Presbyterian Capital Campaign for Nimiipuu Churches Is about Repairing Buildings and Relations
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News Story by John McCallum
UPDATED: This story has been updated to include Bill Picard’s former role on the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee.
The Presbytery of the Inland Northwest’s (PIN) “Building Towards Reconciliation” campaign is more than just raising money to repair six churches on the Nez Perce Reservation in north-central Idaho — churches that are the oldest in the presbytery and among the oldest in the state.
The campaign, which started Nov. 5, 2022, is about putting actions to words — words expressed in several denominational apologies, beginning with the national Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in 2017 for its role in oppressing Native American peoples since at least the late 1600s when members of the denomination first landed on these shores.
The repair needs of the churches on the reservation, which is the ancestral home to the Nimiipuu people — formerly known, incorrectly, as Nez Perce — range from foundation work and sagging roofs to replacing flooring, repairing non-functioning plumbing, upgrading heating systems and installation of exterior lighting for safety concerns.
PIN Executive Presbyter Rev. Sheryl Kinder-Pyle said the apologies — which include one made by the Presbytery to the Nimiipuu in June 2021 — and capital campaign are steps in making amends for centuries of abuse and discrimination done to native peoples in the name of religion.
“These efforts at reconciliation are long overdue,” she said.
Stolen generations, stolen culture
After World War II, Presbyterian Church general assemblies began taking more consistent positions supporting Native American land rights as well as openly acknowledging its participation in past acts of abuse towards these populations. In 2016, the 222nd General Assembly (2016) formerly issued an apology to Native Americans, Alaska natives and native Hawaiians — both in the church and outside — for its role in past abuses.
Not only did the apology address the U.S. government’s former policy of taking Native American lands through treaties, often broken or ignored, and formation of reservations — part of 1823’s “Doctrine of Discovery” — but it also drew attention to the “stolen generations” that were sent to Indian boarding schools as part of the “Indian-assimilation movement” begun in 1819 and running through the 1970s.
According to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, as part of the assimilation process, Native children were forcibly removed “from their families, communities, languages, religions and cultural beliefs.” Students were often subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse for attempts to retain any part of their native culture.
Washington state was home to 21 of these schools, according to the report, one in Kettle Falls and another at a repurposed Fort Spokane. Six boarding schools operated in Idaho, three of which — Fort Lapwai Training School, the Nez Perce Boarding School and St. Joseph’s Mission School — were on the Nez Perce Reservation.
Native Americans suffered other abuses as well, such as the theft or destruction of cultural artifacts. During his mission work to the Nez Perce from 1836 – 1847 and again from 1859 to his death in 1874, Presbyterian missionary Rev. Henry Spalding removed 23 Nimiipuu cultural artifacts and sent them to his benefactors in Ohio, where they eventually found their way to the Ohio History Collection.
The Tribe was forced to purchase them for $608,100 in 1996 in order to have them returned to their possession. In a ceremony to rename the artifacts in 2021, the Ohio History Collection reimbursed the Tribe for the money it was forced to spend, and PIN issued an apology for Spalding’s actions.
Actions focused on Nimiipuu churches
After the 2021 renaming ceremony and PIN apology, Kinder-Pyle founder herself asking some of the same questions she had after the 2017 PCUSA apology.
“OK, Sheryl, now what?” she said.
The Presbytery had taken up discussion about funding repair work for some of the Nimiipuu churches before, mostly through the Mission Receiving Churches program. That program was for churches with limited resources Presbytery-wide, but with it discontinued, something else needed to be considered
“This is a more focused initiative,” Kinder-Pyle said of the campaign.
The six churches are: First Indian Presbyterian Church and Second Indian Presbyterian Church, both in Kamiah, North Fork Presbyterian Church in Ahsahka, Spalding First Presbyterian in Spalding, Meadow Creek Presbyterian in Lapwai and Stites Presbyterian in Stites.
Kinder-Pyle said the Presbytery asked the Nimiipuu congregations to submit proposals in July 2022 for repair work. They also used a report from a building inspector PCUSA commissioned in 2020 to visit the 95 Native American churches in the U.S. and provide estimated costs for repairs — which for the six Nimiipuu churches was $200,000, although those costs are likely higher now due to inflation and other factors.
The Presbytery originally proposed raising $100,000, taking a cautious approach by not trying to “over promise” too much. Of that, PIN pledged $50,000 from its reserves to get things started.
“The response was so generous (after the campaign launch) that we said, hey, why don’t we make the goal what we need,” Kinder-Pyle said.
Beacons of the community
Repair needs of the six Nimiipuu churches vary with each congregation. In the case of North Fork Presbyterian, Elder and former Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee member Bill Picard said it’s not the church itself, but the building next door used as a fellowship hall that needs work.
The original North Fork church was destroyed by fire on Christmas Eve, 2008, but rebuilt within eight months. The fellowship hall next door was built in the 1980s and used at Deary High School until 2001-2002 when the school district donated it to the church — with the church sending a crew to haul it the 39 miles to Ahsahka.
The building is used not only for dining, but also for Sunday school classes for children, meetings, a dressing room for Christmas pageants and visits from Santa Claus during the holidays.
“I think the building is at the end of its life, but if we can’t get a new building, we need to keep duct-taping this one together,” Picard said.
Picard said the roof leaks “always,” the floor is warped and a window on the side without rain gutters is rotted and needs to be replaced. Of two heating units — one at each end of the single room — only one works, resulting in the need to use box fans to circulate warm air during colder months.
Picard said they also need to mount a floodlight outside for safety and parking issues when using the facility at night.
Other churches have similar needs. Second Indian Presbyterian Elder Connie Evans said in a video for the campaign that portions of that church are blocked off because of issues with the foundation. Spalding First Presbyterian member Marjory Hyde said the church is closed at times due to issues with the back part of the building.
These and other repairs are essential to keeping these church buildings open and functioning — buildings that often serve as the heart of their respective communities, or as Spalding First Presbyterian member Theron Red Coyote said, “beacons in the dark.” Picard said it’s not uncommon for children to be playing outside the North Fork fellowship hall while adults inside clean up after meals.
He and his wife have also conducted meetings of a group serving teens from broken homes at the church for 20 years, a practice that involves serving a hot meal that for some teens might be one of the few they get. The leaky and cold fellowship hall often makes this difficult.
So far, the Building Toward Reconciliation campaign has done well. As of March 19, the campaign had raised $122,100 of its $200,000 goal. One of the first large donations was $1,000 from the 15-member church in Boville, Idaho. That was followed by the money from PIN, and then a $28,000 donation from Pullman Presbyterian Church. Both Boville and Pullman churches have more regular contact with the Nimiipuu than other churches in the Presbytery.
The first large donation outside the area near the reservation came from Lidgerwood Presbyterian Church in Spokane’s Hillyard neighborhood. Lidgerwood Pastor Rev. Mark Wheeler said the 45-member church received a bequest from an individual about the time the Nimiipuu campaign began.
“We wanted to give something to our God and the best way to use it was to put it towards one of God’s missions in the area,” Wheeler said of the $13,000 donation to the campaign, adding the gift was large enough to also make donations to an ongoing mission in Kenya and a Spokane food pantry.
Since then, the Fairfield Community Church has donated $3,000 and First Presbyterian Church in downtown Spokane has donated $20,000. Bethany Presbyterian Church — a congregation that lost its building in a fire in January 2022 — has donated $1,000.
Kinder-Pyle is excited about the way the campaign is progressing, even if it was a long time coming.
“But I’m grateful we’ve started this journey and I hope the reconciliation work will continue,” she added.
John McCallum is a freelance writer living in Liberty Lake. A graduate of Eastern Washington University with degrees in Journalism and Radio-Television, John spent 21 years at the Cheney Free Press as an award-winning staff reporter, editor, managing editor and photojournalist; writing and photographing people, places and things ranging from government to education, sports, religion and current affairs. He is a member of Spokane’s Knox Presbyterian Church, has served as a church leader on session and participated in worship through a variety of roles ranging from pulpit speaking to the Knox Drama Team. He is a member of the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest Guatemala Task Force, making six mission trips to that Central American country. John enjoys time with his wife, Sheila, and their Dachshund, Lacey, at home and on the road — especially the Oregon Coast — along with running, biking and kayaking.