the cemetery is now surrounded by the Eagle’s Landing Casino enterprise and the tribal offices and meeting space of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan. The Michigan Conference Board of Trustees, in consultation with the Committee on Native American Ministries (CONAM), had determined that they would donate the property back to the tribe for their future use and development.

Current generations of the faithful souls, who are buried in that cemetery and who worshipped in this sanctuary, first gathered for a meal and then a brief time of formal introductions Words of appreciation and reconciliation were spoken. Symbolic gifts of honor were exchanged.

Members of United Methodist Native American congregations from across the state were present to lend their support for the Rev. Todd Williamson, chairperson, of CONAM for the Michigan Conference. Joe Kequom, Tribal Sub-Chief along with Ron Nelson, the tribe’s District II Representative, brought greetings. Also present was William (Willie) Johnson, Curator of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe Ziibiwing Cultural Center. Johnson is a longtime friend and mentor of Todd Williamson. The day held personal significance for him as his grandparents are buried at Sagining.

Williamson also shared words of greeting and inspiration. The Rev. Dr. Margie Crawford and the Rev. John Boley spoke on behalf of Bishop David Bard and me. The Bishop conveyed these thoughts, “I am saddened that the long history of this church has come to an end.  I am very pleased, however, that this property which has such special significance, will continue to be used for the well-being of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe.”

I overheard one woman say as she slid into a pew in the middle of the sanctuary, “This is where I always sat. My mom always sat on the other side of this divider, and if my kids got squirmy, I would just hand them over to her.”

No one expressed outrage or disappointment over the years of “ownership” by the “Methodist Church Institution.” There was only kindness and gratitude verbalized by the tribal leaders and those who gathered to reclaim “their Church.”

I was humbled to have been part of this process. I served Greensky Hill Indian Mission, just east of Charlevoix, in my early years of ministry. I came to know of the deep heartache and oppression the “white man’s dominant culture” had created for these genuinely kind and generous Native people.

Sanctuary full of grace
While the Saganing Indian Mission UMC closed in January of 2013, the sanctuary was full once more on February 27, 2020 for a “transference ceremony” in which the United Methodist Church returned the property to the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe. ~ photo courtesy Benton Heisler

No media satellite truck covered these 25 minutes of grace-filled interaction. It likely won’t ever be a stopping point for the presidential candidate of your choice. But to the generations who have worshipped there and whose loved ones have found their eternal rest in the soil under the far-reaching shade of maple and oak and apple trees, it is simply two acres of Grace and Ishpeming (heaven).

I pray we all continue to take steps of reconciliation toward any and all with whom we may have disagreed or who we have harmed. It doesn’t need to take 135 years and 25 minutes to offer grace.

“How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity … For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.” (Psalm 133: 1-3)


~“If you make my Word your home, you will indeed be my disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:13, New Jerusalem Bible) I base each article I write for this column in the guidance of a Scripture passage. I pray that these reflections, stories, and information will assist you in your witness and service as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

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