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The Liturgy of Travel

By Thomas Schmidt 

This Fall’s Westar Scholars conference was held in San Antonio and was held jointly with The American Academy of Religions and the Society for Biblical Literature.  J. Kameron Carter of Duke Divinity School was presenting a discussion of the New Black Theology as part of Westar’s Seminar on God and the Human Future. I was looking forward to attending, and planned to combine the seminars with travels through Montana, Wyoming, the panhandles, Big Bend, Santa Fe and the four corners region, along with reconnecting with two of my roommates from pre-seminary days at Texas Christian University.

My excitement was only slightly daunted by Trump’s unexpected victory as I set out in the pre-dawn darkness the day after the elections. I paused at the top of Lookout Pass before crossing over into Montana. The sun had just risen above the distant horizon, and I suddenly realized that I was looking out over the land into the face of God: bright light shining forth giving life.  Maybe, maybe, in spite of the vitriol and the explicit racism of White privilege that had been revealed in the campaign the presence of God was what we could be facing in the coming. I suddenly realized that this trip, like all the others, was an act of worship; the land and the experiences comprised a liturgy involving our recognition to the Glory of creation, of our failures to respond with humility and faith, and our need to trust in the workings of the spirit, of the growth and morality of our respect for that shining forth of the glory of creation. 

At Billings I was tempted to continue east to Standing Rock. Most of the fellow citizens I talked with, the waitresses, motel operators, art gallery attendants, were outlining the problems of the election, the contrariness of the vote, the faulty process where a majority’s wishes were not relevant., followed by a realization that many were not given the dignity of a civil justice, threatened and oppressed, unlike that injustice enjoyed and employed by those in power. How could we know? I was seeking native art but every gallery advertising “Indian Art” featured western styled scenes done by Caucasians that maybe showed a teepee or some tonto with a bow and arrow. Nothing from the vibrant school of first people artists with their use of color and form expressing their holy visions, including the subtle turn of irony, the passing of a pack of cigarettes instead of a peace pipe, the used car lot instead of a herd of wild pones. Besides, I had already paid for the San Antonio conference, so I took a right and headed for the great Medicine Wheel in north central Wyoming. 

On top of  a snow covered mountain, I chanted as I circled with the wheel: Wabun, eagle of the East, living devourer of the dead; the young pup, Shanadese, warm vitality of the South; Mujakiwis, family wisdom of the West; and Wabus, the life wise white buffalo of the North. I slipped on the ice, stripping some skin from my arm: my gift to the mother. Fortunately only, a loud crack, extending and straightening my back. Possibly preparing me for my disappointing visit to the commerciality of Cody, my next overnight.

William Cody, still getting rich ripping off and selling the noble yet primitive native warrior being defeated by the superior arms and modernity of the romantic white soldier and cowboy. White privilege. Didn’t God give us their land? The Cody center bookstore did have a children’s tale of the buffalo soldiers that accented how they were paid the same as the white soldiers, but not pointing out how they were kept at the lowest of ranks. Nothing by Sherman Alexis or Leslie Marmon Silko, perhaps the most accomplished of Native American writers. There the gift store attendant merely stared vacantly when I asked if he had anything about Standing Rock. However, the motel attendant went on at length about how unjust North Dakota was treating the Water Protectors. Sin and Redemption in the liturgy. He said his hours were being cut and he was going with some friends, taking buffalo meat to the reservation. The racist exploitation was active, but mice were nibbling at the foundations.

My next stop was at the hot springs in Thermopolis, and a nearby canyon with pictograph covered walls. How to soak in the healing waters without infecting my wound? I wrapped my arm in a leaf bag. Several couples offered advice, the women saying they had a medicine kit. One husband said he was a vetinarian but had left his kit at home or else he’d give me one of those arm condoms he used for artificial insemination. Everyone thought that was the best idea. He also said he was concerned about the election, it was not one person, one vote, and he never would have voted for Trump if he had thought “the bigot “ was going to win. I mentioned how Trump used language and showed such disrespect that, if I had done the same as a child, I’d get a good spanking. All the mothers in the pool agreed, and the men said maybe our next president would be a good example how not to regard others. We disagreed about many things, but we all listened and shared. A communion, we were the body incarnate. The hand was respecting the heart. Again, we were one, and the key word was respect. I felt a caring, our needs and resources were shared. All were welcomed at this table. Healing waters.

Two days later I was in south east Colorado, standing on a hill overlooking the cottonwood grove bordering Sand Creek where so many were massacred. Why?, then, and still now! It took five generations before the Whites, seeking any Indian to kill, could apologize. A slow crucifixion, still present. Now, most would not ride out of Denver looking for a tribe or race to exterminate. Not that. Build a wall, arm others to be our surrogates. Tears wet my shirt. The ranger standing next to me said that was a common reaction, but he had been ordered to make no further comment. Maybe my next stop, the Palo Duro Canyon could offer healing. There the Comanche, the great freedom fighters of the southern plains, had found shelter and were able to defeat the invaders in several battles, only to give up when the army used biological warfare, disease and starvation, as weapons.

Would there be a New Kingdom? The tenor of the San Antone seminars suggested that  it could happen. People were not delivering the truth in their papers. The discussions were opening up to questions. No longer was the dominant mode of discourse the declaration of the correct dogma supported with readings selected not for spiritual development but only to support those in power from the inconvenience of making changes. More, more and more were saying changes were needed and were happening. I carried a book by Leonardo Boff, the Latino liberation theologian and found those in the seats next to me were two of his students from Brazil. They had many questions about the United States, and ended their conversation by saying perhaps other leaders would arise.

Their hope, our prayer. World without end. Amen.

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