Friday, July 30, 2010

The Cautionary Tale of the Whitman Mission

While I lived in South Dakota, I read about anything I could about the Pacific Northwest. I missed the connections to the familiar, comforting, yet mystifying land. I missed the mist on my skin that dampened me, yet didn't get me wet. I missed the salty air that reminded me of the bountiful sea and all its creatures, both familiar and alien. I missed the evergreens that served as green sentries that guided my paths. Though I could only visit my beloved Washington about once or twice per year, through the research and story telling of others, my own stories, memories and observations were fertilized for a time when I would not be part of the Pacific Northwest diaspora, but a participant observer replanted in my land of origin.

Years passed before I made a connection between God and the land. I knew that God created the heavens and the Earth, but I was directed in my thoughts toward an understanding that God cared more about humans than the land itself. As I studied the Old Testament in seminary, I realized the land is a much more powerful character and player in biblical story and that place matters throughout scripture--though the land and place are not widely researched in theological circles, I have come to appreciate the distinctive nature of place sociologically and theologically. John Inge (a bishop in the Church of England) and Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann address theological questions of place and land.

While reading a Pacific Northwest history by Carlos Schwantes, I encountered a new story to me, the story of a massacre at the Whitman mission in southeast Washington state, near Walla Walla. On November 29, 1847, 13 people were killed at the mission site by peoples of the Cayuse and Umatilla tribes. Numerous interpretations of the events surrounding the massacre exist, but the story represents many tensions for me as a local theologian, pastor, student, and native of the Pacific Northwest. The Whitmans came to the region prepared to deliver their way of life to the Cayuse and Umatilla peoples--a way of life that included Jesus Christ, their own culture and agriculture. My impression of the Whitmans is that they saw their work as operating in a single direction. They were the givers and the aboriginal peoples were the receivers. I don't perceive much listening going on, only telling. Naturally, the Cayuse and Umatilla resisted ways contrary to their own way of life, especially so since they did not adapt to row crop cultivation well. It was challenging to learn about Jesus when row crops were seen as a path to Jesus. The Whitmans and their coworkers were carriers for a measles epidemic that wiped out half of the local tribe population. The tribes responded to these developments with violence, and the missionary endeavors in the area were ended for well over a generation.

I still have a lot to learn about the Whitman mission story. It may become a topic for deeper study in my future. On my recent family trip, my family and I visited the Whitman Mission National Historical Site (part of the National Park system). I hope to return when I have more research time and search some of the archives at nearby Whitman College. I learned much from this story and my own understanding of Christian ministry and mission. Some factors remain in my ongoing consideration:

1. The local religious landscape in the Pacific Northwest has always struggled to support Christian ministry and cultural endeavors related to Christian ministry for centuries. Though it is no longer at the bottom of the of the list of percentage of religious adherents (Maine is now at the bottom), it takes significantly more work for Christians to gain influence in the region than in other places where I have lived and worked.
2. Is there an appropriate balance between Christian ministry as proclamation and listening? In my early studies of the Whitman massacre, it appears that the actions of the Whitmans moved more toward proclamation than listening and understanding the Umatilla and Cayuse peoples. The Whitman story provides a cautionary tale for me on many levels. I believe in God's redemptive work through the Church, but am I the appropriate proclaimer? I find myself much more interested and driven to understand than to proclaim. Understanding is a relative term--it seems sometimes that the more I learn, the less I understand--but understanding is more about posture than accomplishment. Interim ministry for me has been a ministry of understanding congregations (again, understanding is relative), and using that understanding for the people of God in a particular place to follow their calling in God's preferred future for them.
3. Though it takes great courage and energy to make a proclamation (Marcus Whitman made several round trips from the mission to the East Coast to garner support for the mission in a time where such distance travel was tiring, dangerous and often deadly), sometimes I think it is much harder to listen, learn and understand--because the other cannot be controlled. The Whitmans did not have an opportunity to learn this lesson; they were killed before any change took place. This is part of the conflicting understanding about mission--I make quite a presumption when I think I know what is best for a group of people I serve, whereas we can take the opportunity to build relationship and name that God is already in that place, and together look at the Bible and look the culture and prayerfully see where God is together in hopes of imagining and living God's preferred future for that particular community.

I sometimes wonder whether these thoughts, experiences and learnings make me the right kind of pastor in this day and age, or whether I should find a different path to ministry. A colleague and friend once posed to me the key differences between proclamation and understanding and their relationship to vocation. I believe the distinction between proclamation and understanding is important, but the relationship to vocation is not so cut and dried. I may never feel comfortable in my vocation. I am provoked to proclamation, yet driven to understand. Through the Whitmans I read a cautionary tale, and I am alerted to the consequences on either end of the continuum of proclamation and understanding.

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