The Rev. James H. Wilbur . The image on the right shows a reed-mat covered tepee in a grassy field near Yakima, Washington. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b45839.
Having served on the Yakama Reservation for thirteen years, my interest is peaked with this evenings worship service. The service will lead the church into a consideration of its relationship with indigenous peoples. The Rev. Dr. George E. Tinker will give a word titled “No Apologies. Just Repent. Seriously.” An important word for the church today because apologies have become trite and outmoded because they lend themselves to statements without action. Apologies allow the apologizer to feel good about him or herself without entering into a relationship calling for change.
Listening to Dr. Tinker matters because the church has lived, accepted, and apologized for its past with American Indians without engaging its past in a manner that calls for a new mindset and a new structure within the church itself. Why might this be important?
In 1860, Rev. James H. Wilbur came to the Yakama Reservation as pastor and Indian agent. During his tenure, he ruled the landscape with a heavy hand modeling and claiming the standard of “The Plow and the Bible.” Wilbur’s goal was to civilize and Christianize the Yakama by having them work as white men and become redeemed by accepting Methodist Christianity. During his years as Indian agent, Wilbur removed children from their families, placed them in the Fort Simcoe agency and began to generationally remove Yakama culture—food, religion, dance, art, clothing, hair length, traditional names, and family and community structure—from their identity. Wilbur’s actions changed people’s lives, historically and presently.
Wilbur’s is a story few within the church know and even fewer talk about. Yet this is the church’s story. Until the story is known, accepted, put “out in the open,” all that can be done is to make apologies. Perhaps, this evening, with Rev. Tinker’s guidance, we will begin to move beyond apologies and enter into the hard work of action and change by taking our first steps toward repentance.