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UM clergy sign letter urging removal of DC mascot

By Erik Alsgaard
UMConnection Staff

A group of religious leaders around the Washington, D.C., area have signed a letter urging the National Football League and current Washington team owner, Daniel Snyder, to change the team’s name.

“The derogatory term ‘redskin’ offends many Native Americans and others in this country,” the letter states. Dated Dec. 5, 2013, the letter was sent to Snyder and Roger Goodell, Commissioner of the NFL.

This past October, Snyder sent a letter to season ticket holders, explaining why the name of the team would not change. According to published reports, Snyder’s letter read, in part: “As some of you may know, our team began 81 years ago – in 1932 – with the name ‘Boston Braves.’ The following year, the franchise name was changed to the ‘Boston Redskins.’ On that inaugural Redskins team, four players and our Head Coach were Native Americans. The name was never a label. It was, and continues to be, a badge of honor,” he said.

“After 81 years, the team name ‘Redskins’ continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are and who we want to be in the years to come,” Snyder declared.

The religious leaders’ letter, however, states that “just because something was acceptable 80 years ago does not make it so today.”

The Rev. Ianther Mills was one of four United Methodist clergy to sign the letter. Pastor at Asbury UMC in Washington, D.C., Mills said she signed the letter because it was the right thing to do.

“I am personally troubled by the racial overtones in the team’s name,” she said. “It’s racist. I feel it’s the equivalent of naming a team after African-Americans the ‘N*****s’ or the ‘Jiggaboos.’”

Mills’ church is part of  a downtown cluster of churches, a loose-knit ecumenical group, she said. She was invited to sign the letter last October through that group’s efforts.

The associate pastor at Asbury UMC, the Rev. Adam Briddell, also signed the letter. He views this moment in history as an opportunity for Snyder to make an impact on society.

“This is a gift for Mr. Snyder,” he said. “The Washington team is such a cultural landmark in this region. It’s not every day that an opportunity to make change like this comes around.”

Briddell said he signed the letter out of his understanding and belief in the United Methodist tradition that all people are created in the image of God.

“All people are of sacred worth,” he said. “That word ‘redskin’ is inconsistent with our understanding of this. I can’t reconcile the team name and my faith.”

Briddell — who, unlike Mills, professes a healthy love of football — said he also signed the letter as a fan. He is part of a group of people at the church who invite “un-housed neighbors” from the Asbury community into the church on Sunday afternoons to watch football. Briddell said that at the start of the 2013 season, about 20 or 30 people came in to watch the game and eat chips and drink soda. On a Sunday in mid-December, with the team suffering through a 3-10 season, six people attended.

Until 2012, The United Methodist Church had an official opposition to holding meetings in cities where team names/mascots used Native American names or symbols. Resolution 3327, “Respecting the Native American Legacy and Tradition,” was adopted in 2004 and appeared in the 2004 and 2008 Books of Resolutions. It does not appear in the 2012 BOR.

The resolution read, in part: “… the General Conference calls upon all the general agencies, annual conferences, and United Methodist Church-related organizations and institutions..., to hold meetings and events in cities that do not sponsor sport teams using Native American names and symbols. ”

In the Baltimore-Washington Conference, the Committee on Native American Concerns (CONAM) has been working on the mascot issue for years, according to Bob Willasch, chair of the committee.

“This mascot issue is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “This issue has been around since the days of King George.”

Willasch, a member of Mays Chapel UMC in Timonium, said that in the 1700s, the Massachusetts colony offered bounties for the scalps of Native Americans. The term “redskin” was used in a derogatory way as far back as the early 1800s.

Willasch said that CONAM has quietly advocated for the team’s name to change, but that it was difficult to accomplish when the vast majority of the city’s residents are fans of the team.

“When you have a society that operates under the idea of getting as much money as it can, as quick as you can, and for as long as you can, why change?” he said. “For Daniel Snyder, he’s making a lot of money (off the team).”

The Rev. Robert Barnes, pastor at Glen Burnie UMC, did not sign the letter but offered a comment when asked about changing the team’s name.

“The plight of Native Americans is one of the great social justice issues that our country must one day holistically address,” he said. “Ironically, complaining about sports nicknames like the ‘Redskins’ is actually counterproductive. The thing to remember is that although many sports nicknames are stereotypes that do not do justice to various groups of people, we only name our teams for peoples who we in some way respect. So when we root for Redskins, Braves or Seminoles, we are reminded that there are peoples who we have mistreated and yet admire, and that one day we must put things right with them.”

Barnes added that this viewpoint only makes sense “if one believes that America is a great nation precisely because we were founded on high ideas which we have always struggled to live up to. If one reduces our history to white racism and exploitation then probably we should rename not only the football team but the city they play in as well.”

Issue Date: 
Wed, 01/15/2014