The Presbyterian missionaries who started schools for the Native American tribes in Alaska in the late 1800s had the best of intentions. They would educate the children – teaching them about the American language, culture and faith. Over time, however, those good intentions led to a culture of oppression. As part of the Riverside Conversation on Equipping the Church for Ministry with God’s Diverse Family, the Rev. Curt Karns, executive presbyter of Yukon Presbytery, described the reconciliation work that has recently begun between the church and community of Gambell, an Alaskan town just 36 miles from Siberia.

“The program began with good intentions, providing education for the children who lived in the area,” Rev. Karns says. “However, that education required assimilation. The Native Americans were forced to give up important parts of their cultural heritage. They were no longer permitted to speak in their native language or participate in drumming and dancing rituals considered to be pagan.”

As the decades passed, it became clear that the assimilation practices were hurting the very people they were created to help. Some felt shame for their own heritage and culture. Out of this shame came division, confusion and pain within families and within the community.

Recently, the Presbytery of Yukon began New Beginning, a reconciliation program called to heal the pain and demonstrate how today’s Alaskan Presbyterians value cultural diversity. The culminating reconciliation ceremony began with formal, written apologies that were officially presented to the clan leaders and ended with an entire gymnasium filled with many different kinds of people drumming and dancing in celebration. Rev. Karns says the work in Gambell really is a just a beginning. Reconciliation work with the Native Americans needs to be done all over Alaska and the United States. However, racial reconciliation is not limited to Native Americans.

Anne Rawlings, director of outreach and program administration at The Interfaith Center of New York, says that even though many strides against racism have been made, government and law-enforcement structures still work against many African Americans and Latinos as “stop and frisk” practices and jail sentencing tend to specifically target these minority groups.

“We need to be allies with the people who are targeted and oppressed. We need to work with them against the structures that marginalize them,” Rawlings says.

Healing the hurt of racism requires that those involved acknowledge the wrongs of the past, explains the Rev. Karen Battle, director of justice ministries and mission in Pittsburgh Presbytery. As part of the Amos 5:24 Ministry team, she has helped Pittsburgh churches recognize that past city and religious leaders had been slave owners and that racism – as well as a longing for justice – is in the DNA of many Pittsburgh organizations.

“The Presbyterian church here has been at both ends of the spectrum – with complicity to the sin of racism in the form of slavery as well as the redemption and reconciliation of abolitionists who worked within the denomination,” Battle says. Racism has no place in the church.