Lojuana Howard grabbed the edge of the podium and slipped her shoes from her feet.
"I never do Native American work with my shoes on," she said to the Sunday morning congregation of the Georgia Mountains Unitarian Universalist Church in Dahlonega.
Howard, of Gainesville, briefly described several Native American ceremonies she has learned from various teachers during the past few decades. She was the selected lay leader for the church, which features a different speaker and topic every Sunday.
Howard pulled several props from her "bag of tricks" including the wings of a bird, a bear skin drum, a wooden pipe for prayer ceremonies and bags of white sage. She explained that when she teaches people about Native American ceremonies, she likes to be as interactive as possible so she always brings as many ceremonial items as she can carry.
Howard passed around the bags of sage and encouraged each of the nearly 60 members of the congregation to take a sprig of the herb home. She said the herb is used during a "smudging" ritual, which is said to cleanse a body’s aura of negativity and disease. Many of the ceremonies Howard described focused on removing negativity and improving health.
Howard demonstrated a drumming ceremony, also said to cleanse and heal the body and connect the two sides of the brain. She also detailed other more involved ceremonies described as healing the body, mind and spirit, such as a sweat lodge and pipe ceremony.
Toward the end of the service, Howard lead the congregation through a meditation called "Peeling the Onion" that she learned from a Lakota medicine woman. The idea behind the meditation, she explained, is to pull off every mask a person wears to eventually reveal their true selves. Howard said the meditation has been particularly helpful for her and has helped her realize she’s more than a physical being. She credits the meditation with removing fear over her own mortality.
"Everybody sees a piece of you, but nobody knows who you really are. You may not even realize who you really are," Howard said. "... Who you are (at) work, those people see you but they don’t necessarily see the same part of your personality that your family does or the people at church or so on."
After her son was born, 45 years ago, the Methodist-raised Howard started studying the different world religions in search of one that seemed to better fit her beliefs. The religious practices of Native Americans particularly appealed to Howard who struggled with the role of women in "organized religion."
"The tribe your mother belongs to is who you belong to," she said. "You belong to the tribe your mother is in. I thought, ‘You know, that makes sense.’"
Howard said she began studying the religious and cultural ceremonies of several different Native American tribes while living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. She shares her knowledge of religious ceremonies with anyone who asks but doesn’t push her beliefs on anyone.
"I teach when I’m asked to, but I don’t feel it’s my job to convert anybody. I’m not into that at all," Howard said. "I teach people what I know from my experience. ... It’s OK if you think I’m nuts. I’ve been in good company. But if somebody asks me, then I’ll tell them what I believe in. I like to explore all the possibilities."
Jill Gary, chairwoman of the Sunday service committee at Georgia Mountain Unitarian Universalist Church, said the church prides itself on having a diverse group of members.
"We like to take advantage of that (difference) so we can share what we know," Gary said. "We’re a lay lead community. In that way we can take advantage of the different interests, knowledge and experiences. We think that’s very important to share that."
Gary said the church doesn’t have any creed or dogma, but does have a covenant between members to respect their differences.
"We want each person to find their own path to enlightenment or to God or whatever they chose to call it," Gary said.