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Perhaps vulnerability is what God was looking for …

Sasha Soboleff and Royal DeAsis participate in one of the first discussions of the historic meeting between the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) delegation and the Healing Task Force. (Photo by Jermaine Ross-Allam)

In 2022, the 225th General Assembly approved an overture to meaningfully address the wounds inflicted on Alaska Natives, who were directly impacted by the sin of the unwarranted 1963 closure of Memorial Presbyterian Church, a thriving, multiethnic, intercultural church in Juneau, Alaska. 

Since Monday, an interagency delegation from the Office of the General Assembly and Presbyterian Mission Agency has been in Juneau to meet with the Healing Task Force to begin the process of learning and understanding ahead of a visit in October 2023, when the Formal Service of Acknowledgement, Apology and Commitment to Reparations will take place. 

We invited members of the delegation and the Healing Task Force to share their thoughts, reflections and insights as they discern their experiences during this journey. This is not only to give them an outlet for sharing and growth through reflection, but to help the greater church gain a better understanding of these trips, as well as the process and spirituality of repair. These expressions may come in words, art, video, photography, etc. 

We invite you to pray with this delegation and join members in imagining future possibilities in light of what is experienced and learned in Juneau and provide a model for future applications to repair historical harms

A reflection from Pastor Matt Paul | First Presbyterian Church of Port Angeles, Washington

Entering the foyer of Ḵunéix̱ Hídi Northern Light United Church this morning, I was overwhelmed by the weight of the task before us. We were about to embark on a journey fraught with difficult conversations revisiting painful memories and triggering past traumas. No planning or preparation could possibly help us address every contingency, much less predict where the journey was about to take us. I prayed for God to ease my anxiety. 

What I soon realized was that I was not the only one with that prayer! In one form or another, many in the room expressed similar feelings as we introduced ourselves. What also became clear was that our fears and anxieties were OK. God had brought us together for this purpose and formed a sacred space around us. We were on holy ground. 

When Moses encountered God in the burning bush, the Lord instructed him, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5). I am half-Japanese, so I’m used to taking off my shoes when I go into a home, but it surprises me that God didn’t tell Moses instead to kneel in submission. Why take off his sandals? My personal thought is that God told Moses to remove his sandals so Moses could physically connect with the earth and to the Creator who formed the ground he was standing on. 

The act of taking one’s shoes off is a sign of respect in many cultures, but it is also an act of vulnerability. Taking your shoes off risks revealing stinky feet, crooked toes, or ugly toenails. Taking off your shoes signals your intent to stay and prevents a quick escape should trouble arise. Perhaps vulnerability is what God was looking for in Moses … and for everyone who dared enter the holy ground of these conversations between the Healing Task Force and the Reparations Delegation. 

As we took our shoes off — at least emotionally and spiritually — we became a bit more vulnerable with one another. I sensed a growing sense of mutuality in that none of us has any clear answers, but we are all seeking the same goal. We seek healing, forgiveness, and a path forward from the personal, societal, and generational trauma caused by the racist closing of Memorial Presbyterian Church. 

None of us knows how to get to that place of healing or what getting there will even look like. We do know that the journey will involve faith, risk taking, trust, and vulnerability, the same things God would require of Moses as God’s chosen one to lead the Hebrews out of the bonds of Egyptian slavery. 

Tomorrow we will spend the day in a listening circle. It won’t be easy, but it will be holy. We will need to take our shoes off once again.

Pastor Matt Paul serves First Presbyterian Church of Port Angeles, Washington.


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