Commemoration of John Roberts, Priest and Missionary (1843-1949)
Growing up in Virginia, where history seems to ooze out of every molecule of air, water, earth and rock, it was hard not to know something about the Native American peoples who had populated the area and their relationships with the first English settlers who arrived in 1607. There was interplay in every phase of their mutual existence in that small area of green forest and sparkling water, sometimes positive, sometimes negative. When the settlers arrived, the Powhatan people did not realize that they were seeing the beginning of what became the general policy for most settler-native relationship: their own exile like the children of Israel, mutual warfare and massacres, and the end of their way of life on land they had occupied for centuries. By the time I came along, I knew there were Native Americans around somewhere, I just didn’t know where.
I found some in Phoenix when I moved here. There was a school set aside for them right in the middle of the city. Great, I thought. Give them a chance to get off the reservation, get a good education, help them get good paying jobs and make a better life than they would have had on the reservation. To my horror, I found later that I had bought into something called “forced assimilation,” a policy of the government that dated back almost to the founding of the country. Students at the Indian School, as it was called, were removed from their families at a very young age, sent to a totally strange, closed-in and frightening place, given a new name, a new hairstyle, new and strange items of clothing, different food. They were denuded of any artifact from their homes like small totems, fragments of rock, or anything else that would have connected them with their families. They were forced to speak only English, were regimented as surely as if they were in an army, and basically taught to be domestics and laborers with very little real education. The trauma of such treatment still has an effect on those who had to undergo it years ago.
Reading the biography of John Roberts, who we commemorate today, the thing that reached out and grabbed me was how different he was from probably almost every other white person the Arapaho and Shoshone people had ever seen or met. He treated them with respect, encouraging them to maintain their tribal languages, customs and traditions. He learned their languages and used those languages to preach, teach and even encourage harmony between two very different tribes of Natives Americans who were mutually antagonistic. In a sense, he was a man ahead of his time, educational philosophy-wise. Perhaps it was because he was Welsh by birth and did not grow up with the beliefs common among white people that Native Americans were savages, killers, and inferior in every way to the settlers, who had pushed them into reservations, appropriated their lands, destroyed their food chain and then tried to set them in a form of slavery. He earned respect by showing respect. In establishing missions around Wyoming along with his educational and missionary efforts on Wind River, he bridged the gap between the worlds of the non-Native Americans and the Native, doing his best to live the Golden Rule and, perhaps unwittingly, using St. Francis’ dictum to “preach always and sometimes use words.”
John Roberts, in his dual role of priest and missionary, asked to be sent to the most difficult place among Native Americans. His request was granted and he spent the rest of his very long and productive life among those he had asked to serve. I think the lesson I can take from John Robert’s life is that people are people, no matter what their outside appearance or perceived differences are. Treat them with respect and it will be returned.
Looking at Jesus among the different peoples with whom he interacted, he didn’t ask them to change their language, their location, their manner of dress or hairstyle or anything else other than their hearts. He didn’t force them, but by his words and witness he convinced them. He cured and healed them and they responded to him. John Roberts may not have done any physical curing, but I believe he did a lot of healing as he worked with people who had been sorely wounded as well as those who had done some of the wounding.
“Blessed are the peacemakers.” I have a feeling John Roberts more than fits that job description.
Now where can I take his example and put it to best use in my life? I don’t think I’ll have to look very far.