by Rev. Cliff Cutler
Episcopal Bishop Steven Charleston, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, will speak on his recently published book, “The Four Vision Quests of Jesus,” at Saint Paul’s Church, 22 E. Chestnut Hill Ave., on Saturday, Oct. 24, 3 p.m. The presentation is sponsored by the Philadelphia Theological Institute. Following his talk there will be a book signing and reception. A discussion group will be formed as well. By telling his story and that of his people Bishop Charleston welcomes listeners and readers into the circle of his family. His book has the poetry and much of the poignancy of the classic “Black Elk Speaks.”
When Steven and I were both young, we sat together. I listened as Steven recounted being identified in the east as Greek, Italian, perhaps Mexican but never as a Native person. In those few words he opened to me a tragic invisibility, a resistance to assimilation and the beginning of his quest to discover his religious identity. This presentation is the culmination of many years of seeking.
Bishop Charleston is a descendant of the historic, tragic “Trail of Tears.” President Andrew Jackson ignored a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court and ordered the Choctaw Nation to be first on the forced march from their homeland in Mississippi and parts of Alabama and Louisiana to a place the Choctaw called Oklahoma, a word meaning red people.
(Ed. Note: Many historians have referred to the “Trail of Tears” as Native American genocide. It was a series of forced relocations of Native American nations in the U.S. following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The removal included members of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations from their ancestral homelands in the southeastern U.S. to an area west of the Mississippi River that had been designated as Indian Territory.
(According to Wikipedia, “Between 1830 and 1850, the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, Creek, Seminole and Cherokee peoples (including European Americans and African American freedmen and slaves who lived among them) were forcibly removed from their traditional lands and relocated further west … The relocated peoples suffered from exposure, disease and starvation while enroute, and many died before reaching their various destinations.
(“The Cherokee Nation removal in 1838 (the last forced removal east of the Mississippi) was brought on by the discovery of gold near Dahlonega, Georgia, in 1829, resulting in the Georgia Gold Rush … Approximately 2,000 to 6,000 of the 16,543 relocated Cherokee perished along the way.”)
That history left Bishop Charleston doubting that he could keep his Native identity and be a Christian at the same time. Then, as a young man, came a vision that set him on a lifelong quest. Standing in a circle of corn meal on a rooftop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was given a message by a large black crow, “Do not be afraid. There are two paths to follow, but one path to find. Be patient.”
Years later while reading of Jesus in the wilderness from the Gospel of Matthew a voice came to him that said, “You have just read the first vision quest of Jesus.” In Jesus’ wilderness temptation, the stones of the earth become a major character. They “have known the mind of God for a very long time.”
Jesus’ second vision quest takes place on the “Mesa of the Transfiguration,” as interpreted by the Hopi people. Then there is Jesus’ Gethsemane Sun Dance vision; and finally Jesus as the Two-Spirit Messiah on the cross who takes in to himself the spirit of every person who ever lived, sacrificing for their well being.
Bishop Charleston was ordained an Episcopal priest on the Standing Rock Reservation, and later elected Bishop of Alaska. Currently he teaches at the Saint Paul School of Theology at Oklahoma City University. For more on his Oct. 24 presentation, you may contact the Philadelphia Theological Institute at philadelphiatheologicalinstitute.org/the-four-vision-quests-of-jesus/ or call Saint Paul’s Church at 215-242-2055.
Rev. Cliff Cutler is the Rector of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill.