Reflections from President Rev. Dr. R. Guy Erwin

July 2, 2021
Week of Pentecost 5 ​

Dear ULS Community:

A whole month has elapsed now since I wrote to you last, and though our campuses have gone into a quieter summer mode and the time for vacations has begun, I have been fairly busy in the intervening weeks, including (to be honest) during the time I set aside for a short stay-at-home vacation last week. It feels good, though, to be able to do some planning for the fall semester ahead. Yesterday, for example, I had a Zoom call with the two new faculty members who will be joining us in the fall, to welcome them on their formal “first day” with us.

But “quieter” is relative: the loosening of the pandemic restrictions and the gradual return to in-person worship in our congregations has meant not only that Rob and I have had the chance to experience indoor worship (and singing!) again, but also that I have been able to accept preaching invitations in two congregations already, St. John’s in Highland (near Pittsburgh) and St. Matthias in Carlisle. I also made an appearance to give a keynote at the New England Synod Assembly, but that was “virtual” and pre-recorded. More will come in the months ahead—look for me to show up in your area one of these days!

In the wider set of things I think about a lot, June has offered rich opportunity for reflection. It’s of course been “Pride Month” for the LGBTQIA+ community, and I got to have a nice but low-key Pride celebration when I visited St. Matthias in Carlisle, which was celebrating the second anniversary of becoming a “Reconciling in Christ” congregation—which means, in ELCA-speak—that it is committed to welcoming and fully including members of the LGBTQIA+ community in its congregational life. It was fun to see this little country church decked out in its rainbow flags, and nice to get to know its members, who clearly made this commitment not just to attract new people, but because they thought it was the right thing to do.

Juneteenth was also an important event again this year—I think, in light of the good tidings of freedom it represents, that Juneteenth might be a better holiday for us to observe than Independence Day, especially when we think of how little American independence did for the large population of the enslaved. But henceforth we don’t have to choose, and we’ll have Federal holidays in both June and July! I can’t help but be encouraged by the attention that the experience of Black, Indigenous, and other Americans of color is receiving these days. Even as we remain deeply divided, I am hopeful for a new consensus that our diversity is our nation’s strength, especially if we can find ways to talk about it that are constructive, and if we can continue to address and redress inequities and systemic injustices in our land.

One of those that has been most powerfully brought before us this summer is the news of the “discovery” of large numbers of unmarked graves of Native children at large residential schools for Indian children in Canada. The residential school system for Native children was by no means solely a Canadian phenomenon, and at least for Indigenous people the discovery of these graveyards is no surprise. In fact, they had not even been entirely forgotten, though the number of graves and who was buried there has been lost to us in some cases—they just weren’t generally known to the white population and their existence was concealed.

I’ve given a lot of thought to this terrible system, which took Native children (often by force of law) from their families and put them in institutions designed to drive out of them their language, dress, religion, and tribal identity, and to transform them into productive, Western-groomed, Christian, English-speaking citizens. Some of them were abused terribly; some were so unhappy they died or were killed trying to run away and get back home. Some had been sent very far from home, like the Osage cousins of mine who were sent to the Carlisle Indian School here in Pennsylvania, because it was effectively too far from Oklahoma to give any of the children hope of escape. Many died there, too, and only this year were the remains of a number of Osage children who died at Carlisle exhumed and returned home. I expect to make a pilgrimage to the Carlisle graves later this summer. One of the hardest parts of this story is the complicity of Christian churches in this destructive work.

My Osage great-grandmother, her brother, and several cousins attended the two Indian residential schools on the Osage reservation (St. John for boys and St. Louis for girls), and though they weren’t mistreated as such, it was clear that the education offered there was strict and uncompromisingly hostile to our Osage identity. My relatives were day students, though, and could go home at night to their families, which meant that no ill-treatment at school could be concealed. That made our Osage schools (run, like many residential schools, by Roman Catholic religious orders) more transparent and less abusive in their treatment of the children in their care, though they were still destructive to their sense of self-worth.

In light of that, and of the memory of the legacy of the enslavement of African Americans, it is harder to see national patriotic holidays in the same light. I am proud that the United States aspired from its beginnings to be a land of freedom, democracy, and equality under law, but deeply saddened at how incompletely that democratic aspiration was lived out for Natives and enslaved people, and often for poor and non-white immigrants. I will continue to hold up Juneteenth as my counterpart for the Fourth of July, since it was an actual day when the promises of independence became real for African Americans—though arguably it was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that that dream became tangible and our system began truly to resemble the democracy it was designed to be.

Rob and I are spending our Independence Day weekend in Washington, DC, mostly because we were given wonderful tickets to the Nationals/Dodgers game on Saturday evening—right behind the Nationals’ dugout! We’ll attend church in DC Sunday morning, watch the fireworks on the Mall that night, and drive home again on Monday. I’ve very excited about this trip, for in all my visits to our nation’s capital, I’ve never been there on the Fourth of July! I may try very hard to temper my idealism about the United States with realism about its complicated and often cruel history, but it is also very hard not to feel a thrill at the sight of fireworks over the US Capitol’s dome!

It has been encouraging to see the nation come back to life after the pandemic’s shutdown, especially in Gettysburg, where the contrast between “high season” and the long tourist desert has been so obvious. Last week the town was full of people, and I’m sure the 158th anniversary of the great battle this weekend will bring many more. I know the visitor numbers at our Seminary Ridge Museum have been very high recently, and the parade of cars and tour buses past Lewars House has been endless. I’m sure glad we have shades for the front windows now!

We have so much else to look forward to this summer, too! In a couple more weeks some friends with season tickets are taking us to our first Phillies game, and I am looking forward to getting to know a new ballpark. I find baseball games really fun, but we’ve been spoiled by Dodger Stadium, where it never rains. We’re also planning some “tourist time” in Philadelphia in the next weeks, but we’ll probably wait until we have guests from California or elsewhere before we go to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell again.

There is so much to love about being in this great city, and I can’t wait to begin to explore our territory here in the Northeast as I begin to travel on the Seminary’s behalf. In the meanwhile, I wish you all good health, pleasant weather, and some recreation time with those you love. I’ll be in two weeks. God bless you!

Yours faithfully,

Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary

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