In July 1954, the Rev. Dr. Walter Soboleff (1908-2011), pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in Juneau, Alaska, was broadcasting his sermons and general news updates in Tlingit, offering messages to those who had few opportunities to hear their native tongue.
Soboleff had been pastor of Memorial since 1940. The church was founded in the 19th century as a segregated congregation for Alaska Natives in Juneau. Under Soboleff’s leadership, his dedication to his community and his passion for communicating in his native tongue, the church grew into a formidable institution. In 1962, it was forcibly closed by the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA) Alaska Presbytery and Board of Missions.
Denied a physical pastorate, Soboleff was assigned to a traveling ministry in rural Southeast Alaska. He retired from ministry in 1970 and established the Alaska Native Studies Department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He served as a chaplain with the Alaska National Guard before his passing in 2011.
Northern Light United Church, Northern Light Presbyterian Church’s successor, recognized the harm that resulted from the closing of Memorial and took steps toward reconciliation with Juneau’s Native population. In 2021, the congregation offered an overture to the 225th General Assembly in 2022 that stated: “The forced closure of this thriving, multiethnic, intercultural church was an egregious act of spiritual abuse committed in alignment with the prevailing White racist treatment of Alaska Natives, statewide, and of Native Americans, nationwide.” The overture included a list of reparations that might help begin to heal the community. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) adopted the overture unanimously, issued a formal apology and committed to pay $1 million in reparations for closing the native church.
As one of the first steps in reparations, the church was renamed Ḵunéix̱ Hídi (people’s house of healing) Northern Light United Church. The congregation is committed to preserving and sharing the history of Soboleff’s original church. You can view a 16-minute documentary about Memorial Presbyterian here.
On Independence Day 1963, the Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, Stated Clerk of the UPCUSA General Assembly, was arrested for trespassing. Blake was one of 283 people arrested outside Baltimore on the grounds of Gwynn Oak Amusement Park — a segregated institution that allowed only white guests to enter its premises. The activists, members from the Council on Racial Equality and the Baltimore Clergymen’s Interfaith Committee, had gathered to challenge the owners of the amusement park to desegregate.
A week earlier, the National Council of Churches (NCC) appointed Blake head of its Commission on Religion and Race. Blake, who had been elected Stated Clerk of the UPCUSA in 1958 and would serve in that position until 1966, previously served as NCC president from 1954 to 1957.
Police and security guards stood at the ready when buses carrying the participants pulled up to Gwynn Oak’s front gate. After being read Maryland’s trespass law, Blake and Furman Templeton, a Black Presbyterian elder, stepped forward and requested admission. When Templeton was denied entry, Blake pressed the matter, saying they wanted to ride the miniature Baltimore and Ohio Railroad —to no avail. He and other participants were booked for trespassing and fingerprinted. After pleading not guilty, they were released on bond. Charges against Blake were ultimately dropped, but his actions weren't without cost. Many white Presbyterians were dismayed by what they saw as the church's abrupt transition from passive to active engagement in the civil rights struggle.
A 16mm film of the arrest, with some of Blake's speeches on civil rights dubbed over it, was widely distributed by the church. You can watch it here, in Pearl.
On the first day of July 1971, “Presbyterian Life” published a headlining article about Ruling Elder Lois Stair, the first woman elected Moderator of the UPCUSA General Assembly.
Women became eligible to serve as General Assembly moderators in 1930, when the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. General Assembly opened the position of ruling elder to them. During that 40-year interim, Stair developed her leadership skills in different positions, serving as a ruling elder at the First Presbyterian Church in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and as a moderator of Milwaukee Presbytery and the Synod of Wisconsin before being elected as Moderator of the 183rd General Assembly.
Stair discussed being the first woman moderator with good cheer, but she also addressed the tumultuous issues roiling the country and the UPCUSA. As moderator, she wanted to lead congregations away from their “cozy comfortableness” and toward diversity. She called for reorganizing church programs to emphasize such issues as equality and the protection of minorities. As moderator, Stair modeled the bravery and confidence to listen, reflect and speak forthrightly about Presbyterians following Christ during challenging times.
The last page of the “Presbyterian Life” article highlights Stair’s post-election remarks, in which she revealed the source of her courage: “There is too much lack of confidence, loss of nerve, among churchmen. Pastors suffer from low morale, women feel inferior, minorities and youth wonder if equality will ever be a reality … We must have confidence. It is available to us through Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Spirit working through us to do so much more in the glory of God.”
Download and browse a bulletin insert about Lois Stair here.
In mid-July 1995, a new organization presented its first newsletter to the 207th General Assembly in Cincinnati. Voices of Sophia (VOS), a group that promoted feminist and womanist theology, had been organized the year before as a response to the backlash against the 1993 Re-Imagining Conference.
The conference focused on bringing feminist theologians from outside the U.S. to Minneapolis to gather and hold discussions. Critics had warned against Re-Imagining’s message that feminists could push the boundaries of orthodoxy and still be Christian. Immense criticism was heaped upon Presbyterians who attended as well as the PC(USA) Women’s Ministry Unit for supporting the conference. Mary Ann Lundy, head of the unit, was removed from her position.
The following year, a special impact group gathered to focus on the issues raised by the Re-Imagining Conference and the backlash it received. Voices of Sophia became an official organization at the 207th General Assembly in 1995.
With the stated goal of “transforming the Church into a discipleship of equals,” VOS held annual gatherings from 1994 to 2003, offered breakfasts and speakers at General Assemblies from 1995 onward, distributed a newsletter titled “Illuminations,” created a website and grew a membership that peaked at over 500. A membership mailing in 2002 states VOS’s purpose to “call the Church into accountability, and fulfill the Gospel and General Assembly policy, regarding women’s theologies, inclusiveness, and diversity.”
Voices of Sophia was an active organization from its inception until 2010, when it merged with the Witherspoon Society to form Presbyterian Voices for Justice.
Explore a student-designed exhibit inspired by Voices of Sophia on the Building Knowledge and Breaking Barriers website.
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