Sermon | Chief Lawrence Hart and the sacred ground we share
Text: Matthew 5:13-16; 38-48
Speaker: Joel Miller
After the funeral service and burial the mourners gather in the community center for a large meal – beef, fry bread, and other favorites. As everyone is eating the family gathers around the pile of gifts. These are not gifts they have received, but gifts they will give out. It’s the giveaway, the traditional Cheyenne practice of honoring those who have been part of their life.
The first to receive the gifts are chiefs who led the singing and prayers during the ceremony, then others who played a part in the service. Then everyone in attendance. People are called forward by name. Gifts are given. Hugs and condolences exchanged. A final call for anyone who has not yet received a gift to come forward and share in the thanksgiving.
In earlier times the giveaway had served to share with those in need, making sure everyone in the community had enough. It had evolved into a practice of showing honor and gratitude - Like a photographic negative of how we do birthday parties and baby showers. Here it’s the host who gives out the gifts in appreciation for the guests’ presence in their lives.
In the early settlement years the giveaway had been banned by the US government for five decades. It was seen as uncivilized, disregarding the values of private property and wealth accumulation, anti-capitalistic. But the Cheyenne found ways to keep the practice alive. It was alive and well at the funeral of Chief Lawrence Hart who died earlier this year at the age of 89, eight months ago today, March 6, 2022. The Cheyenne say: “All Chiefs die poor (from helping their people), but pass rich in love and regard.”
The scripture on the bulletin for the service was one of Hart’s favorites: Isaiah 40:31: “But those who hope in the Lord shall renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.”
This story and a longer reflection on the funeral service can be found HERE.
Every year on this first Sunday of November we observe All Saints/All Souls Days by lighting memorial candles for those in our lives who have died. For the sermon, I tell the story of an Anabaptist forbearer. Anabaptists originally reacted against the excesses of church hierarchy by emphasizing the priesthood of all believers. This observance is a small attempt to reclaim our need for saints, which is to say our need for spiritual ancestors who open up forus loving and joyful ways of being in this world.
Today we light a candle for Cheyenne chief and Mennonite pastor Lawrence Hart.
I never met Lawrence Hart. My first memory of hearing his name was at one of my first Central District Conference annual meetings. CDC was collecting handmade cedar boxes to contribute toward Hart’s “Return to the Earth”project. The Cheyenne Cultural Center he helped start outside Clinton, Oklahoma has space for over 25,000 of these boxes of remains, recovered from museums and other sites around the country, an honorable burial for unnamed ancestors of tribes across the US.
My closest relational connection to Chief Hart came this summer at the Mennonite Church USA special delegate assembly in Kansas City. One of the people at my assigned round table was Susan Hart, Lawrence’s niece, now pastor of Koinonia Indian Mennonite Church where Lawrence had pastored. I had recently read of Lawrence’s death, and conversations with Pastor Susan planted the seeds to look further into his life.
Today I’m drawing largely from a book by Raylene Hinz-Penner titled Searching for Sacred Ground: The Journey of Chief Lawrence Hart, Mennonite. I was also able to have phone conversations this past week with Pastor Susan, and Betty Hart, Lawrence’s wife.
So how does a Cheyenne chief on the Oklahoma plains become a Mennonite pastor?
Well, for one, he was born into the Mennonite Church. Hart helped others understand these connections while giving the commencement speech at Bethel College in 1998, a small liberal arts Mennonite college in Kansas, his alma mater. There he told the story of the Cheyenne people’s roots in Siberia, migrating East over Beria, coming down through Alaska, the Great Lakes, and the plain states, leaving behind Cheyenne place names everywhere they left. He then told of the European Mennonites who had gone to Russia at the invitation of Catherine the Great, turning those grasslands into farms. These Mennonites then migrated West and eventually found other grasslands in the Great Plains of Kansas and Oklahoma. The two peoples had once occupied nearby territories, gone opposite directions, and arrived on the other side of the world in the same place, meeting well over 100 years ago, their lives intertwined ever since.
Despite European Mennonites being the ones who plowed up sacred sites into farmland, despite Mennonite participation in schools and missions that sought to “educate” the Indians, Hart’s life work was in finding not just common ground, but sacred ground to share. I do wonder if he ever connected Jesus’ teaching to love your enemies with how he would relate with white Mennonites. In loving an enemy, one believes that we are ultimately part of the same tribe. To live accordingly is to make it real, at least within one’s own person.
Like other native peoples on this continent, the Cheyenne have been recipients of unspeakable violence. In the 1840s the Cheyenne and Arapaho made peace with the Comanches and Kiowas which gave them greater range for hunting. Chief Black Kettle sought to make peace with white settlers but the 1860s involved two massacres that killed over 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women, and children, soon followed by confinement to reservations. First at Sand Creek, then the massacre of Washita, a surprise attack on a snowy morning by General Custer’s army. Amidst the terror, Chief Black Kettle and his wife Medicine Woman Later were murdered as they tried to escape on horseback across the Washita River. Chief Black Kettle’s leadership and the tragedy of this event was something Lawrence Hart reflected on throughout his life, including how he made connections with the Anabaptist story.
He once said: “I have often imagined their deaths that November morning on the icy Washita. I see them driving and hurled from their horse into the frozen waters. Last night as I was falling asleep, I thought about their martyrdom, its similarity to some of the Anabaptist martyr stories you would know from the Martyr’s Mirror…Felix Manz, for example, the Anabaptist Martyr in Zurich, was bound and drowned in the cold January waters of the Limmat River.” (Sacred Ground, p. 38)
Lawrence Hart was born in 1933. His mother was not well, so he spent the first six years of his life living with his grandparents. They spoke only Cheyenne and his grandfather, John P. Hart was one of the chiefs. The memory of the old ways, and the massacres of Sand Creek and Washita were strong within the home, passed down to Lawrence.
As a youth Lawrence would help his family pick cotton. One day he needed a break and lay down in the field. Looking up in the sky he would watch for twin engine US Navy planes, flying out of the Naval Air Base in Hutchinson, Kansas. That day he decided he wanted to fly. And so he did. During and after his years at Bethel College he became, to this knowledge, the first full-blooded Native American to be a fighter jet pilot.
As if we need another world held together within a single life. A Mennonite-Cheyenne, pastor-chief, jet fighter pilot! For Hart, the Navy was a path to a dream, one that connected with the warrior feature of traditional Cheyenne life. That Isaiah passage about mounting up on wings like eagles wasn’t just poetry. It was a dream realized.
And as Gandhi once observed, it is often the greatest warriors who make the most committed peacemakers.
Just as Lawrence was on his way to having a military career, his grandfather became very ill and requested that Lawrence be appointed his successor, one of four principle chiefs. It was a calling Lawrence felt he could not deny and one that shaped the rest of his life.
The role went all the way back to the memory of Sweet Medicine, a tribal hero who appointed the first Cheyenne chiefs. At his installation ceremony, Lawrence would take a vow given him in the words of Sweet Medicine:
“You chiefs are peacemakers. Though your son might be killed in front of your tepee, you should take a peace pipe and smoke. Then you would be called an honest chief. You chiefs own the land and the people. If your men, your soldiers societies, should be scared and retreat, you are not to step back but take a stand to protect your land and your people. Get out and talk to the people. If strangers come, you are the ones to give presents to them and invitations. When you meet someone, or he comes to your tepee asking for anything, give it to him. Never refuse. Go outside your tepee and sing your chief’s song, so all the people will know you have done something good.” (Sacred Ground, p. 40)
One can perhaps hear in these vows from Sweet Medicine, who would have never heard a Bible read, resonances with the teachings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, like the passage we read. Let your light shine for all to see. Do not return violence with violence. Give to the one who asks. Show hospitality and respect even to those who will not return it. Lawrence Hart once said: “Being a chief is not so much to occupy a position or to perform functions but to live a way of life.”
I’d like to share two stories from Lawrence’s time as a Cheyenne Peace Chief and Mennonite pastor that demonstrate this way of life that chose him and that he chose.
The first happened early in his leadership. It was November 27, 1968, the 100 year anniversary of the Washita massacre. The city of Cheyenne – not the tribe, but the city of Cheyenne - near the Washita site, had made plans for a commemorative reenactment of the “Battle.” The Oklahoma governor, other dignitaries, and a large audience would be in attendance. The Cheyenne tribe was asked to play the part of the original Cheyenne encampment by the river. It’s difficult to understand why they would agree to this, but they did, under two conditions. One was that it be historically accurate. Two was that previously unearthered remains of a victim would be given over to the Cheyenne for proper burial.
As the Cheyenne took their places for the reenactment, it was their understanding that the local whites would play the part of Custer’s army. Much to their surprise, the ones leading the charge had come that day from California, calling themselves, “The Grand Army of the Republic, the Grandsons of the Seventh Cavalry” – Custer’s regiment. They came roaring on horseback in authentic uniforms and weapons, their officers bearing authentic sabers. They also blared the traditional attack song of Custer’s army, a tune called “Garry Owen.” It was the first part of the agreement, historical accuracy, made too real. Cheyenne people were screaming, children were running. It was even snowing. Hart was furious, no doubt feeling a sense of betrayal, another gesture of goodwill met with broken trust.
After the mock attack the ceremony proceeded into the town of Cheyenne for the final event of the day, the burial of the Cheyenne remains. As the chiefs were singing their prayers during the public burial, The Grandsons intruded again, the leader commanding his regiment to “Present arms.”
In the moment when tensions were highest, it was a young Cheyenne girl who offered a small act that changed the direction of the event. As the coffin box was proceeding past her, Lucille Young Bull took off the beautifully decorated woolen blanket she had draped around her to keep warm, and placed it over the coffin. It was a traditional gesture that had a necessary next step. The blanket honoring the dead had to be given away. It fell to the chiefs to explain the giveaway tradition to the audience, and, importantly, to decide who would receive the blanket. Would it be the Oklahoma governor or the mayor of Cheyenne or another dignitary?
The chiefs huddled together and the older chiefs came to a consensus of who should receive the blanket. They asked Lawrence to do the honors.
Lawrence took to the public microphone and explained the need for this blanket given in honor of the dead to be given away. He then called up Captain Eric Gault, the commanding officer of the Grandsons of the Seventh Cavalry. The captain answered the call in sharp military fashion, marching forward, drawing his saber, and saluting. Lawrence asked him to do an about face, which he did. The blanket was then placed over Captain Gault’s shoulders. This is how Lawrence tells of what happened next:
“The scene that followed is hard to describe. I really get emotionally caught up in it. People broke down and cried. We too cried on each other’s shoulders – these grandsons of the Seventh, and grandsons of Black Kettle…The wise Cheyenne peace chiefs had initiated a reconciliation, which resulted in conflict transformation. It was at this ceremony that the older peace chiefs indelibly impressed onto the younger what it meant to follow the instructions of Sweet Medicine, a prophet of the Cheyenne. The ceremony of reburial ended with the grandsons firing volleys to honor the victim. There was not a dry eye in the audience…When I greeted the captain of the regiment, he took the “Garry Owen” pin from his uniform and handed it to me to accept on behalf of all Cheyenne Indian people. The captain stated, ‘Never again will your people hear ‘Garry Owen.’’” (Sacred Ground p. 145).
The reenactment that had become shockingly too real, became real in a way no one had anticipated. The honoring of those remains helped set the stage for Lawrence’s “Return to the Earth Project,” a wider invitation into shared sacred ground.
A final story I’ll tell happened in the mid 90s, another remembering of another massacre. It’s a story that Pastor Susan Hart holds dear because she was invited by Lawrence to accompany him. She retold the story when we talked on the phone this week. In 1996 Lawrence was asked to be one of four speakers at the one year commemoration of the Oklahoma City bombing. This was the Murrah Federal Building where Timothy McVeigh, in the name of white power, had detonated a truck bomb that killed 168 adults and children, spoken of as the worst act of domestic terrorism to date.
A year later the building had been demolished and the rubble cleared, but a memorial had not yet been built. The old footprint of the foundation was surrounded by a tall metal fence. As Susan tells the story, before the ceremony began, Lawrence walked over to the fence and found a gate, which he managed to open. He was quickly met with fully armed security guards whose job it was to protect the premises. Lawrence’s response was to tell them, “this is sacred ground,” after which he proceeded to find a place within the fence where he could kneel, touch the ground four times – a sacred number corresponding to the four directions - and pray. No one stopped him.
As the first speaker it was also his job to read the first 42 names of the bombing victims.
Lucio Aleman Jr., Teresa Antoinette Alexander, Richard A. Allen, Ted L Allen, Baylee Almon…
In the coming years, whether in giving testimony before the US Congress, or speaking to small groups, Hart would make connections between Washita and Oklahoma City, Black Kettle’s village and those going about serving their agencies within the federal building. His overarching theme, a thread that ran through his entire life, was elevating the importance of sacred grounds. His hope was that these were places where people could come together and meet. He called for “a ground that will accommodate us all.”
Hart went on to be instrumental in partnering with Mennonite leaders like Howard Zehr in promoting the model of restorative justice in place of our present view of punishment and imprisonment. What feels like cutting edge work to us, Hart and Zehr preferred to think of as a healing edge, these practices long known within the Cheyenne tradition, translated now through Mennonite ways of living the gospel. Restorative justice is essentially to restore one to the tribe, and it is the work of not just the leaders or heroes like Lucille Young Bull, but the entire tribe. The priesthood of all believers, we might say.
Today we remember and give thanks for the life of Cheyenne Peace Chief and Mennonite pastor Lawrence Hart. For his calling in the tradition of the prophet Sweet Medicine, for his embodiment of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For his demonstration of Mennonite faith. May we too live on sacred ground that will accommodate us all.