They "Shall Blossom as the Rose":
Native Americans and the Dream of Zion
W. Grant McMurray
Call to the Nations Conference
February 17, 2001
It is a joy for us to host this gathering of Native American peoples in our
Temple dedicated to the pursuit of peace, reconciliation, and healing of the
spirit. It is certainly appropriate that this sacred space should be used for
the purpose of bringing diverse peoples together, learning from one another, and
finding the ground on which we can walk side by side.
I have wrestled, even more than usual, with what I might say tonight. I have
tried to imagine that I could read widely enough to bring myself up to date on
the many issues you face, somehow become an instant expert on Native American
spirituality, and brush up on matters of culture and history and tradition. But
I can do none of those things.
On a personal basis, I can only speak to you from my heart as a white, middle
class male, born in an urban setting in southern Ontario in Canada and nurtured
by its loving people, raised most of my life in the heartland of the United
States, and afforded whatever opportunities and privileges come with the
education and moderate income available to most of us in suburban America.
On an official basis, I can only speak as one chosen from out of my own
humble origins to lead this church in the present moment, and to speak with
whatever collective voice those who have entrusted me with this responsibility
will permit. I cannot speak for each person within our community, but perhaps I
can say some words on behalf of our community. Today, in this place that is for
us both space and symbol, we create new community, as we do each time we
assemble here. And here, under the canopy that spirals toward the heavens, we
become more than the sum of our individual lives. We become an "us",
complete with the challenges and opportunities inherent in that becoming.
I was raised in the 1950’s, a time when the flickering pictures on black
and white television screens depicted my first images of the Indian people. They
were the war-painted, feather-laden, bow and arrow wielding savages who lined
the crest of hills throughout the American West as the wagon trains moved
through the valleys. Soon they would swoop down and ravage the heroic settlers
conquering the vast new frontier.
Or they were the domesticated Tontos, affectionately attending to the needs
of their cowboy sidekick, occasionally galloping in to rescue him from rustlers
or gunslingers, or accompanying him on deeds of derring-do. They introduced the
less artsy among us to sub-titled movies, as the chief talked around the
campfire with the other leaders of the tribe, the words scrawling across the
bottom of the screen.
I was educated during the 1960’s and early 1970’s, when cultural
awareness began to creep into university curriculums. And so we found ourselves
taking African American history courses, learning about "Chicano"
communities, and reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or Black Elk
Speaks. It was a time of internal conflicts between the remembered images of
our childhood television shows and this new picture of the Native American
people, proud and strong, even defiant. We began to hear their stories, see the
meanings inherent within their legends, and experience the collective guilt that
came from knowing of their physical displacement, the rape of their land, and
the effort to re-educate them so as to cast off the naïve assumptions of their
cultures and traditions.
I began my work and ministry in the 1970’s and 1980’s, divisive times
both in American culture and in the church. In those days we sought to minister
to the Indian people because we believed we had a unique connection with them.
That connection was founded on the weavings of sacred writing, myth, and
tradition within a movement that embraces as part of its scriptural canon a book
that speaks of the ministry of Jesus Christ on the American continent prior to
the arrival of the Europeans. The proper use of the Book of Mormon as sacred
scripture has been under wide discussion in the 1970’s and beyond, in part
because of long-standing questions about its historicity and in part because of
perceived theological inadequacies, including matters of race and ethnicity.
Those concerns were directly related to what the church has often called its
"Mission to the Lamanites," the term in the Book of Mormon often
applied indiscriminately to all Native American peoples. While commendable in
its spirit, the missionary efforts were severely compromised by the language of
the Book of Mormon itself, where it depicts the "Lamanites" as having
been cursed because of their unfaithfulness and iniquity: "Wherefore, as
they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, the Lord God caused a
skin of blackness to come upon them that they might not be enticing to my
people." (II Nephi 4:35)
We cannot mask with theological apologetics or cultural acrobatics the
inadequate and destructive consequences of language such as that. Whatever our
view of the Book of Mormon may be, we must purge from our consciousness any
notion that the color of people’s skin is an indicator of their worthiness, or
that white skin is "delightsome" while black or brown skin is
"loathsome." While good people made substantial effort to move beyond
the folklore and language of the book, it was very difficult to form an outreach
program of ministry around such an understanding in a time of increased
sensitivity to culture and language.
That effort in the 1970’s and 1980’s was but an extension of a long
history of efforts to reach out to the Lamanite people and bring them to Christ.
In the earliest months of the church’s organization in 1830 Oliver Cowdery was
called to "go unto the Lamanites, and preach my gospel unto them; and
inasmuch as they receive thy teachings, thou shalt cause my church to be
established among them." (Doctrine and Covenants 27:3a-b) The city
of Zion was prophesied to be built "on the borders by the Lamanites" (Doctrine
and Covenants 27:3d) and it was promised that "the Lamanites shall
blossom as the rose" just as "Zion shall flourish upon the hills, and
rejoice upon the mountains." (Doctrine and Covenants 49:5a-b)
This co-mingling of images connecting Native Americans and Zion, while rife
with theological and cultural problems, may have the potential to ultimately
provide us a foundation on which to build. It would be well for us to inquire as
to what it means for Native Americans to "blossom as the rose" and for
Zion to "flourish upon the hills" in a twenty-first century global
society. This is the time in which the church is called to peacemaking and
reconciliation and in which we declare ourselves to be the "Community of
Christ," acknowledging we have much to learn about how to do that. It is
for us to renew our church’s dream of Zion and to express it in contemporary
terms that touch the hearts of people around the world. Perhaps we can explore
the ways in which Native American cultures can contribute to that dream from out
of the uniquely spiritual heritage which is theirs.
But before doing so, we must speak truth in search of wholeness. Throughout
this weekend we have heard cries for acknowledgment, sometimes choked out
through sobbing voices, sometimes expressed with indignation, sometimes unspoken
but layered into the hurts and memories of life experience. It is, in Christian
parlance, a call for confession, without which there cannot be forgiveness, a
call for acknowledgement, without which there cannot be reconciliation.
I will not deny that such calls often engender defensive responses or
carefully-crafted replies. It is hard to apologize for that which one does not
feel he or she personally did. It is hard to acknowledge one’s participation
in systemic repression or in sin which extends over centuries, and thereby
emerges from a time when one did not even live. It is also hard to speak for
everyone, to be a collective voice, because soon we will be reminded that
"you do not speak for me."
All of this is hard, but still we must seek to give voice to that which
causes division between us, to remove the barriers that keep us from being
brothers and sisters. Our scriptural tradition reminds us of the importance of
self-knowledge before judgment, as we read in Matthew: "Or how can you say
to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is
in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then
you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye."
(Matthew 7:4-5 NRSV)
The church is the body of Christ, which exists solely for the purpose of
extending into the present time the ministries of Jesus. The church was charged
with continuing the message which was embodied in the life of Jesus as he walked
the earth. We become his body, called to live as he would live, do as he would
do. The popular culture has simplistically adopted the phrase, "What would
Jesus do?" and put WWJD on bracelets and t-shirts. Historical critics
quickly explained that we cannot really know what Jesus would do, because this
passage or that event is questionable in terms of its authenticity. And in the
midst of the over-simplification and the over-complication people twist in the
wind, awaiting a word of hope from those who would be the body of Christ.
We must be reminded that the central message of the Christian faith is that
Jesus died for sins he did not commit. The journey to the cross was a lonely one
and Jesus cried out in anguish for understanding, even for his own
understanding. But he went to the cross that we might have life and life
eternal. And now we are his body. What would Jesus do?
The story of Native peoples has been chronicled with eloquence and passion
this weekend. It is a story of a deeply spiritual tradition that carries within
it many, if not all, of the principles long ago embraced by the Christian faith.
If expressed in a variety of cultural forms, invoking a spirit world not well
understood by those of us with European roots, it still embraces the heart and
soul of the ministry of Jesus. All cultures reflect their values imperfectly,
and so it is with Native Americans. We do not speak of the perfect embodiment of
values but of the inherent meanings that are at the core of who we are.
But the legacy of history is undeniable. A people who believed we are one
with the land were exploited by those who believed land is property to be bought
and sold. A people who believed that animals are relatives who teach us much
about ourselves watched as the buffalo were slaughtered and left to rot on the
prairies. A people who believed that the trees and the plants are the gifts of
the earth to be used with thanksgiving witnessed the defoliation of forests and
the strip mining of lands set aside for nurture. A people who believed that
space is sacred and that it is visited by ancestors and becomes a source of
spiritual knowledge experienced the desecration of sacred places and the loss of
And now the legacy is seen in the tragic demographics of contemporary life.
Native Americans have the second lowest life expectancy of any population in
this hemisphere. One-third live below the poverty level, deaths linked to
alcoholism are over five times the national rate, teen suicide is 70% higher
than the U.S. population, and unemployment exceeds 50% on reservations.1 The
cycle of poverty, lack of education, drug and alcohol dependency, and bitterness
about past and present realities create a people living on the margins, and
seemingly unable to escape.
As products of our own people and culture, we must acknowledge our
culpability in the vast mosaic of abuse, violence, disinterest, and
insensitivity that has marked the experience of Native peoples in America. We
are inheritors of a history that was exploitive and destructive to Native
peoples, and thereby exploitive and destructive to the souls of all of us. We
have benefited indirectly from choices made by previous generations that now
weigh heavily on the shoulders of our brothers and sisters among Native
Americans. We still participate in choices that allow the repression and neglect
As a church called to be the community of Christ, we must acknowledge our own
failure to respect and honor the culture and lives of Native peoples. We were
well-meaning in our efforts to share the gospel of Jesus Christ, but we had not
seen the log in our own eye. In doing so, we were grievously ethnocentric,
seeking to drape the central message of the gospel of Jesus Christ with
culturally-driven assumptions that did not recognize the spirit of God already
at work among Native peoples. We did not mean to hurt, but we did. We were
sometimes blinded by our fears and our ignorance. We remain products of our
respective pasts and to the extent it is humanly possible we express our sorrow
and regret that we were not more sensitive to the enormous contribution Native
people can make to the fulfillment of our visions and dreams.
I am sorry, and I believe I speak for many of our people who are also deeply
sorry for the pain experienced by those Native peoples who populated this
continent long before it was "discovered" by those from another land.
We acknowledge the hurt inflicted by the forces of political, military, and
cultural exploitation. If words can give life to the possibilities of the
future, then let us say the words. We are sorry. We ask for your forgiveness and
pray that God’s reconciling spirit will permit the healing to begin.
Sorrow and acknowledgement are not enough. I pledge the energy and resources
of this church in an effort to replace words with actions and to embody the
yearnings of our hearts with the labor of our hands. Even as I speak these words
I know we will, at least in part, fail. How can we fully respond to the enormity
of the task, not only with Native Americans, but with the other people of the
world who are repressed and marginalized? But if you will grace us with patience
and challenge us with love, we will try.
And now is the time for us to look for points of convergence, to discover
patterns of meaning that acknowledge the journey of all people called into this
community which dares to take on the name of Jesus Christ. I earlier referred to
the statement in our Doctrine and Covenants which says that Native peoples
"shall blossom as the rose" and shall be a part of a time when
"Zion shall flourish upon the hills, and rejoice upon the mountains."
(Doctrine and Covenants 49:5a-b) Perhaps it is well for us to ask in a
new time what that imagery may mean and how we can embrace it as a framework for
creating a future that fills in the empty spaces and replaces a legacy of
violence with a vision of love.
W. Paul Jones, a Catholic/Methodist theologian who has become a friendly
critic of the RLDS tradition, has referred to our "Native American
magnetism" in this way:
There is a special relation between the RLDS movement and native
Americans. While this has sometimes led to confusion of mission and
ambiguity of attitude, there is something in this intriguing passion and
compassion that is worth exploring. Christendom is in need of learning from
native Americans a holism of lifestyle, a sacramental spirituality, an
ecology for the earth, a sensitivity to the rhythm of living and dying, a
respect for the wisdom of the elderly, and the profound oneness of spirit
and body. That is, it needs help in exploring Zion.2
One of the advantages of a friendly voice from outside our own tradition is
that it can sometimes permit us to see ourselves in ways we would otherwise
miss. Not loaded down with the baggage that often accompanies our
self-perception, they can call us to accountability for our own proclamation and
heritage. I have always believed that the church is judged the most by our own
words, not by those who would criticize from beyond our fellowship. Inherent in
the things we proclaim is the recognition that we are rarely close to what we
would call others to be. And so we continue to live in the judgment of our own
humanness and shortcomings, called again and again to consciousness and
The wonderful people from the communications firm which has been trying to
understand our tradition in order to help us in our transition to our new name,
have read extensively in our literature and talked with hundreds and hundreds of
our people. They have perceptively noticed that we have very little symbolic
language in our church and very few physical symbols that are meaningful to us.
That is perhaps why we cling so tenaciously to our church seal as a visual
expression of who we are.
But they made an observation which caught my attention and has played on my
mind ever since. We have, they say, "inherent metaphors of movement,
journey, and path."3 I was struck by how true that is. As one looks at our
church’s history, one quickly sees that we were a people driven from location
to location, displaced by violence, misunderstanding, and fear. To be a people
in search of a home, a place to settle and declare to be the land of promise,
seems to be an inescapable image for us. We dreamed of a homeland, a place we
called Zion. We even marked a spot where it would be built. But it eluded us,
kept slipping from our grasp, as we tried to seize it and hold it tight.
Over the years the sense of displacement and journey has become less
geographic than spiritual and intellectual. Now we seek identity and meaning,
and we wind our way through conflict and malaise in search of a compelling
mission. Still we move, a bit afraid to settle perhaps, worried that we will
only be driven out again, not by a mob this time but by indifference and lack of
I have thought about all of that during this conference as you have sought to
tell your stories. I thought about how even though we have been participants,
conscious or unconscious, in the loss of your cultural and spiritual homeland,
so have we as a church experienced what it means to be uprooted and had the
integrity of witness challenged and dispersed.
Perhaps here, in the convergence of our journeys, there is a reason to talk
about whether the dreams and visions of our ancestors can find a new resting
place in a new era of human history. I have quoted from scriptural phrasings
that, read in context with their times, may have troubling images for us, even
as I have shared earlier. But my desire is to avoid entanglement with the
life-denying literalism of ancient language and instead to discover the spirit
that breathes hope into the words and recasts the vision for a new century and
on a new frontier.
And so on the spot marked for the city of Zion we have erected a Temple
spiraling to the heavens, a gigantic teepee or wigwam some of you have called
it. We no longer think of the "city" in the same way, but does the
dream of a spiritual homeland still carry meaning for us? I daresay it does and
if this nautilus shell in which we worship can be a symbol for that vision
perhaps it can be a shared sacred space that brings us together in a song of
peace, affirming the sadness of our remembering and the hopefulness of our
And so what, as a church, do we have to learn from Native Americans? There is
so much to say, but as I have reflected I have been amazed at the confluence of
ideas and symbols between the Restoration tradition and Native American
spirituality. It is, of course, expressed in different terms, but the meanings
bristle with possibility.
Jimmy Durham, a Cherokee, writes these words:
In Ani Yonwiyah, the language of my people, there is a word for
land: Eloheh. The same word also means history, culture and religion.
This is because we Cherokees cannot separate our place on earth from our
lives on it, nor from our vision and our meaning as a people. From childhood
we are taught that the animals and even the trees and plants that we share a
place with are our brothers and sisters.
So when we speak of land, we are not speaking of property, territory or
even a piece of ground upon which our houses sit and our crops are grown. We
are speaking of something truly sacred.4
This concept beautifully expresses some of the earliest Restoration
understandings of the dream of Zion. There is no distinction between sacred and
secular, for all things are sacred and the elements are eternal. That is why the
early Latter Day Saints sought to build literal cities. They believed that the
kingdom of God was built with bricks and mortar and was in harmony with the land
and the time, not awaiting some future time when the kingdom would
"come." Instead, we believed that the kingdom is here in our midst, at
least in part, and that from the natural world comes the city of equity and
justice, where all persons have worth and share with each other from their
Perhaps you can help us with the physical symbols we so urgently need to give
life and vibrancy to our words of meaning. If we have moved away from a literal
city of Zion, recognizing that such a place on only one piece of ground becomes
real to only a small number of our people, we still need the symbols that make
the land holy and that make this time sacred time. The great Lakota leader who
we have known as Sitting Bull spoke these words while walking barefoot,
"Healthy feet can hear the heart of Holy Earth."5
When I read those words I thought about how my feet on this ground in America
can "hear" the feet of my brothers and sisters in Africa or India on
the other side of the world. It is not a matter of them coming to this place
which we consider sacred, but to recognize that this place is a symbol of
God’s sacred creation. If our feet can hear the heart of Holy Earth, our
vision of Zion, which is a dream of brotherhood and sisterhood the world around,
can take on a form that has power and meaning.
Our people love to go to camps and reunions. It is a time, they say, to
"get away from it all." It is a time to discover one’s true self,
apart from the strains and pressures of everyday life. People speak of our camps
as "holy ground," usually meaning that important spiritual experiences
have happened to them there, that they have met special friends there, or that
it has been a good time with family. But can Native peoples help us discover new
understandings of what it means to camp on holy ground? We have limited it to
what we have experienced there, never thinking about its sacred center, it’s
ancestral character, its connection with our community in other places. Can you
help us see?
We have embraced a church seal that depicts a lion and a lamb and a child. It
is a powerful symbol for us, based on the scripture in Isaiah which depicts the
peaceable kingdom as the place where "the wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling
together, and a little child shall lead them. …They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea." (Isaiah 11: 6, 9 NRSV) But as meaningful as
that symbol is for us, I do not believe that most of us in the church are close
enough to the earth to understand its power.
I read the words of a Laguna Pueblo, Leslie Silko, who was seeking his
homeland and said it thusly:
I climb the black rock mountain
Stepping from day to day
I smell the wind for my ancestors
pale blue leaves
crushed wild mountain smell.
Up the gray stone cliff
Where I descended
a thousand years ago.
Returning to faded black stone
where mountain lion laid down with deer.6
It is, you see, precisely the same imagery as the one from Isaiah that has
been etched into our church buildings and appliquéd to our signage. But for all
its power and meaning, it does not speak to most of us with the heartfelt
witness of many generations. It is the symbol for our church and for our dream
of Zion. Can you help us see?
In the earliest writings of our church, we see the wrestling with concepts
that cause us to be builders and creators of Zionic community. In the Doctrine
and Covenants we read, "The elements are eternal, and spirit and element,
inseparably connected, receiveth a fullness of joy; and when separated, man
cannot receive a fullness of joy. The elements are the tabernacle of God; yeah,
man is the tabernacle of God, even temples.." Such a view moves us toward a
vision of Zion that sees the things of this world as sacred things, that
recognizes every moment as a divine moment, that discovers God in the midst of
the ordinary and commonplace. But our culture denies such a view. It says that
the elements are temporary, that they can be used up and tossed away, that many
moments are without meaning, and that God appears now and then in a spectacle of
glory but is more usually absent.
But listen to Black Elk, who speaks thusly:
We should understand well that all things are the works of the Great
Spirit. We should know that the Great Spirit is within all things: the
trees, the grasses, the rivers, the mountains, and the four-legged animals,
and the winged peoples; and even more important, we should understand that
the Great Spirit is also above all these things and peoples. When we do
understand all this deeply in our hearts; then we will fear, and love, and
know the Great Spirit, and then we will be and act and live as the Great
There could be no clearer statement of the Restoration principle that the
elements are eternal. Black Elk speaks in words that not only embrace the
principle but recognize the response in how we live once we understand its
meaning. It is, in our terms, the call to discipleship. Can you help us to see?
This evening we invite you into a journey of brotherhood and sisterhood. It
is one that acknowledges the past, its pain and its suffering and its betrayals,
and discovers in its ashes the redemptive love of faith in Jesus Christ. He was
one who carried within him the sure knowledge of the Great Spirit, seeing that
spirit in the despised, the rejected, the marginalized, the poor, the lost. It
is a journey that acknowledges that we have things to learn from one another,
and that sometimes our differences are but another side of the same mountain,
our experiences only the shadings of a new day. It is a journey that embraces
the dreams of all our ancestors to live in a world which is sacred, which honors
the wisdom of age and celebrates the vibrancy of youth, which nurtures the land,
lives in harmony with the animals, and redeems the past through the hopes of the
future. It is a sacramental journey to which we are summoned.
We are a people of covenant. We are called, together, as brothers and
sisters, into a journey of trust with one another. Perhaps these prophetic words
from the Restoration tradition speak to us here in this place this evening:
"Know, O my people, the time for hesitation is past. The earth, my
creation, groans for the liberating truths of my gospel which have been given
for the salvation of the world." (Doctrine and Covenants 155:7)
And may these words from the Yaqui tradition, expressed as a morning prayer,
send us into engagement with that challenge by recognizing that each of us must
find our path if any of us are to arrive at our destination:
to the east:
where grandfather lives
to the north:
where cold comes from
to the south:
where warm winds blow
to the west:
where grandmother earth has her place
I offer my song.
ask clarity for my confusion
ask purity for my heart
that I may know my purpose
my harmonious place in the order of things.8
May we journey together as a covenant people, discovering the joy that comes
from knowing each other’s hearts, that all of us may truly "blossom as
the rose," permitting our shared dreams to "flourish upon the hills,
and rejoice upon the mountains."
1. Report of the Task Force on Ministry to Native American Nations, World
Conference Bulletin 2000 (Independence, MO: Reorganized Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter Day Saints), page 199.
2. W. Paul Jones, "Demythologizing and Symbolizing the RLDS
Tradition," Restoration Studies V (Independence, MO: Herald House,
1993), page 115.)
3. "Twelve First Principles for the Community of Christ Identity
Program," unpublished paper, Crane Metamarketing, January 2001, page 2.
4. Jimmy Durham, as cited in Joseph Bruchac and Diana Landau (eds), Singing
of Earth: A Native American Anthology, Berkley, California: The Nature
Company, 1993, page 57.
5. As cited in Bruchac and Landau, page 46.
6. As cited in Bruchac and Landau, page 66.
7. Black Elk, The Sacred Pipe, as cited in Alive Now
(September-October 1984), page 23.
8. Carol Lee Sanchez as cited in Bruchac and Landau, page 54.