Healing from the 1963 closure of Walter Soboleff’s Memorial Presbyterian Church

Three events are planned for October 7-9 to acknowledge the racist church closure of a Juneau church and the hurt brought upon the Indigenous community

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Juneau, AK – Surrounding this year’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day, three healing events will be held to acknowledge the racist closure of Walter Soboleff’s Memorial Presbyterian Church and the hurt brought upon our Juneau Indigenous community. Background on the church’s closure is shown below.

The three events are listed below, with program summaries and livestream links for each. Professional photos and a video of excerpts of the formal apologies will be made available on the evening of Oct. 9. Click here to download a flyer for these events.

1) Commemoration of Memorial Presbyterian Church
Oct. 7 @ 1:30 p.m. AKT – Juneau Fire Hall on Glacier Avenue

The commemoration will feature the unveiling of a sign at the site of the former Memorial Presbyterian Church with brief comments and refreshments.
Join Livestream at https://www.facebook.com/khnluc

2) Church Service of Acknowledgement and Apology
Oct. 8 @ 11:00 a.m. AKT – Kunéix Hídi Northern Light United Church, 400 W. 11th St.

A service of apologies from the Presbyterian Church (USA), the NW Coast Presbytery and Kunéix Hídi Northern Lights United Church and presentation of personal gifts of healing blankets and throws to the Soboleff family and former Memorial Presbyterian Church members, followed by brunch.
Join Zoom Meeting at https://zoom.us/j/398434443 (no password needed)

3) Toward Healing: Presbyterian Apology and Reparations for Closing Memorial Church
Oct. 9 @11:30 a.m. AKT Lunch; Noon – 3 p.m. AKT, program, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall, 320 W. Willoughby Ave.

Co-hosted by Kunéix Hídi NLUC and Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Youth Dance group, video on the history of Memorial Presbyterian Church, video excerpts of apologies, presentation of checks in partial payment of reparations, and response.
Join by Zoom LINKhttps://us06web.zoom.us/j/89109133787 Passcode: 100923 Webinar ID: 891 0913 3787

History of Memorial Presbyterian Church Closure

At its peak in the early 1960s, “the Native church,” in Juneau was filled to standing room only on holidays. Memorial Presbyterian Church housed church and community gatherings seven days a week. It welcomed Tlingit and white people but served a predominantly Tlingit congregation. Then, to “end segregation,” the Alaska Presbytery and the Presbyterian Board of National Missions ordered it closed in 1962.

Now the national, regional and local levels of the Presbyterian church together are paying roughly $950,000 in reparations for the harm and pain the closure caused. The amount is noteworthy. A “down payment” is being presented to Sealaska Heritage Institute and the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska on Oct. 9, 2023.

The Tlingit pastor of the church, Walter Soboleff, held his first service at Memorial Church in 1940 for a congregation of three, including him and his wife.

But he was brilliant at growing a congregation. The church offered Bible study, choir practice, church socials and potlucks. Soboleff opened the building to Girl Scouts, teenage fireside chats, day care, and health checkups. He housed visiting basketball teams. He advertised in the newspaper and broadcast his sermons on the radio. Soboleff wrote hundreds of letters to parishioners. “It was an extension of our family, our extended family,” Judy Franklet, Tlingit, said in a 2019 interview.

Around the same time the Presbytery told Soboleff the church was to be closed, it loaned a non-Native congregation the money to build a new church, Northern Light Presbyterian, a few blocks away and advised the Native church members to join the new church. Less than half did. Most joined other denominations or drifted away from church altogether.

Adding insult to injury the new non-Native church advertised for a new minister instead of offering the position to Soboleff. Rather, he was asked to be an “Evangelist at large,” traveling by boat throughout southeast Alaska to preach at other churches.

Walter Soboleff lived to be 102 but never got over the harm and pain of having his thriving church shut down.

Maxine Richert, Tlingit and Athabascan, said of former minister of Northern Light United Church, Phil Campbell, “He interviewed Dr. Soboleff shortly before he passed away. And he (Campbell) was struck by the hurt feelings that Dr. Soboleff felt about the closure of his church. He never fought it, and he told his children to just gracefully accept it. But it still hurt him about 60 years later

In the early 2000s, a group of Native church members formed the Native Ministries Committee. With Campbell’s help, in 2021 they wrote an “overture,” entitled “On Directing the Office of the General Assembly to Issue Apologies and Reparations for the Racist Closure of the Memorial Presbyterian Church, Juneau, Alaska.”

“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 was distributed nationwide to Presbyterian churches and discussed in regional and national gatherings of church leaders.

The church is to acknowledge and confess its justification to end segregation, “merely substituted assimilationist racism for the previous practice of segregationist racism.” It will take steps to abolish institutional racism.

The church will direct funds to the Sealaska Heritage Institute and Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska for Indigenous language revitalization efforts, and to the Presbyterian Foundation’s Native American Church Property Fund.

Background Documents

Click here to read Kunéix Hídi Northern Light United Church’s “Overture,” the detailed history, justification, and request to the Presbyterian Church for reparations for harm caused by the racist closure of the Memorial Presbyterian Church.

Click here to read a First Alaskans Magazine article about the history of Rev. Dr. Walter Soboleff’s Memorial Presbyterian Church and its closure. 

Click here to read an Indian Country Today news story about the Presbyterian church’s commitment to $1 million in reparations for language preservation, scholarships and more. 

Click here to watch a video about Rev. Dr. Walter Soboleff and the 1963 closure of the Memorial Presbyterian Church’s closure Native Church w/Epilogue Captions (16:39) page5image34059264

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