Monday was Walter Soboleff Day in Alaska. Soboleff, who lived to be 102, was a longtime advocate for Lingít people through his religious ministries and work to support Juneau’s youth.
In honor of the day, Sealaska Heritage Institute hosted a panel discussion about the closure of the Memorial Presbyterian Church in Juneau, which Soboleff ran at the time.
The national Presbyterian Church now recognizes its decision to close the church as a racist “act of spiritual abuse.” When the organization closed the church in 1963, it also gave the separate, white-led Northern Light church a loan of $200,000 for a new building.
Some of Soboleff’s children were at Monday’s panel discussion, along with former members of Memorial Presbyterian Church. Roy DeAsis attended the church with his mother when he was a teenager.
“Various members of the church now in Juneau have expressed to me what’s been going on with this effort,” DeAsis said. “And sitting here, right now, this is pretty emotional for me.”
DeAsis joined the Navy and left Juneau the year the church closed. He said he has good memories about the church and Soboleff, and he was grateful now to learn more about what happened.
“One of the things I remember about Walter, when he spoke to me years ago — but it was the last time since I’ve been away so long — is he said, ‘Roy, you remind me of a tree.’ And I’m so sorry that I didn’t ask him what he meant,” DeAsis said.
During the panel discussion, members of Ḵunéix̱ Hídi Northern Light United Church committee — which was formed to research this closure and ask for an apology — told the story of Memorial’s closure and what they’ve done to repair that harm today. Myra Munson said the closure was an example of racism and its consequences, but telling the story could have a different kind of power.
“It can and has emboldened others to tell their story and shine a light on history that lives in the shadows of denial and pretends that the past is the past,” she said. “It can help those who suffered harm to recognize it for what it is and to begin to heal.”
Together, the Presbyterian Church USA, Northwest Coast Presbytery, and Ḵunéix̱ Hídi Northern Light United Church committed to pay nearly a million dollars in reparations for the harm and pain the closure caused. About a third of that amount comes from each.
National church leadership says the reparation payments will be used to develop ministries in Native languages and Alaska Native leadership in the church.