Decolonizing Faith: Some Reflections on the Canonization of Junípero Serra

Rev. Josh Pawelek

My announcement for this sermon said “from Columbus Day to Thanksgiving, images of Native Americans flow in and out of the national consciousness.” They actually flow in and out of our consciousness, culture, language and media every day, but at least for me as a non-Native American person, I realize I am all-too-often unaware not only of the images, but of the actual people, their history, contributions and justice struggles. This has something to do with the legacy of colonization.

In this season we are reminded of the story of the first Thanksgiving, a story of peace between the Pilgrim settlers and the Wampanoags.[1] We know also that the colonial New England clash of civilizations was ultimately catastrophic for First Nations people. Frankly, I’m not aware of any experience of colonization anywhere on the planet that was not catastrophic in some way for First Nations people. I’m wondering this morning about the way whole societies continue to rationalize, excuse, justify and, most insidiously, forget the catastrophe part. I’m wondering how faith communities play a role in that rationalizing, excusing, justifying and forgetting and what spiritual impact it has on the people in those faith communities. I’m wondering about this because I see the legacy of colonization at work. I see it in opposition to Syrian refugees. I see it in anti-immigrant policies and calls for mass deportations. I see it in white supremacists shooting at a Black Lives Matter vigil in Minneapolis, shooting at mosques, shooting at churches. I see it in the continued experience of state-sanctioned violence against people of color. I see it in income and wealth inequality. I see it in our materialistic culture, and in the relentless corporate assault on the earth. In all of it I see an impulse to protect the prizes of the colonial era, even though they are no longer sustainable and so clearly unjust. So, I’m asking what it means to have a collective practice of decolonizing faith. As Unitarian Universalists who proclaim the principle of the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” I believe we are called to discern the truth of our nation’s colonial past, the way it persists not only in our national life but in our faith, and how we can work at overcoming its legacies.[2]

I hold deep admiration for Pope Francis.[3] I admire his clarion call for the decolonization of faith, which begins with apology. In his July address to the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, sitting on the dais next to Evo Morales—the first person of the indigenous Aymara people elected President of Bolivia—Francis not only named the violence, poverty and exploitation that result from unbridled capitalism and continue to be the legacy of European colonialism globally, but he also apologized for Roman Catholicism’s role in that legacy. He said, “Many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God…. I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”[4] In an era in which it is so difficult for public figures to apologize for anything, let alone account for the historical sins of their institutions, I find the Pope’s request for forgiveness revolutionary, a critical step towards decolonizing faith in the Roman Catholic context and a model for all religions that share in the legacy of colonialism.

It was mystifying when Francis elevated the 18th-century Spanish missionary Junpero Serra to sainthood in Washington, DC in September. Serra essentially founded the Spanish mission system in California, one of the central institutions of Spanish colonialism.  In his homily, Francis spoke of Serra as separate from the abuses of the system he created: “Junípero Serra … was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life. He … made them his brothers and sisters. Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”[5]

This is not the view of Serra among many Native Americans. To anyone who was listening, the outcry from Native America was deafening. Two days prior to the canonization, Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Native American Morning Star Institute, urged the Pope not to proceed, stating that “Serra’s canonization is a symbol that reverberates through time as anti-Indian…. It is incomprehensible that the Pope could apologize for [the crimes of colonialism], yet confer sainthood on a leading perpetrator of those very crimes.”[6]

In a statement in July, Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun tribal nation said: “Over 100,000 of our ancestors died as a result of the mission system. We have endured generations of trauma and abuse and we are still suffering the results in our families and in our Tribal Nations. At the end of the mission system, the Catholic Church needed an alibi for the intentional enslavement, torture, rapes, theft of our lands, cultures, and languages…. The Church created the myth that we wanted to be at the missions… they said we wanted a better religion, a better way to tend food crops. These are all lies.”[7] In an open letter to Francis, the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians said: “In just one generation, the total population of all [Luiseño] villages suffered a greater than 90 percent population loss through disease and abuse brought by Fr. Serra’s missionization…. This rapid population loss in such a compressed time frame triggered a collapse of our indigenous societal structure and way of life and set into motion the atrocities and hardships that our people endured for nearly two centuries.”[8]

Historians tend to agree with the Indians’ assessment. Serra biographer Stephen Hackel[9] says, “If one looks at the legacy of Serra’s missions and what he was trying to do in California, there’s no question that his goal was to radically alter Native culture, to have Indians not speak their Native languages, to practice Spanish culture, to transform Native belief patterns in ways that would make them much less Native.”[10] California historian Robert Senkewicz offers a less oppressive view of Serra, yet agrees that “coercion and force were part of the mission system.”[11]

Regardless of his intentions and the love he claimed to feel for “the unbaptized,” Serra set in motion a system that had horrendous consequences for First Nations people. I don’t pretend to understand the canonization process in the Roman Catholic Church, but I think this canonization was wrong. The idea of “Saint” Serra conflicts with Francis’ bold critique of colonialism and capitalism. This was rationalization, excusing, justifying, forgetting. A truly decolonized faith could not canonize the architect of a system that destroyed countless indigenous lives and cultures.

I have a strong opinion here, but I want to confess something I observed in myself that underscores for me the need for decolonizing faith.  Since the canonization there have been four acts of anti-Serra vandalism—three at historic mission churches in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Carmel and one at a Serra statue in Carmel.[12] Paint has been thrown on church doorways, statues have been overturned—one decapitated—gravesites have been desecrated, graffiti proclaiming “Saint of Genocide” has been spray-painted. My first reaction to hearing this news was, “Well, of course. This is how people feel. Catholics need to understand the symbolic power of this canonization—how much real anger and pain it generates among Native Americans and their allies.” I had a very different reaction in October when I learned that black churches in St. Louis were being burned. I organized the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Board of Trustees to write a letter expressing solidarity to all seven churches that had been burned. But the thought of writing a letter to the three Californian Catholic Churches never occurred to me. I moved into a species of black-and-white thinking: Some are victims, some are perpetrators. Catholics need to understand their legacy and atone for their historical sins.

I am such an expert on what Catholics need to do! When I finally examined why I didn’t have a letter-writing impulse in response to vandalism at Catholic churches, I discovered a set of assumptions in me that boiled down to “they deserved it.” Realizing this made me sad, embarrassed and uncomfortable, not only because of the lack of compassion that lay behind it—I know nobody deserves to have their house of worship vandalized or attacked—but also because in that moment I was engaged in my own forgetting. Remember: as Unitarian Universalists, we are spiritual descendants of the Puritans who did essentially the same thing to indigenous people in New England as the Catholics did in California. Our spiritual forbears fought wars against the indigenous people, divided nations against each other, infected them with diseases, created missions to Christianize them, forced them to adopt European culture and language, forced them into slavery and indentured servitude, forced them onto reservations. It’s just as horrendous a history. And if someone were to throw paint on the doors of any of our churches in New England and then spray-paint graffiti saying “church of genocide,” it wouldn’t be all that different than the recent vandalism at Spanish mission churches. No, we are not holding our colonizing forbears as saints, but the rationale would be largely the same. In this light, my gut-reaction judgement of Catholics was not only shallowly self-righteous, but it also missed a larger point: there’s an opportunity for Catholics, UUs and Protestants to work together on decolonizing faith.

I’m not ready to preach on what I think such interfaith work might look like, but I can say that this work begins with remembering and telling the truth about the past. After remembering and truth-telling comes activism that confronts the legacies of colonialism—racism, environmental injustice, corporate abuses of workers and the land, unjust immigration policies, state-sanctioned violence, excessive war-making and even nation-building. Perhaps our support and presence at yesterday’s “Say ‘Yes’ to Syrian Refugees” rally in Hartford can serve as an example of an large, interfaith group working together to overcome a legacy of colonialism. 

Right now I want to name a way to position ourselves spiritually as individuals and as a faith community for entering into the work of decolonizing faith. I call it living in shades of gray. Colonization succeeded and lives on to the extent the colonizers and their heirs could and can demonize an ‘other.’ Historically it used strict, black-and-white racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender and class categories to exploit and enslave the other, to steal, plunder and rape, to build fences, walls, and prisons, to justify genocide. If you want to see it at work today, look for black and white thinking: Some people are welcomed in, others excluded. Some are rewarded, others punished. Some are saintly, others sinful. Some are legalized, others criminalized. Some are enlightened, others ignorant. Some are saviors, others need saving. Some peoples’ experience matters, others’ doesn’t. Some people get letters of solidarity, others don’t. The colonized mind and the colonized faith make hard distinctions between ‘we’ and ‘they,’ say “if you’re not with us you’re against us.” They do so in a flash, from the gut, without thought. Consider all the voices demanding that Syrian refugees be barred from entry into the United States, or demanding that all undocumented people be deported, or demanding that walls be erected on the borders. It feels to me like an effort to protect some outworn prize of the colonial era–a United States for people of European descent.

To counter this colonial mindset, we need a practice of living in shades of gray where black and white have nothing to cling to, have no hold over us. We need a practice of living in shades of gray where we can hear different stories, sing different songs, discern different truths; where we can imagine new possibilities, new futures; where we can learn to withhold judgement and embrace humanity in its fullness; where we can learn to be forgiving and forgiven; where we can remember and name all those false pieces of ourselves, those pieces of us imposed from beyond us, those labels that keep us from being our true selves, that keep us from being fully human.

May we practice living in shades of gray, slowly remembering and naming those histories of genocide and war, those traumas, those unjust systems, those economic inequalities, those assaults upon the land, those enduring sources of violence that keep all of us from being the beloved community. May we practice living in shades of gray, where we can act in solidarity with all those who struggle for justice for people and the earth, where we can admire a leader despite a decision we’re convinced is wrong; where we can slowly remember and name and apologize and prepare, so that when the light returns—when the gray that has turned to dark turns finally back to green—we will be ready with new selves—decolonized selves—working to create a more compassionate, just and peaceful future—a truly decolonized future.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Tirado, Michelle, “The Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving Story, Indian Country Today Media Network, November 21, 20122. See: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2011/11/22/wampanoag-side-first-thanksgiving-story-64076.

[2] I originally titled this this sermon “Decolonizing Our Faith, Part II” because I offered a sermon entitled “Decolonizing our Faith” in 2012: Pawelek, Josh, “Decolonizing our Faith,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, November 19, 2012. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/decolonizing-our-faith/.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “Pope Francis, Inverted Funnels, and Big Hearts Open,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, October 6, 2013. See: http://uuse.org/pope-francis-inverted-funnels-and-big-hearts-open/#.VkNNa7erTrc.

[4] Pope Francis, “Address at Expo Fair,” World Meeting of Social Movements, Santa Cruz, Bolivia, July 9th, 2015. See: http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2015/07/10/pope_francis_speech_at_world_meeting_of_popular_movements/1157291.

[5] The text to Pope Francis’ homily at the canonization mass of Junípero Serra is at: http://www.cruxnow.com/papal-visit/2015/09/23/pope-francis-homily-at-canonization-mass-of-junipero-serra/.

[6] Harjo, Suzan Shown, “Suzan Shown Harjo to Pope Francis: Don’t Canonize Junípero Serra,” Indian Country Today Media Network, September 21st, 2015. See: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/09/21/suzan-shown-harjo-pope-francis-dont-canonize-junipero-serra-161825.

[7] Quoted in Deetz, Nanette, “Sainthood for Genocide Leader? Amah Mutsun Ask Pope Francis to Stop Junipero Serra Canonization,” Indian Country Today Media Network, July 16, 2015, See: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/07/16/sainthood-genocide-leader-amah-mutsun-ask-pope-francis-stop-junipero-serra-canonization.

[8] Quoted in “4 Native Entities That Opposed the Canonization of Junípero Serra (to No Avail),” Indian Country Today Media Network, September 24, 2015. See: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/09/24/4-native-entities-opposed-canonization-junipero-serra-no-avail-161878.

[9] Hackel is the author of Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father (New York: Hill and Wang, 2013).

[10] Gaynor, Tim, “Sainthood for Founder of California Missions Angers Native American Groups,” Aljazeera America, May 28, 2015. See: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/5/28/sainthood-for-california-missions-founder-angers-native-american-groups.html.

[11] Quoted in Reese, Thomas, “Junipero Serra: Saint or Not?” National Catholic Reporter, May 15, 2015. See: http://ncronline.org/blogs/faith-and-justice/junipero-serra-saint-or-not.

[12] “Vandals Splatter Red Paint in Fourth St. Serra Attack,” Ventura County Star, November 4, 2015. See:  http://www.vcstar.com/news/state/vandals-splatter-red-paint-in-fourth-st-serra-attack.