Growing Up Native: A Correction and Update on the First Presbyterian Quiet Protest

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The Original Post: Growing Up Native

A couple of days ago I posted about the reality of anti-Native prejudice, discussing a few of the ways it was persistent for me throughout my 18-years of growing up in Alaska (honestly, I could have continued into all my years since living elsewhere. It’s common.). Though it is obviously not a topic directly related to wine, I wrote about it here because of a more recent incident of anti-Native prejudice I found particularly upsetting, and also because I felt that with my having shared here my being from Alaska, and being Alaska Native there was some small room to discuss the issue on this blog at a time I felt it was important.

The incident that upset me was news that two Native women had been asked to leave a church in Anchorage, Alaska for their being Native. It was something that had been discussed in multiple places online, and particularly in Alaska Native discussion groups online. My own family had heard about it both online and from people sharing it with them in person, until eventually I read about the incident, heard about it from others, and shared it here too. My original post on the issue appears here: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/05/24/growing-up-native/

I am writing about it now because new information has appeared about the incident that would seem to change the details of the original story. The change raises ethical questions about how it is appropriate for the church, and the public to respond now that the story appears so differently. With that in mind, I want to apologize for sharing misinformation, and also take the time to talk through what I see as the ethical issues raised.

The Story Correction

Two women have stepped forward to offer a correction. They have stated that the original reporting on the above incident at First Presbyterian Church was inaccurate. Apparently, the error occurred in that they shared their experience in attending church with a few people that misunderstood what was being told to them. Those people then went on to share the misunderstood version with others, and it was then spread further. The story continued through multiple sources online, and eventually I also wrote about it here.

In my original post I spoke of a simple response to the situation–encouraging people to quietly attend the service in numbers so as to emphasize the idea that all are welcome. It has come to my attention that other people also organized a sit-in demonstration at the park across the street from First Presbyterian Church as a more vocal protest, and that numerous people have sent angry letters, emails, and voice mail messages to the church.

The church has so far responded to the public’s concerns with this reported incident by holding a special session with the women who stepped forward, leaders of the Native community, and leaders of First Presbyterian church. The purposes of the session were to determine what had actually occurred, and to discuss how best to respond publicly.

Having correct information about what actually occurred here is important, but it does not entirely resolve the issue of the public’s response.

In other words, there are two points operating here. One is that it is definitely unfortunate that this story, if untrue, was reported so publicly. There is no doubt about that. Because of the strong response to the story, however, the issue does not simply stop there.

The second point is that issues of anti-Native prejudice do occur, are real, and people responded to this particular incident, even if false, because versions of it are a common occurrence throughout Alaska and North America. To put it another way, if anti-Native prejudice simply did not occur it would have been impossible for anyone to be so upset about this particular incident. It would have been unrecognizable. But, unfortunately, the truth is, many people have been harmed by such treatment, and many people want such treatment to stop.

The Ethical Concerns

Let me also make what I think is another important distinction–answers to the question of what the church is to do. This is where we delve into the ethical questions of the situation. (As some of you know, I worked in Ethics in various capacities, including teaching it at the University level for the last six years, for the last decade.)

First of all, it is not the literal responsibility of anyone, or any institution to directly respond to fix something he, she, or it did not do. That is, according to the correction, First Presbyterian Church did not actually turn away two Native women visitors. Assuming that is true, they are not literally responsible for repairing a wrong, since they did not perform one. But, as already said, this situation is no longer only a question of what actually happened. The public has become upset over concerns of anti-Native prejudice in their communities, and more specifically at this particular church, and that would seem to now be the bigger question at hand. As a result, even without having asked for it, the church has been placed in a very public leadership role on the question of anti-Native prejudice, and of who is welcome in a church.

To put it more simply: It is important for a correction of the original incident to be issued, certainly. But, it is also important for the church to consider how it wants to address larger questions of community, and how it wants to exemplify healthy leadership. It is also valuable for the larger community, including all of us that have been upset by this issue, to consider how we want to move forward having reflected on our concerns with what appeared to be racism, unnecessary harm of others, and exclusion. This is an opportunity for the church to show what it means to act in and with grace, an opportunity still to emphasize the point that all are welcome. It is also an opportunity for any of us to consider how we would want to exemplify those same questions at a more personal level.

I apologize for my contribution to this misunderstanding by posting what appears now to be misinformation on the incident. May we all continue to move forward in grace.

*** Post-Edit

A statement has been released from the women involved in the original incident, and the church, and Presbytery. The statement explains the details of the original incident and how the public misunderstanding occurred. You can read it here:

http://pbyukon.blogspot.com/2012/05/this-is-report-on-pbyukon-fb-page-and.html

4 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t fully understand what’s going on here — so, the two women were NOT asked to leave? Or they were asked to leave but not because of their ethnicity? If they weren’t asked to leave at all, what was the original incident that led to this misinformation being spread around? I agree with you, though, that this is the PERFECT moment for the church to become actively involved with the Native Community. It sounds like they have already started to move in that direction, by meeting with a group of Native people to discuss what happened and figure out, collaboratively, how best to respond to resolve the situation. I hope they do even more than that, though I don’t know what that might be (do you have any suggestions for what they might do next? that would make a good blog post too!), but this sure seems like the perfect opportunity to address prejudice and hate, both in general and specifically about Native communities, and how those two things don’t fit in at ALL with being a Christian.

  2. Hi, Lily-Elaine. Thanks for a very articulate follow-up on this important topic.

    I’m a member of First Presbyterian Church in Anchorage. When I first heard about this whole thing, it had probably circled cyberspace six times. Based on my understanding of the members at First Pres, this story sounded to me like something that had gotten distorted as it spread. I suspect the original incident went something like this: the two native women entered, and a well-meaning person told them that they were welcome to come into the sanctuary and worship with us, or they could worship in the chapel, where a separate church (comprised of natives) meets at the same time. If there was a lot of noise in the building at that time, those words could have sounded much differently, perhaps like a racist rejection of the two women.

    I appreciate the importance you place on correct information. I also appreciate the challenge you deliver to our church – and to all who read this – to do what we can to end the evils of racism. I agree with you: this rather awkward situation can be taken as an opportunity to speak clearly on this important issue.

    Racism is the pre-judging of another person based on nothing more than a quick glance. It is extremely harmful, as it robs people of jobs, of joy, of grace. There are studies that break my heart, showing that minority children choose white dolls when told to choose the “good” doll, and choose the doll that looks more like them when told to choose the “bad” doll. Racism can cause deep damage to a person’s spirit, tainting countless future relationships with a background of uncertainty and caution, or distrust and disdain.

    I believe in the Lord of Grace, Jesus, who taught His followers to “love your neighbor as yourself.” When asked to clarify who our neighbor is, He gave an example of a Good Samaritan taking care of someone of a different – and hostile – race. This kind of love is the calling that our Lord has for all His followers, for First Presbyterian Church of Anchorage, and for me.

    I will look for concrete steps that might guide me, and my church, to become effective in combating racism. Any suggestions you have toward this end will be welcome.

    Sincerely,
    Scott Gruhn

    • Thank you, Scott. I appreciate you taking the time to respond here, and am also grateful that you even found my posting of the incident to begin with.

      My dissertation work in philosophy was actually on the question of race and racism, and I did both political and ethical work around questions of healthy relationships and interactions with others, how social categories (such as race) impact the ways we interact with others whether we intend them to or not, and how to facilitate greater self-awareness while also facilitating greater social awareness (and then striking a balance) around these issues and others that resemble them (so-called disabilities, gender, class dynamics, etc). The courses I taught in ethics always brought in these threads in various ways as well. In these ways, I have done work facilitating public discussions on these issues, teaching courses on them, encouraging public projects that work towards changing them, and giving talks as well.

      In my experience, the first step is always learning to listen harder, listen better. Many of us are comfortable with the idea that we mean well, and wish to leave it at that for being a good person. It is my belief, however, that because of how social norms influence our understanding of other people–we simply are taught certain kinds of habits by our society no matter how we’ve grown up, not that these are the same for every person–we must actually actively work at being good to others. Even Jesus questions the society he was born into, and how that society would teach any of us to treat others. With this kind of view, actively working at being a better person means having to reconsider how we interact with those around us. One way to start to do this is listening with an openness that demands simultaneously challenging our own pre-conceived notions. By doing this our goal is to better understand who we are listening to. Additionally, to transform our own pre-conceived notions (calling them pre-conceived is already admitting to them being unintended in a way, instead they are simply habitual whether we are aware of them or not) we must be willing to do the often painful work of challenging ourselves to transform some of our core beliefs (though not all), because of how they may undermine the very goals of caring for others that we would otherwise wish to fulfill. These core beliefs are often aspects of ourselves we were simply trained into by our own well meaning care givers growing up, or by our own painful reactions to experiences we’ve had with others.

      As I said already, however, learning to listen better seems to be the first step. I know that your church hosted a public discussion after the service this recent Sunday. That is a wonderful practice to take up, and I hope that you might encourage the church to continue to do so, but perhaps with different facilitators that might be skilled at encouraging gentle insight with grace, as we’ve both suggested. Gentle insight in the sense of helping people to see beyond their own comfort zone, their own habits–not to encourage discomfort, but to encourage people to see another persons’ experiences and point of view.

      All of that said, I would wish to be careful in claiming that the original incident had become distorted. In explaining what I mean by that I want to make clear that I recognize your very good intentions in your comment here, and in your use of the word. It just also appears as a simple opportunity to respond to your question of what to do, and illustrate my point about examining our own assumptions while we practice careful listening.

      My understanding of how this all occurred is that one of the two women that visited the church had an experience of being excluded, and went on to share that experience with others, which then led to it being reported online in multiple locations, and for a public response to be planned. I do recognize that the woman has since gone on to decide that her original experience of exclusion was not intended as a slight against her by the congregant she encountered, but was instead arising from that congregant trying to be helpful. However, this new understanding does not erase her original experience of exclusion. It simply changes now what she believes that experience meant for her. This is a complicated point but I believe an important one.

      As the Presbytery has so wisely seen, and as I suggest here in my follow-up post–this incident could not have been seen as potentially racist if such anti-Native discrimination did not happen regularly. If anti-Native discrimination was not already a reality this incident would have been unrecognizable as such. My worry in using the word “distortion” here is that it implies such experiences of misunderstood discrimination are based simply on faulty perception, as if that means that once the misunderstanding is cleared up, then the original experience is simply therefore false. The reason I bring this up is to point out that there is another, more complicated picture that could be allowed here. Again, the context in which this interaction operates includes the long history of anti-Native discrimination being very real, and of it happening still today. In that sense, the woman visitors experience could not be claimed false, even if the congregant did not *intend* to exclude her in such a manner. Again, this is a complicated point and one quick aspect of it that I can put more simply is just that even if this particular incident is cleared up, we are still left with the messy context of racism honestly existing in our society, operating in this incident (even if unintended), and in this case specifically, and painfully, against Native peoples.

      To be clear, I’m not trying to claim you intend to disregard the importance of this reality here. I understand that is precisely *not* what you intend. I’m simply wanting to talk here through the importance and relevance of recognizing subtle language and the habitual beliefs that can be implied by such subtle language. Racism is, at its core, a messy, unclear phenomenon. Even in cases where facts of an incident are clear, racism causes those facts to be harder to read, and also in a sense inadequate to the reality of the situation. That is, facts do remain true or false, and we still must always interpret the situation in which they occur. An unfortunate example is the recent Trayven Martin case–we would seem to have the facts of the case clearly laid out and at exactly the same time race interrupts any simple interpretation in a way that would seem to support the idea that his shooter may have been acting in self-defense, while at exactly the same time also having deeper beliefs that show that his preconceived ideas seemed to be impacting his ability to read his own safety accurately. If that is true, then self-defense was likely in actuality unnecessary, though it may have felt necessary to him at the time. The situation with John Williams, the Native carver in downtown Seattle who was killed by a police officer, is another dramatic example. These are cases that show we cannot pretend the situation and its ethical read reduce simply to a matter of fact. That is, human interaction is about more than mere fact–it is also about belief, perception, the larger social framework and norms operating in the particular context, etc.

      With the basic facts of this original occurrence at the church being made clear, I happen to know without doubt that the congregant that was being helpful in this situation would have never intended to exclude these women, though her action was read in that way by one of the two women visitors. Still, the larger context remains important. The church has a unique opportunity to continue to think on its very real political position in the community at large. Even when what we want to focus on is our own spiritual life, and on the grace exemplified by Jesus Christ, we are still already also operating within a political context. Jesus’s own life is the perfect illustration of how spiritual life and political life both operate simultaneously. It can be hard to negotiate such a position because of how it feels as though we are always risking either failure or being misunderstood. At the same time, it also seems to be the best way to enact Jesus’s teachings in our own lives–to recognize that he was always simultaneously also both a spiritual and political leader, and that we are denying the complex reality of these lives God has given us if we try to ignore one for the sake of the other. Jesus shines as an example of how for any of us to truly act in grace we must tend to both our spiritual lives with god, and our political context with others–they are in many ways the same life. How we relate to others is a spiritual project and experience. In that way, it would seem by acting with care, daring to listen, daring to push ourselves past our own comfort zones, in order to shine only our best most sensitive selves, we have the opportunity to bring His grace into our interactions with others, into our larger communities.

      I know your good church personally, and have a lot of faith in its greatest good. In fact, that faith is why I felt so compelled to write about this incident here. God’s love comes too in pushing each other to grow beyond the limitations we need not have. His grace is exemplified simultaneously in the reminder that what we do here does not matter (Ecclesiastes)–his grace always has time to reach us that we be forgiven–and also that we must always treat those we encounter, whoever they may be, as though they are angels or Jesus at our door (Matthew).

      Thank you again for your thoughtful comment. I very much appreciate it.

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