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James Martin: Native American church in Milwaukee offers unique experience

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James Martin
July 1, 2014

This August, my childhood Boy Scout troop will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Scouting was a major part of my youth and I still carry my Eagle Scout card in my wallet. Our council patch was a silhouette of a Native American on horseback and much of scouting is based upon a strong appreciation and respect for Native American culture and tradition.

Quite sometime ago, our parish priest had mentioned that Milwaukee had a Native American parish called The Congregation of The Great Spirit. It was Father's Day 2013 and I thought it would be fun to do something different. So we stepped out of our parochial faith comfort zone, plied our family into the cars and headed to the south side of Milwaukee for Mass. We returned again this past Father's Day and have decided to make it an annual tradition.

The Congregation of The Great Spirit is, in the true spirit of Vatican II, a fusion of Catholicism and the traditions, language and culture of the Native American community. And that is the best word for this parish: community. As visitors we were warmly welcomed to their Eucharist celebration and made to feel part of their community.

Mass at the Congregation of The Great Spirit has all the rites and rituals of a "typical" Mass with the added bonus of Native American rituals and rites. We used rattles in praise and worship, offered prayers facing the four directions, participated in smudging, and burned tobacco. More about these rituals is below and comes from their website:

The four directions:

--EAST (yellow / sweetgrass). Where the sun rises. It brings new light, new beginnings, and understanding. It is also the direction of spring, birth, and babies. Sweet grass brings the Creator's blessings.

--SOUTH (red / cedar). Where the sun is at its highest and warmest, it brings us the gifts of summer, growth, the young and women. Cedar heals, brings God's blessings and calls His attention to our prayers.

--WEST (black / sage). Setting in the west, this is where the day comes to fulfillment. It is associated with autumn, the adult and fulfillment. It is also the direction from which come the thunders who bring us water, which gives life. Sage purifies and sends evil away.

--NORTH (white / tobacco). From here come the harsh cold winds of winter. it is associated with hardship, cleansing, the elders and purification. If you can face this direction and stand firm you will learn patience and endurance. Tobacco is an offering used to carry our prayers to the Creator."'

Smudge: "When smudging ourselves, our hands are used. When making the smudge available to others, an eagle feather is used. The eagle feather is very sacred to all of our people. The eagle is our messenger to the creator because he flies the highest in the sky and is closest to the creator and the king eagle that sits at his side. Unfortunately, not all of our people have access to an eagle feather, so a substitute from any large bird may used. The ceremonial process of smudging helps us to clear our minds and bodies so that we may make good decisions without negative interfering."

Burning tobacco: "This is the sign of love placed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The fragrant smoke rising up and spreading out to all the people is a sign of our prayer going upward to the Creator and outward to those worshiping with us. This smoke purifies, blesses, and makes holy the people and the sacred things and places.

*In Indian traditions, sweetgrass, tobacco, or dried cedar placed on smoldering bark made a wonderful smoke for prayers and blessings.

**Both in the smoking of the pipe and in burning cedar, the sweet smelling smoke is a visible sign of prayer rising to the Creator."

Mass ended with an invitation to join Fr. Cook at the altar for a traditional drum circle for the closing drum song. It was a spirit filled Mass. I encourage you to visit The Congregation of The Great Spirit and celebrate Mass in a unique way. You will be truly blessed.



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