Commemoration of John Roberts, Priest and Missionary (1843-1949)
Growing up in Virginia, where history seems to ooze out of every molecule of air, water, earth and rock, it was hard not to know something about the Native American peoples who had populated the area and their relationships with the first English settlers who arrived in 1607. There was interplay in every phase of their mutual existence in that small area of green forest and sparkling water, sometimes positive, sometimes negative. When the settlers arrived, the Powhatan people did not realize that they were seeing the beginning of what became the general policy for most settler-native relationship: their own exile like the children of Israel, mutual warfare and massacres, and the end of their way of life on land they had occupied for centuries.
I had never heard the name John Roberts, whom we commemorate today. He was born and educated in Wales where he was ordained to the diaconate. He sailed for the Bahamas where he worked at the cathedral and also among the people of a leper colony, particularly the colored sufferers. Moving again, this
time to New York, he asked to be sent to work with Native American people, in the most difficult and needy place possible. He was sent to what is now known as the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, to work among the Shoshone and Arapaho peoples. He learned their languages, studied their customs, established schools for them and translated the gospels into their languages. The people learned to trust this white man who came to them to give, not to punish or take something away. He served as their priest as well and established mission churches all over Wyoming. He retired from his missionary work in 1921 but lived among the Native people until his death in 1949.
John Roberts felt a call from God to work with Native Americans. Missionaries usually feel a call from God to go out and spread the good news; that's a given. What made John Roberts different, I believe, was his way of ministering to them, not just by preaching and converting but also supporting and encouraging those who comprised his flocks. Rather than forcing them into "foreign" clothes like trousers, shirts and dresses of wool and calico cotton while insisting they speak English, he encouraged them to maintain their languages, traditions and customs while working with them to maintain good relations and peace with those both inside and outside the different tribes. By learning their languages he was able to translate the gospels for them but more importantly, was able to communicate with them as equals. He earned their trust and was instrumental in negotiating on their behalf with agents and agencies of the federal government who weren't always necessarily sympathetic to the plight of Native Americans.
When Jesus went among the people, he spoke their language, perhaps with a bit of an odd accent in places, but dialects of an area are generally slightly different but usually understandable to others from the next village or tribe. He demonstrated how to live as well as spoke of it, knowing that often actions speak much louder than the words themselves. Jesus lay great emphasis on the treatment of the poor, the outcast, the widows and orphans and the strangers living among them. I think John Roberts had this insight and, in his ministry to the Arapaho and Shoshone, practiced what Jesus taught -- to love them, seek the best for them, support them, and lead them gently.
I'm glad I got to know about this man of God. My one sadness is that it took someone from a foreign land to come and demonstrate how to treat others who we as Americans considered outsiders and inferiors. His life and ministry reminds me that no matter how others perceive them, God's children come in a rainbow of races, colors, orientations, and the like. The best ministry might be the one of example, not always preaching. I pray our missionaries show the same love, concern and Spirit that he did, and that those to whom they have gone will see and feel God's love through them. And I pray that all of us can learn to see beyond the outward appearance and instead see the mark of God that exists in all of us, even those who we consider outcasts and aliens.
Thank you, John Roberts. I am grateful for your example, both for missionaries and for the rest of us.
Originally published on Speaking to the Soul at Episcopal Café Saturday February 25, 2012.