By Suanne Ware-Diaz, Kiowa
Native American UMC of Southern California
As a cradle Methodist, I’d been nourished on scripture from my earliest years with verses and whole chapters committed to memory. Stories of Joseph with His Coat of Many Colors, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, and Jonah in the Belly of the Fish were favorites. Reciting the Shepherd’s Psalm brought my young heart comfort and reassurance when others did not include me or when words said, intentionally or unintentionally, wounded my spirit.
My world, my encounters broadened while at university. There were times when I felt alone, unsafe, challenged in body, mind, and in spirit. I knew from my own experience that Creator’s love was true and steadfast. But, I was also having to face the reality of how the Bible was weaponized by settlers, the church and the system against my people. My affiliation with the church and my understanding of the Bible as sacred text had become complex, ambiguous. In 1978 Native Americans were granted freedom of religion; I had friends and family who were leaving the church citing they could no longer sit in the pews of an oppressive institution. How could I come to terms with being a Kiowa woman and a Christian?
I had always seen my spiritual life as both individual and in community; so what I had thought of as my solid foundation felt shaky, uncertain. Do I stay or do I go? One evening I reached for my Bible and asked Creator, “Open this to the words I need right now.” I opened my Bible to Psalm 121. This beautiful Psalm reminded me that life is a faith walk and the relationship that mattered most was my deeply personal relationship with Creator. The Creator who protected me, who cared for me in every situation and in all ways had a purpose for me. Reciting this passage aloud gave me courage to speak, to question, to not be silent. Reciting this passage aloud gave me the strength to face my challenges because nothing, no one could separate me from God. In that moment, I chose to stay with my United Methodist family; but I vowed to bring the strong voice and unique perspective given me to the collective table.
It would be this passage that carried me decades later while serving the General Commission on Religion and Race as Associate General Secretary with the Native American portfolio. Many were the times where I was either called or thrust into circumstances that required speaking truth to authority, finding and offering healing words for broken hearts and listening when it would have been easier, more comfortable to walk away.
The late Rev. Homer Noley, Choctaw, from Oklahoma would challenge Native American students in his Bible courses to, “Read the Bible with red eyes.” This permission – finally – granted allowed me to bring my whole self to the reading and interpretation of biblical narrative. Jesus’s ministry is the model for my faith walk: meeting people, meeting uncertain situations, and meeting the holy; ever evolving in my understanding. One of his encounters in particular resonated with me: “The Canaanite Woman”, Matthew 15:21-28; but I had yet to read a reflection or hear a sermon on it that I felt was an honest, deep look into this story.
The Gospel writer of Matthew does not dignify this woman with a name, but labels her a “Canaanite woman.” The reference is significant because Canaanites were not contemporary people, but people of the distant past. In other words, she’s portrayed here as out of time, irrelevant. She is the “other” among Jesus and his followers though it is they who are the sojourners, the guests crossing through her homeland. Her plea for Jesus to cure her daughter was an unwelcome annoyance for these men on a mission. Yet, she recognizes Jesus as the One with power to heal and she wouldn’t stand back.
Jesus’s attitude and behavior toward her are uncomfortably familiar to me. The racist, ethnocentric overtones in his exchange are frequently explained away as “testing” her faith. I beg to differ. I believe that “cleaned up” perception diminishes the wisdom, persistence and humility of this wise, selfless woman. Further, it diminishes the human-ness of Jesus who came to us, God incarnate, God in the flesh. Being human, means we will experience anger, fear and pain. Jesus wasn’t immune. In this story, he’s meeting us right where we are. We are human and we will falter; but the holy will manage to reach out to us in our weakness. And help may come from the most unexpected people and situations. This nameless woman’s call to Jesus is our blessing because with her call his ministry grew beyond the bounds of Israel. Her contribution relevant to us today.
For me, the Bible offers teachings and wisdom from a time, a people and a world that are not mine. Yet, these human experiences and encounters with the sacred remain fresh, timeless, inspired. Many times I discover something new in a passage I’ve read over and over. Always evolving. Always with hope. Entering this season of Advent, awaiting the arrival of God incarnate, I take heart that God sent his Son to us not as a powerful, fully-formed man but as a vulnerable baby. Jesus survived and grew because he was welcomed and nurtured by very human souls. There is hope for us all.
For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
– Romans 8:24
Suanne Ware-Diaz, Kiowa
Native American UMC of Southern California
Cal-Pac Committee on Religion & Race
Wesley Foundation Serving UCLA/580 Café
I acknowledge that I live in the ancestral homeland of the Tongva people, the traditional caretakers of Tovaangar (what is now the Los Angeles basin and the South Channel Islands).