One of Boise’s largest United Methodist churches is removing a controversial reminder of Idaho’s connections to the Confederacy — a stained-glass window featuring Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
The Cathedral of the Rockies installed stained-glass windows for its then-new building in downtown Boise in 1960. Church documents show that the window, featuring Lee standing with Presidents Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, was meant as an “inclusive nod to Southerners who have settled in Boise,” said the Rev. Duane Anders, senior pastor.
“Clearly, white Southerners,” Anders said.
Now, it’s coming down.
As protests over the death of George Floyd and police violence against Black Americans continue, communities are increasingly demanding the removal of Confederate monuments and other symbols that elevate racist figures in American history.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced the removal of the state’s largest Confederate statue in Richmond. People in Boston beheaded a statue of Christopher Columbus, which was later removed by the city. The Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee voted Thursday to strip Confederate names, symbols and icons from all U.S. military bases despite vocal opposition from President Donald Trump.
Other Confederate connections in Idaho — like a campground near the Treasure Valley — might be next.
At the urging of community members, the mostly white leaders and congregation of the Cathedral of the Rockies said that for their church, the time is now.
“It’s not about removing sinners from the window,” Anders told the Statesman on Thursday, “but about removing a racist symbol that clearly says to some people that you’re less than, and that you’re not really welcome.”
Phillip Thompson, the executive director of the Idaho Black History Museum, is one of many people who have been urging church leaders to address the window since 2017.
“If they feel apologies are necessary, that’s well and good,” Thompson said. “But what they really need is tangible, palpable action to rectify it, not just talk about it.”
Why is the image of a Confederate general in an Idaho church?
The image of the commander of the Confederate armed forces during the Civil War has stood in the church undisturbed, and often unnoticed, for more than half a century.
Church leaders began discussing what to do with the window as part of a larger discussion of racial justice in 2015, after a white supremacist murdered nine Black parishioners of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
A committee investigating the origins of the window discovered that then-pastor Herbert E. Richards helped choose the image of Lee with Lincoln, likely to promote a spirit of patriotism and reconciliation between white Northerners and Southerners who found themselves in Idaho.
“We have included also a patriotic theme in one lancet which includes George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Robert Lee,” Richards wrote in a 1960 letter to a friend, which church leaders discovered in the archives. “We have a strong southern influence here in Boise.”
Many Confederate monuments and statues were erected long after the Civil War was over, often during times of racial tension or amid the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. And Idaho, barely a territory during the Civil War, saw an influx of Confederate sympathizers after it ended, according to Boise State Public Radio.
Anders wasn’t sure how many parishioners had actually noticed Lee among a spread of stained-glass windows depicting stories from the Bible, past Christian leaders and other American historical figures. The window isn’t noted on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s map of the “Public Symbols of the Confederacy” across the country — which covers only public entities — and a Boise State Public Radio article of Idaho’s Civil War connections also doesn’t mention it. (It is mentioned in a post on the Idaho Historic Preservation Council’s website about the architecture of the Cathedral of the Rockies.)
The Rev. Jenny W. Hirst said an email from a parishioner concerned about the symbolism of the window in the aftermath of an August 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, prompted a proposal soon afterward to place a plaque acknowledging the harm the image had caused, as a first step toward removing the window.
“We knew this was about more than a window,” said Hirst, then a deacon at the Cathedral of the Rockies and now an associate minister at Collister United Methodist Church in Boise. “We knew there was a deeper issue the church needed to address.”
A group of church members, including Hirst, recommended the plaque, but Hirst left for a new position at Collister shortly thereafter, and no changes were made.
Amid the recent Black Lives Matter protests, United Methodist Cathedral of the Rockies returned to the plaque idea. But after “passionate” feedback from members of the community and the congregation, the church changed course.
“It speaks against everything we’ve tried to be as a church, and this no longer has a place in our church,” Anders said. “… Acknowledgment is not enough anymore.”
On Wednesday, the church’s board sent an email to parishioners. At the top in bold lettering, the message begins: “WE REPENT for our participation in white supremacy. #blacklivesmatter.”
“We believe this section of our window to be inconsistent with our current mission, to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, as well as the banner which hangs above our doors espousing, ‘all means all — you are welcome here,'” the board wrote. “Further, such display is a barrier to our important work resisting evil, injustice, and oppression. Symbols of white supremacy do not belong in our sacred space.
On Friday, Anders and other church leaders also placed a banner with the words “We Repent” over Lee’s image. A similar, larger banner is displayed outside the church.
Removing Lee could cost thousands of dollars, Anders estimated. The church told United Methodist News that it hoped to eventually replace Lee’s image with a “person of color” like Harriet Tubman or United Methodist Bishop Leontine T.C. Kelly, a Boise woman and the first African American woman elected to the denomination’s episcopacy.
If the image of Lee is removed intact, Anders said, it likely will be donated to the Idaho Black History Museum.
“The challenge for some people in Boise is that won’t be enough, and for some people that will be a bridge too far,” Anders said. “To both those groups we want to say: This is the work of repentance; it starts where it can. This is where we start.”
Petition to rename other Confederate connections gains ground
Robert E. Lee made his Idaho mark on more than a stained-glass window. Earlier this week, Meridian resident Derick Andrew started a Change.org petition to rename Robert E. Lee Campground in Boise County and Robert E. Lee Creek near the North Fork of the Boise River.
In the petition, Andrew proposes naming it instead for Thomas “Les” Purce, the first Black elected official in Idaho.
Andrew, who is white, said Idaho should join other communities seeking to sever physical ties to racist events in America’s history. Despite growing up in the Treasure Valley, Andrew said, he had never known the campground existed.
He wasn’t sure whether the petition, which was approaching 500 signatures on Friday, would work.
“Whether we’re successful now or later, the fact is people know now,” Andrew said. “And people want it to change.”
Church group to discuss ‘White Fragility’
The Cathedral of the Rockies will be holding a service of repentance on June 21, as well as leading small group discussions of the book “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” by Robin DiAngelo, over Zoom.
The hidden image of a Confederate general in one of Boise’s most recognizable churches was a good example of how much Boise residents and Idahoans still have to do when it comes to confronting and eradicating systemic racism, even in the church, Hirst said.
“We can just move blindly about our business and be called to do justice work, but we don’t realize it’s right in our house,” Hirst said.
Thompson, from the history museum, said it is up to Idahoans to decide how to address history. But he said it shouldn’t be erased without acknowledging and explaining what it meant, and why it was done.
If the campground name is changed, for example, a plaque explaining why should be installed, he said.
“You can’t run from history simply because it’s uncomfortable,” Thompson said. “If you don’t have the context for why this was done, it’s feckless, cursory, and it whitewashes history.”
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