Tucked away in the woods of East Peoria lies the newest place of worship in the area—the Native American Fellowship Dayspring Church.
In 1691, the French and Kaskaskia Indians established Fort St. Louis II, more commonly known as Fort Pimiteoui, in Peoria after being pushed out of their original fort at Starved Rock by the Iroquois Indians. A chapel was built within the fort, and for 10 years they inhabited the Peoria area peacefully. Then, under pressure from the Iroquois again, the fort was forced to relocate to present-day St. Louis.
For more than 300 years, the Native Americans in this river valley have not had a church to call their own…until now, that is.
“An Indian uprising.” That’s how Rev. Carol Lakota Eastin referred to the formation of the Native American Fellowship (NAF) in the early 1990s. The local Native American community had begun reconnecting through the annual Return to Pimiteoui Pow Wow gathering, which started in 1991. “It became evident that we needed a community base,” said Eastin. “The fellowship was formed from a group of us…who felt we needed a spiritual community that connected our Native American beliefs and our Christian faith.” In 1993, the fellowship started meeting monthly, holding Christian worship services in a Native American cultural context.
After initiating the fellowship, its members approached the United Methodist Church (UMC) about becoming a part of that denomination. The UMC, with more than 200 Native American churches and 18,000 known Native Americans among its 8.2 million members, seemed a natural fit, and in 2005, the fellowship was chartered as a United Methodist Church.
The fellowship, however, had no place to call home. Over the previous decade and a half, they had met in various churches and buildings, at Wildlife Prairie Park and at Seven Circles Heritage Center. Each year, the group had to figure out another place to “live,” explained Eastin.
That all changed when the NAF received a parcel of land in East Peoria from the Peoria United Methodist Church.
The Dayspring property consists of 43 wooded acres in East Peoria filled with diverse wildlife, plant life and a freshwater spring and creek. It was gifted to the Peoria First United Methodist Church about 30 years ago by Mary Moushon, whose husband, a farmer, had acquired more than 600 acres of real estate in his lifetime. In her will, she stated her wish for the property to be preserved for conservation and Christian ministry, and to that end, the First United Methodist Church developed a shelter, walking trails and a devotional area by the spring.
Meanwhile, the NAF was praying for land for its own Methodist ministry. Over time, as the First United Methodist Church shifted focus toward its work in the inner city of Peoria, it learned of the group’s quest, and in 2000, it passed the land on. The prayers of the Native American Fellowship had been answered.
The property sits on a bluff overlooking the neighboring EastSide Centre, where a large paved parking lot full of cars provides a stark contrast to the wooded area full of deer and wild turkeys. “We feel as if we’re living in two worlds,” explained Eastin, “and…being positioned here, we have the opportunity to be in our spiritual, natural realm, but we are constantly reminded of our responsibility to do something for the rest of the world, too.”
In 2007, the fellowship began building its church facility in the form of a log cabin. The main structure, 90 feet long and 54 feet wide, is made of white pine from Pennsylvania, while the porch is constructed from four oak trees that once stood on the site. Those trees, along with other fallen or damaged trees on the property, were gathered into truckloads, milled in rural Galesburg and then brought back.
True to the ways of their ancestors, every smidgen of the felled trees was put to use. Large pieces became beams, smaller pieces became trim for the windows, and scraps were made into cross necklaces for everyone in the congregation. A style of architecture called timber framing was used to build the church, the same as that used in early American barns and European cathedrals. In this method, framed structures of heavy timber are joined together with pegged joints—no metal is used.
The structure of the building was completed this May, and a dedication ceremony was held over Memorial Day weekend. More than 300 people from across the country attended the four-day celebration, which included worship services, camping, traditional games and craft-making. They also held baptisms, pipe ceremonies, drum circles and healing services throughout the weekend.
Eastin referred to several structural features of the church that were important to the Native American community. One was the location of the entrance. She explained their custom of entering a building from the east, and, though it was awkward at first, they were able to work with the land to put the entrance on the east side.
Also of great importance was the view of the woods through the windows on the north side of the Sacred Circle, the main room where services will be held. “We wanted that to be what people see when they are in worship,” Eastin said. It’s not hard to understand why—simply walk in and the view will take your breath away, with lush greens and natural light enveloping the room.
Traditional pews are nowhere to be found in the church. Instead, members will sit in the round, allowing for greater flexibility. As a Native American church, they incorporate a lot of dancing into their worship activities, so they need to be able to move things around easily.
Another unique feature is the lighting. Native American culture thinks not of just one focal point, but of four—north, south, east and west—and because there is no traditional stage or pulpit, there is no need for lighting to accentuate just one area. Instead, special lighting spotlights the four cardinal directions, giving the church a variety of options. For example, if they were holding a traditional water ceremony, the lighting would shine to the west, because that’s where water comes from.
Just off the Sacred Circle is a small prayer room. Today it stands empty, but it will soon be filled with artifacts. The idea for the room came from a conversation Eastin had with a Guatemalan shaman who gave a workshop at Bradley University several years ago. During a break, Eastin told him about the building project and asked if he had any advice.
“He said, ‘I have one thing to say to you: When you build that building, have one room in it that is a sacred room,’” explained Eastin, “‘and every object in that room will have a story and a history. You will be able to—generation after generation—go in and say, ‘This chair belonged to grandma so-and-so, or this spoon was carved out of wood by so-and-so.’” Each object in that room will connect the people to those that were there before.
Due to the hard work of hundreds of volunteers from Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, the cost of labor was dramatically reduced, and the project cost only about half as much as it would have at market rates. In addition, the hired professionals were very generous, often supplying their services for no charge.
The property holds more than just the church building—the rest of the 43 acres is equally rich with Native American culture and spirituality. One area is set aside for a Spirit Fire, which is a sacred fire kept burning for four days that someone must tend to at all times.
Farther into the woods lies the natural spring, from which the property gets its name. Baptisms were recently held there, and the surrounding area was transformed with buffalo and deer skins laid around the spring. Those being baptized bent their heads over the spring as water was poured on them.
Hidden within a nearby meadow is the Medicine Wheel. This place of prayer is kept very sacred and private—not even photographs are allowed. It features a large circle of rocks divided into four quadrants, each representing one of the four directions. You enter the circle and pray a special prayer at each place, walking from one to another—hence, it is a walking prayer path.
Next to the Medicine Wheel stands a wooden cross. The cross is adorned with prayer bundles, which are actually little tobacco ties. For each bundle, someone said a prayer, put tobacco in a cloth and tied it to the cross.
The mission of the NAF Dayspring Church is “to share Native American traditions, spirituality and the teachings of Jesus Christ in an intertribal community, welcome to all.”
It is this combination of Native American culture and Christian teachings that makes the Dayspring Church so unique. “Our worship services begin with a traditional Native American purification ceremony that involves incense and smoke,” Eastin said, “so right at the get-go, it’s not going to look like the other Methodist churches in town.”
Despite the church’s nontraditional approach, Eastin wants to dispel the myth that you must be Native American to join. “We’re a multicultural congregation. We teach Native American spirituality and the teachings of Jesus,” she said. “It’s not exclusive.” Eastin stressed that the church really is open to everyone. “You don’t have to have a tribal card to join,” added Heather Paris Evans, program director. “You don’t have to be Native American, but you have to…be interested in the culture.”
Native American heritage teaches one to recognize the sacred in all of God’s creations. “It’s about acknowledging the sacred that is in everything, every person, not just one day a week but every day,” said Eastin, “the goal being to learn to live with a good mind and to walk in beauty.”
Evans noted that when you look at the building, it doesn’t immediately say that it’s a church. “It looks more like a home,” she said, “and that’s really how we view the church…[as] a home for our spiritual community.”
The state of Illinois has no reservation land for Native Americans, and for centuries, those living here have had no place to call home. “This gives our people something that they can call theirs.” a&s