by Terri C. Pilarski
Channing Moore Williams – Bishop and missionary to Japan and China
(The icon of the pregnant Theotokos was written by Terri C. Pilarski, for the season of Advent.)
Isaiah 49:22-23 (NRSV)
Thus says the Lord God: I will soon lift up my hand to the nations, and raise my signal to the peoples; and they shall bring your sons in their bosom, and your daughters shall be carried on their shoulders. Kings shall be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers. With their faces to the ground they shall bow down to you, and lick the dust of your feet. Then you will know that I am the Lord; those who wait for me shall not be put to shame.
During the mid 1800’s all of my ancestors travelled to Utah seeking a place and way to live their faith without persecution. Some of them travelled from Indiana, others from Alabama, and a few made their way from Scotland and England. One ancestor, a five times great-grandmother, Hannah Mills Chatterton, travelled alone with two small children from Manchester, England to Salt Lake City. One child died from smallpox on the ship crossing the Atlantic. Hannah was pregnant with a third child and by the time she arrived in St. Louis, to walk across the plains of Iowa and Nebraska and the mountains of Wyoming and Utah, she was in her final months of pregnancy. Jacob Chatterton, my direct ancestor-great grandfather, was born shortly after she settled in the Salt Lake City valley. Hannah’s husband, Jonathon Chatterton remained in England for another year, earning additional money for his travel to Utah. My ancestors all struggled to survive in this foreign land, building houses on the native lands stolen from the Shoshone. One of them worked closely with the Shoshone and even created an English-Shoshone dictionary to help people communicate. My ancestors believed that they had found the promised land for them, a place to worship without persecution. Yet, they never acknowledged their entitlement and impact on the Shoshone people whose land they took. What does it mean to follow God?
Hannah’s life was difficult, particularly after Jonathon arrived and took a second wife, common in those days among LDS men in Utah. She died giving birth to her tenth child at the age of 46. I think of Hannah often. I am struck by her deep faith and willingness to endure hardships in order to follow where her faith led. I wonder about the challenges of living so far from her family of origin who remained in England. Did she maintain contact with them, or was she cut off from them? I look at the intergenerational transmission of anxiety in my family and wonder about the impact many of them experienced at being cut-off from family members. I wonder about the impact of living in a faith community that in the end may not have offered the women, in particular, what they hoped and dreamed for. The women lived lives of great hardship struggling to make a home in a foreign land without extended family help. The men, from the stories I’ve read, lived lives of great adventure as they navigated the wild west, and found prestige within the church system.
I wonder what it was like for Channing Moore Williams to leave his home in Richmond, VA and travel to China and then Japan? Ordained a deacon in 1855, a priest in 1857, and consecrated a Bishop in 1866. From what I have read, it sounds as though his life was fruitful. He started a divinity school, translated parts of the Book of Common prayer into Japanese, and mentored his successors. He lived and worked in Japan for nearly 53 years, returning to Virginia in 1908. He died on December 2, 1910.
Most of us are not traveling these days, sequestering at home because of Covid, and many of us are living without contact and support from extended family members. Unlike ages past, we have the benefit of Zoom and other mechanisms to see one another in cyber-reality. This is not the same as being in person, but it is something. It’s equally challenging to maintain relationships between members of faith communities when we are unable to see one another face to face. Active and engaging Zoom worship helps. Active and engaging opportunities to gather and be present with one another on zoom helps. But will it be enough?
The challenges of living a life of faith has always been part of what it means to follow this living God who chose to incarnate him/herself in the person of Jesus. From the wanderings of the ancient Hebrews following Moses to my ancestors who tried to build a faith community where they could worship without persecution, to Bishop Williams, who built faith communities in Japan, and many others, people of faith have wandered far from home in their effort to faithfully follow God’s call. Yet, only a few of my relatives continue to be people of faith. I left that church and eventually became an Episcopal priest, returning to the church my ancestors left.
In these times when we cannot leave home, the challenge of this season is nonetheless similar to our ancestors, what does it mean to follow God? Will we do the deep work to recognize, dismantle, and begin to reconcile the impact of European settlers on the indigenous people of this land? Will we do the deep work to recognize, dismantle, and begin to reconcile the impact of having stolen and enslaved people from Africa? What about creating equity in housing, employment, and education? What does it mean to follow God?
Terri Pilarski is an Episcopal priest and the rector of Christ Church in Dearborn, MI. Along with her colleague, Halim Shukair, they lead a Partnership in Faith between Christ Church and Mother of the Savior, with English speaking and Arabic speaking Christians.