April 15, 2014
When the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) began construction on the American Tepee Christian Mission in 1920 there is little chance they had a clue what they were getting themselves into. They had no idea of their Christian Doctrine of Discovery roots, but claimed the rightness of their manifest mindset. So with a theological sureness and social certainty that hindered the asking of generational questions that might have helped them to grasp the consequences of their actions, Disciples embarked on a journey of cultural and social change.
Having become the fastest growing American Christian denomination at the turn of the century instilled a confidence that led Disciples to empower W.F. Turner and the American Christian Missionary Society with the task of civilizing and Christianizing Yakama people. Opening the ATCM Christian Home doors in 1921 began a Yakama-Disciple relationship, that for better or worse, would help lay a community-social-religious framework that remains to this day.
I think of those early days as I enter this sixteenth summer as Director of the Yakama Christian Mission (YCM) and watch as the last remnant of Turner’s and turn-of-the-century Disciples venture into cultural and societal change is boarded up and sold. A lot has changed in these ninety-three years. Disciples have lost the surety that comes with being an upstart growing movement. Internal theological and social differences led to times of little compromise and splintering. Loss of folk created a financial anxiety that led a forgetfulness of the dreams and wishes and commitments of their cloud of witnesses. Those who lose their memory don’t always notice such forgetfulness, but for those who live on the fringes, they notice.
Forgetting the cloud of witnesses led Disciples to drop mission funding to their historical mission centers serving communities of color and of poverty in 2007: ATCM (now called Yakama Christian Mission), All Peoples in Los Angeles, Inman Center in San Antonio, and Kentucky Appalachian Ministries. The impact on each was both financial and spiritual.
For Yakama Christian Mission (YCM) the decision was foundational. Work focusing on dismantling problematic framework from the missions early years of changing local cultural and societal would slow or end.
The last seven years has called for creative thinking and action. Staff became bi-vocational or left to find other work meeting their vocational values, programs changed, new partnerships developed, and YCM left the financing of mission building maintenance to the legal owners: Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The change of financing and building repair quickly became apparent as the conditions of mission facilities diminished. In 2010 YCM programming left the historical facilities. In 2013 the mission facilities reached a point where YCM informed Disciples that the likeliness of returning to the facilities were slim to none. Early in 2014 the historical remnants of Disciples venture into changing culture and community were placed on the market for sale.
Having all programming off the historical facilities since 2010 allowed YCM to learn how to exist and have voice without place. In 2013 YCM located the afterschool program at the White Swan High School and the Learning and Serving program at the Methodist Grange. More so YCM partnered to begin a ecumenical non-profit on the reservation, supported the Noah’s Ark homeless shelter, led a rebuilding effort in a flood damaged village of eighty folk in the backcountry of Alaska, and moved a research and reflection resolution on the Christian Doctrine of Discovery through the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) General Assembly.
There is more learning to what it means to not have place, but the mission is observing two models in particular. Kentucky Appalachian Ministries has lived without place for over four decades and the Northwest Region of Disciples is years into living without place. Each model speaks to something YCM has learned in the last three years, a future without place does not mean a future without roots. Community support on and off the reservation for this inevitable change has been moving and meaningful.
Yakama Christian Mission’s vision and work is very different from that of its American Tepee Christian Mission ancestor. And while the future is not known, the mission is living into this future asking questions that arise with a bit less sureness and certainty. Perhaps that is what matters most in this moment, to allow the lack of sureness drive the questions of tomorrow and place ourselves in partnership with the generations to come.
© David B. Bell 2014