Where Christianity Blends with Native American Culture

The Underground Theology series discusses faith and culture

Rev. Racquel Gill (left), minister for intercultural engagement at Duke Chapel, leads a discussion about Native theology with Rev. Alex Stayer-Brewington of Westminster Presbyterian Church. Credit: Amanda Solliday / University Communications
Rev. Racquel Gill (left), minister for intercultural engagement at Duke Chapel, leads a discussion about Native theology with Rev. Alex Stayer-Brewington of Westminster Presbyterian Church. Credit: Amanda Solliday / University Communications

There are no hard wooden pews at the Underground Theology discussions.

Hosted by Duke Chapel’s Rev. Racquel Gill, minister for intercultural engagement, the series creates a space to explore faith and underrepresented cultures. Students sit on oversized purple couches while young children play in the background.

Rev. Alex Stayer-Brewington of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Durham featured in the first discussion of Native theology in the series. Stayer-Brewington is a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and received his master’s in divinity at Duke.

“My conviction is that the Christian tradition is much wider and wilder and weirder than the present presentation of it allows for,” Stayer-Brewington said. “And that if we give ourselves and one another permission to express our faith in that way, then I think there can be extremely beautiful results.”

Here are some excerpts from the discussion. The next event in the series takes place Nov. 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the same location: the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity on the top level of the Bryan Center.

Visit the Underground Theology website for a full list of events.

 

Rev. Racquel Gill: Who are you? Who are your people? And how does your identity inform your relationship with the divine?

Rev. Alex Stayer-Brewington

“I'm a citizen of the Lumbee nation. We are a community, a tribe that was formed at contact with the Europeans when we were forced away from the coast into the swamps of what is now Robeson County, North Carolina, presently the poorest county in the state. Not a lot of tillable land, and it's all cut up with swamps, creeks, and a really beautiful river from which we take our name.” 

“We have lost our language. We've lost many aspects of our traditional culture. But in the last 500 years, we've developed an extremely robust, beautiful network of traditions, our own way of talking and eating and worshiping.” 

“I've lived all my life – but for a year and a half – in or very near my ancestral territory. The older I get, I realize how special that is. I get to be in a relationship with the animals and interact with the same plants and set out under the same sky that my ancestors have.”

“Going into this conversation, I want to say it's important to come in with a spirit of humility. I don't speak for all the people, I certainly don't speak for all Native nations.”

“My community taught me to be a good relative – showing up and saying, ‘What can I bring? What can I do?’ And then also being the relative who accepts help and assistance.”

“The other big lesson is building a relationship with whatever land you're occupying presently…. Be a little curious about where you are and how you got there.”

Rev. Racquel Gill: One place of critique in a lot of Christian traditions has been around the conversation of ancestral veneration, ancestral connection and community. Why do these connections matter for Indigenous people?

Rev. Alex Stayer-Brewington:

“To have spent almost all of my life near my ancestral homeland is to be aware that the dirt is, literally, the bones of my ancestors. This is where, for 15,000 years, my people have been. I think that connection and deep awareness, for me, there's a lot of competence that comes from that. There's a feeling of being in the right place.”

“We talk a lot about the post-apocalypse or what it's going to look like on the other side of a climate collapse. But I come from the people who have already experienced the apocalypse. We've already lost everything: life as we knew it, our language, the way we relate to one another. All that is gone. And yet, we are still here.”

“If you look at Jesus's ministry, and you look at the story of Ruth, those are Jesus's ancestors. You look at the hospitality in that story, you look at the history and you think, ‘Oh, clearly, Jesus is shaped by the stories that were told to him about these women and his family.’”

“I think once you open up your scriptural imagination, which I think is sometimes difficult for us in the West, you begin to see more creatively when you look at some of these things.”

Rev. Racquel Gill: I'm going to read a quote, “American Indian cultures tend to understand the world in terms of the infusion of the sacred through all of life and all of creation.” Growing up, did you experience that infusion of the sacred in all of life and all of creation? Can you share any examples?

Rev. Alex Stayer-Brewington:

“No, I did not experience that. As a child, I grew up a citizen of an occupied nation. I grew up under white supremacy and capitalism.” 

“The only time I really approached this was completely outside of an Indigenous context when I learned how to surf when I was in the ninth grade. And here was this sort of like, organized play, where you're just spending time and paying attention to the ocean, you're so you're learning the rhythm and where you need to position yourself in front of a wave, so that it'll carry you and you can stand up to experience maybe 30 seconds of pleasure and then fall into the water again.”

“But looking back now, when I go back to that beach, I realize I can look out at the water and see the exact same thing as my dad's great-great-great-great-great grandfather.” 

“Now that's changing, right? It's getting hotter. Some of the animals are dying. I don't know that my daughter will have that experience in the same way that I did. But certainly not my granddaughter.”

“​​What I do know is when the Europeans came here, they destroyed a lot of things. And they used Christianity as a tool of destruction. But then we took it, and we crafted it into medicine. And we crafted it into a shelter. And we made a form of a home for it.”