Church blends American Indian, Christian traditions

  1. Lenny Guiding Bear Spirit with Two Hearts Brown stands outside Thonotosassa United Methodist Church, where the American Indian Christian Circle meets. Many find the circle to be an attractive alternative for people who don’t feel comfortable in mainstream churches.

    The aroma of sage fills the air as leaves burn heavy and sweet in the cupped recess of a shell.

    Worshippers of varying backgrounds pass a feather around a circle and ask their creator for favors equally diverse: A cure for a sick relative, peace in the afterlife, maybe a few more miles on a beat-up truck.

    They come to this church twice a month in a hybrid of American Indian practices and Christianity.

    "We worship Jesus Christ, but we worship him in a Native American fashion, with a big drum," says their leader, Dock Green Silverhawk, 67, of Plant City.

    The American Indian Christian Circle of Thonotosassa draws from as far as Ocala. They might have been raised in the church but are more comfortable in a prayer circle, or are ethnically Indian with a lifelong mistrust of the colonialist model of Christianity.

    They say the circle, which typically draws 50 to 60 people for services at Thonotosassa United Methodist Church, is the only one of its kind in Florida, and that it gives them a unique sense of belonging.

    They have the full support of the church's pastor, and the church's state governing body, which hopes to create more such organizations across the state.

    While some religion scholars frown upon the combination, circle member Vickie Swartz, of Cherokee descent, finds it is an attractive alternative for people who do not feel comfortable in mainstream churches.

    "People can be themselves and worship God in their way," she said.