A Tale From The Desert
Last week, my spouse, a black-Caribbean man, and I, a white-American woman, took our first ever desert vacation to Joshua Tree National Park, on the ancestral homelands of the Cahuilla, Mojave, Serrano, and Chemehuevi peoples.
One of our stops in the national park was the Cholla Cactus Garden. Cholla cactus are short, there’s something in their posture that reminds me of Ewoks. They also release pods that remind me of Tribbles. In addition to reminding me of two separate sci-fi universes, they have beautiful pale green blooms and their needles are dangerous, earning the nick-name “jumping cactus.”
There is a single interpretive sign in the Cholla Cactus Garden, it starts with a quote from J. Smeaton Chase, in California Desert Trails, 1919, “If the plant bears any helpful or even innocent part in the scheme of things on this planet, I should be glad to hear of it.” The sign goes on:
We humans often find value in other living things only when we see a profit for ourselves. We fail to recognize the value of a thing to itself or other living things. The Cholla (choy-ya) cactus is one of these outcasts. If we could ask the desert woodrat or the cactus wren how they value the cholla, undoubtedly they would have an eye-opening perspective to share.
As new comers to the desert we liked this. The cholla doesn’t serve a human purpose, but humans are only one piece in the mosaic of creation. “Excellent point interpretative sign.”
The next day, when we stopped at the Cahuilla Tewanet Vista Point, in the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. The vista is a little over an hour from the Cholla Cactus Garden. Exhibits at the vista share the Cahuilla Creation Story, sacred songs, and uses for indigenous plants. One sign read:
Chukal (Silver Cholla) We prepare the buds of Chukal to eat by boiling or roasting them on hot stones. The ashes of the stems can be used to treat cuts and burns. We use every part of the plant for food or medicine.
The authors of the sign at the national park were well intentioned, but by not centering the wisdom of the indigenous people of the area, they missed out on the usefulness of the Cholla plant and have mis-informed millions of visitors each year.
Hopes and Fears
I am a United Methodist. General Conference 2019 made the punishments for LGBTQIA+ ordination and marriage stricter. After GC’19 many have taken action. They’ve started to plan for a more inclusive or less punitive church in the future. Next week, about 600 people will be gathering in Kansas City for a discussion about what the new Methodism will look like.
My hope is that the gathering in Kansas will center the voices of those who have been most marginalized in the history of the Methodist Tradition: queer people, trans people, people of color and indigenous people. My fear is that it will not.
I am afraid that we will be more motivated by PR and optics than we are by justice. I’m concerned that we will see BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ people as unfortunate victims that we bravely make room for, rather than vital members of the body of Christ with gifts for leadership and wisdom that comes from being at the margins.
Our Movement Forward
The consequences of not knowing the traditional indigenous uses for cholla cactus are small for my life in Minnesota. The consequences of ignoring the wisdom and gifts of my siblings in Christ are much more devastating. We are missing out if we refuse to really put these voices in the middle.
Just before the gathering in Kansas City, another summit is happening. Our Movement Forward, starts tomorrow, Friday, May 17, and continues Saturday, May 18. This Summit is dedicated to CENTERING the voices of BIPOC and Queer and Trans people. People like me, who are neither BIPOC nor LGBTQIA+ are invited to participate after completing solidarity training.
The Holy Spirit is doing something. Over 330 people registered. About half of whom identify as Queer and/or Trans and/or BIPOC. We have people coming from all around the world. My prayer is that something beautiful and holy and wise will come from this Summit. Something that would help us know how to move forward. And that the Methodist movement would be a more just, loving and beautiful movement.