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PC(USA) delegation rights a historic wrong in Juneau, Alaska

An apology and reparations occur more than half a century after the fact

by Shani E. McIlwain | Presbyterian News Service

The pews were packed Sunday for a worship service that helped highlight acts of apology and reparations for racist actions taken 60 years ago toward Memorial Presbyterian Church in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rich Copley)

JUNEAU, Alaska — In March 2011, when a pastor called a long-serving community member right before his death, only God knew that conversation would be the beginning of a journey and a living example of restorative justice.

The Rev. Dr. Walter Soboleff spent more than 70 years serving God, the community of Southeast Alaska, and the Presbyterian Church. One of the first native Alaskans to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church, Soboleff shared a story from his journey that would change the trajectory of a faith community and become a model of how Presbyterians strive to heal from harm and right the wrongs that some have come to benefit from today.

The Rev. Dr. Phil Campbell, the former pastor of Ḵunéix̱ Hídi Northern Light United Church, was the recipient of that story, and began to help piece together the story that’s layered with institutional racism and was perpetuated out of greed and imperialism. It’s only one such story that the church — and not just the PC(USA) — is now reckoning with.

A PC(USA) contingent comprised of both national and mid council officials has been in Juneau for the past few days following last summer’s action by the 225th General Assembly to “issue apologies and reparations for the racist closure of Memorial Presbyterian Church” in 1963. Commissioners to that most recent assembly also urged presbyteries and congregations of the PC(USA) to “donate in the name of Memorial Presbyterian Church or present or past churches of other Native Americans and other people of color important to them.”

The Rev. Bronwen Boswell, third from left, the Acting Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), was among those to unveil a plaque outside a firehouse in Juneau, Alaska, at the former site of Memorial Presbyterian Church. (Photo by Rich Copley)

The Rev. Bronwen Boswell, the Acting Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA), stated, “We, the church, will continue to uncover the pain and harm done in the name of the church. We need to continue to ask for forgiveness and seek repair and hope for new possibilities for our work together.”

The director of the Center for the Repair of Historic Harms, the Rev. Jermaine Ross-Allam, said he hopes that this is just the beginning of what a congregation, a presbytery and the PC(USA) as a whole can do moving forward. Reparations on a grander scale is a United States government problem, Ross-Allam said, and the church must work to help government officials recognize that this is as much their issue as it is the church’s.

Saturday’s gathering began with a musical offering. (Photo by Rich Copley)

For many months leading up to this weekend which culminated in Indigenous People’s Day, many stories and conversations have been shared around the apology, which is just the first step in repairing centuries of harm caused by racism and white supremacy. Ross-Allam reiterated that an apology without reparations is not biblical.

This weekend’s events began on Saturday with the unveiling of a memorial plaque at the site of the where Memorial Presbyterian Church did ministry in the community for 25 years.  Ḵunéix̱ Hídi Northern Light United Church, as part of the congregation’s effort to begin repair of their own complicity and silence, added “Ḵunéix̱ Hídi” to its name, which means “a house of healing.” The name reflects the transformative nature of God’s love and Jesus’s teachings, and our commitment to healing the wounds caused to our neighbors and siblings in Christ by racism and injustice.

Sunday’s worship service was greatly enhanced by the worship attire. (Photo by Rich Copley)

Sunday worship service began with the Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, setting the tone of why the community had gathered by using the poem “The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson.

Three public apologies were offered. Boswell offered the apology from the PC(USA). The Rev. Laura Terasaki, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Northwest Coast, provided the apology from the presbytery level. James Alter, moderator of Ḵunéix̱ Hídi Northern Light United Church, gave the apology on behalf of the church.

In a sanctuary filled by many descendants of those who attended Memorial Church, eyes swelled with emotion during the 13-minute roll call of the 343 names of former members. One attendee named Mariah said, “This was powerful. I have never heard of an apology that did not mince words. Racist closure. That was powerful.” Jane Ginter, a member of the Native Ministries Committee of Ḵunéix̱ Hídi Northern Light United Church, was filled with  emotion and gratitude that the apology was accepted by the President of Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Chalyee Eesh Richard J. Peterson. Elder Ginter affirmed that whether or not the apology was accepted, their work and efforts would continue.

Moffett presented the check to the president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, Dr. Rosita Worl. The $200,000 will go to language revitalization efforts in Southeast Alaska for the Tlingit and Haidi tribes.

Many residents gathered at a firehouse in Juneau, Alaska, Saturday for the first of several events around apology and reparations. (Photo by Rich Copley)

The conversations around how to repair the harm began years ago with listening circles formed around a simple question, “How can we repair the harm caused?” Dan Morta, an attendee from the weekend events, summed up what the events mean to many Alaska Natives this way: “English is the language of power. But Tlingit language is the sound of my heart.”

In August 2021, the Native Ministries Committee of Ḵunéix̱ Hídi Northern Light United Church adopted 21 resolutions for repair, including:

  • Working as closely with Sealaska Heritage Institute as applicable
  • Seeking to listen to the wisdom of the Alaska Native members to guide their ongoing reconciliation and reparations efforts
  • Committing $350,000, which may be allocated in amounts of around $50,000 annually, from the General Fund Investments as restricted funds to be used for reparations.

The Rev. Jermaine Ross-Allam (Photo by Rich Copley)

These steps are just the beginning of living into a justice-focused community. As Ross-Allam said, “ It is my hope that this is just the beginning of what a congregation, a presbytery, and the PC(USA) as a whole can do moving forward,” which includes “the work of the people to inspire the government to take notice of the fact that public opinion is now in the process of shifting on the necessity and viability of targeted and specific reparations.”

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