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Informal ecumenical ministry serves people on the Yakama reservation

Several small congregations and ecumenical ministries on the Yakama Reservation mingle their resources to serve their communities of Toppenish, Wapato, White Swan and Zillah.

From the 15-member Christ Episcopal Church in Zillah to 50-member congregations, they struggle to maintain buildings and pay pastors, but are committed to cooperating to build cross-cultural understanding, break down racism, house homeless people, feed hungry people and spread hope.

At the fall 2010 Episcopal Diocesan Convention in Spokane, David Hacker, a member of Christ Church and postulant for the priesthood, told of the interrelated ministries on the reservation.

David Hacker
David Hacker

With a $20,000 grant the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane received for cross-cultural, anti-racism training, David, who recently began working as statewide director of congregational relations for the Lutheran Public Policy Office of Washington, and David Bell, who co-directs the Yakima Christian Mission with Belinda Bell, will facilitate ecumenical training for the communities and churches.

“Our goal is to model God’s multicultural kingdom here among the Hispanic, Japanese, Filipino, African American, Native American and European American people,” he said.

Participating in this unnamed, informal relationship are Toppenish United Methodist, Faith Lutheran in Toppenish, White Swan United Methodist, Wapato Community Presbyterian, the Disciples of Christ’s Yakima Christian Mission in White Swan and Christ Episcopal, plus Campbell Farm, Noah’s Ark Shelter and Mending Wings ministries in Wapato.

They connect with efforts of the Indian Shaker Church and Longhouse religion efforts to reclaim culture, language and traditions, lost through boarding schools and public education.

Several churches help support Mending Wings, a Native American youth group that meets at the multicultural Presbyterian Church.

Denominational ministries now overlap. When the Presbyterian church wondered how to keep up its 75-year tradition of serving a turkey dinner in November, Episcopal and Methodist churches helped, and Carman Pimms, director of Campbell Farm, organized the kitchen crew.

That Sunday Christ Episcopal members attended worship at the Presbyterian church.
Discouraged by finances, the Presbyterian church’s session voted on a Tuesday in October to close, but the next Sunday, members said, “Wait, the community needs our vision and mission.”  The session reconsidered their decision and the congregation continues.  Once a predominantly white congregation, the church is now learning to embrace its multi-ethnic identity, welcoming the homeless, ex-gang members, Native and Latino youth and families.

Although small, Christ Episcopal gives 10 percent of its income away each year.  It supports Zillah Food Bank, recently sent $750 for Episcopal Relief and Development to dig a well and supports other local-to-global missions.  It has new life, with baptisms and a confirmation class, David said.  It is doing a shared Bible study with the United Methodist churches.

The churches have held and are planning several joint services—a Taizé service, an animal blessing and a Good Friday service. In June, the group will hold a joint Pentecost service with shared communion.

A cooperative of local pastors and lay leaders meet monthly to coordinate shared ministry activities: Two non-stipended priests, Joan Dahl and Beth Kuhr, serve Christ Episcopal. David Norwood, pastor at Wapato Presbyterian, recently added a job with Hospice.  Derel Olson serves the Methodist churches.   Carman, who is Native American, is in the process for ordination in the Lutheran Church.

The goals of these ministry partners on the 1.2 million-acre Yakama Reservation—home for 10,000 Yakama— are to 1) enhance worship in congregations, 2) coordinate service projects, 3) coordinate mission groups, 4) offer theological education and 5) engage in advocacy.

On the reservation, about 90 percent of children receive free or reduced-price lunches.  While the tribe is an extended family and seeks to care for its people, poverty, suicide and homelessness rates are high.

David told how the ministries respond to those struggles.

United Methodists in Toppenish and White Swan assist the 85-year-old Disciples Yakima Christian Mission in White Swan.  Native American parents going to the mountain to pick berries, the forests to hunt or the river to fish, once left their children in the care of the church and boarding school, which sought to “civilize” them. Now its summer and after-school children’s programs, nutrition and literacy programs, summer camps and sustainable teaching farm seek to restore Yakama culture and ties to the land.

The 40-acre Campbell Farm, a Presbyterian mission, receives groups from around the nation who come for a week to live in community, work on the farm, share in cross-cultural community services and return home to share what they learn.

“They not only help children, but also are transformed so they will help change policies that affect what happens here,” David explained.

At Campbell Farm, young people help grow and harvest wheat, thresh and winnow it, and make bread.  They grow, pick and press grapes, learning to be in relationship with the land.

Generating Hope, which operates Noah’s Ark Shelter, takes people off the streets and helps them find substance abuse counseling and medical care.  Volunteers help cook meals for 30 to 50 people who stay there at night.

Volunteers from churches and the community worked with shelter residents last summer to paint a mural on the shelter’s exterior wall.  One church funded the mural, designed by David’s daughter, Hilary Hacker, and her friend, Alicia Martensen.

The mural, dedicated in September, depicts the hopes, dreams, strengths and visions of shelter residents.  It shows bears, eagles, horses, salmon, apples, wheat, potatoes, camas, huckleberries, mountains, rivers, forests and fields.  It depicts a Native American catching a fish beside a Hispanic farm worker picking fruit.

“It’s an image of people with a home and places to hunt, fish and live on the land,” he said.  “It expresses the hopes of people who are dispossessed.”

David hopes the multi-cultural training will help people learn new ways to live together.
“Cross-cultural communication requires persistence and patience,” he said, “learning by being with people, interacting with and even risking offending them, being flexible and aware of one’s limitations.

“We listen and observe, tolerating ambiguity, respecting others, avoiding stereotypes, being non-judgmental and praying for the Holy Spirit’s leading,” David said.  “For churches to be multicultural, they need to let their walls be porous to include the community.”

Anti-racism training can help churches see how the system benefits white people.  That awareness, he said, can help people embrace multiculturalism.

David also believes people need to know the history of the Doctrine of Discovery, Papal Bulls giving Christian explorers the right to claim land they “discovered,” and its impact “on our government’s relationship with First Peoples of this land.”

“We need to understand about treaties with the federal government,” he added.

Twenty years ago, David earned a master of divinity from the Episcopal Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley. After seminary, he directed a family shelter and an emergency food bank in Stockton, Calif., where he met his late wife, Sheri Noah.  In 1995, he directed the Hunger Action Coalition in Detroit. While he and Sheri co-directed Campbell Farm from 2001 to 2007, they attended the Presbyterian church.

After she died in 2007, he began attending Christ Episcopal Church and bought the building that houses Noah’s Ark, named in her memory.

He also teaches critical thinking at Heritage College in Toppenish and is coordinator for the Yakima County VISTA program. Working with the Lutheran Public Policy Office, he invites people to advocate for the poor and speak out for justice.  He is developing the Advocating Congregations Program to help congregations embrace advocacy as one of their major ministries, create annual advocacy plans, choose issues, educate themselves and others, write letters, and challenge unjust policies.

For information, call 509-961-4692 or 206-464-4133 or email


Copyright © January 2011- The Fig Tree