Despite inclement weather, more than 100 people gathered at Rehoboth (N.M.) Christian Reformed Church on January 2 for a service of repentance for injustices toward Native Americans that happened at Rehoboth Christian School. The school was founded by Christian Reformed missionaries more than 100 years ago.
According to Rev. Rob Byker, pastor of the church for the past 15 years, the service was an important reminder of ugly racist behaviors. “We hope this service might also be an occasion for healing, understanding, and coming together under Christ,” he said.
The service was built on four themes: I Was Wrong; I Am Sorry; I Seek Forgiveness; I Will Love.
The centerpiece of the service was a 25-minute videotaped conversation with Pastor Randy Freeland, who experienced demeaning behavior while a student at Rehoboth Christian School. Freeland has been a pastor in the CRC since 2006, currently serving Bethlehem CRC in Tohlakai, N.M. He is a member of the CRC’s Board of Trustees.
Freeland shared some of what happened to him during his seven years at the school, including being thrown into a corner and physically abused by a teacher, walking away with bruises. “I remember one teacher who looked at me and said, ‘I feel that the public would be better off with you dead or in jail,’” he recounted. “For an adult to say that to a child was unfair and unjust.”
Despite that, he said, Rehoboth gave him the foundation of Christianity, especially five people who showed him the true meaning of who Christ is. “They showed me what love was,” he said. One of those people is Gail De Young, a teacher who welcomed Freeland into her home. She was part of the video. “Because of that, I saw again what love is,” Freeland said.
Also appearing on the video was Don McGavran, current superintendent of Rehoboth Christian School. Although he was not at the school during Freeland’s time there, he apologized on behalf of the school. “You should never have been treated that way. For others that we treated that way, we were wrong,” he said. “We seek forgiveness, reconciliation, and, most of all, healing for you and others that desire healing. School should be a safe place. For you, maybe for others, it was not. And that’s our fault.” He also committed to providing resources for counseling or supportive services that alumni of Rehoboth may need.
Wilbert Dempsey, who is Navajo, was one of those who attended the service. He didn’t attend the school but grew up nearby. He was supportive of the decision to address the issues. “I was very moved by this, because it is very difficult to admit when you’re wrong,” he said.
Vern Bia, 55, also Navajo, attended the service. He was not a student at Rehoboth but taught there for 11 years in the 1990s. Five of his children graduated from the school. He said that the CRC needs to address these issues rather than sweep them under the rug. There is real hurt, he said, especially the equating of Americanism with Christianity. “That hurt a lot of Natives,” he said. “That equating has caused a lot of decline to language, problems in education, and loss of culture and loss of identity.”
He said he appreciated the previous apology given at the school’s 100th anniversary, but is concerned about the follow-through. He pointed to the lack of support from Christians in the protest against the Dakota Access pipeline project. “If Natives were valued, you would have [had] more people in support of that,” he said.
The church service was held in part to follow up recommendations from Synod 2016, the annual leadership meeting of the CRC. Gail De Young was a delegate to that synod. In response to a report from the task force studying the Doctrine of Discovery, those recommendations included recognizing “the pain of those who suffered from their experiences in the residential schools of the United States and Canada, including Rehoboth Christian School, and lament any of our mistakes that caused pain.”
Synod also directed the executive director of the CRC to work with appropriate CRC agencies to “walk alongside affected parties, listen to their stories, lament, and weep with them until such time as we can ‘walk in beauty together’” (Acts of Synod 2016, pp. 922-923). Hearing the story of Randy Freeland was part of those actions.
At the conclusion of the service, an invitation was given for anyone to come and speak with Byker, DeYoung, or McGavran. McGavran said they all met with several people and began to listen to their stories. “On Monday, I spent three hours listening to stories of pain and anguish for one graduate,” he said.
Byker admitted that he had several disagreements with the task force’s report, but the report also got something right. “We have been guilty of sins like paternalism, heavy-handed discipline, a lack of listening, and racial superiority. As pastor of Rehoboth CRC, I personally believe that we are moving away from such sins and toward Christ-likeness,” he said. “But whether I am right or wrong, we are not perfectly Christ-like. We are not walking in beauty together. Our Lord’s call to repent remains relevant. . . . It’s my hope that we will daily seek to kill ugly sins like superiority and grow in Christ-like humility and compassion.”