Minister’s Newsletter for January 2018-Monthly Theme: Justice – Rev. Patty Willis

The Discomfort of Justice

In the midst of the turmoil around the death of Michael Brown and the upcoming announcement of a decision by a grand jury in Ferguson about whether to prosecute Darren Wilson, I wanted to hold a vigil. My intent was to stand with the people of Ferguson that seemed on the edge of erupting into a war. When I told my friend, Pastor Vinnetta Golphin-Wilkerson about this vigil, I said, “I’m holding a Vigil of Peace.” She said, “The vigil needs to be for Peace and Justice.” The deep injustice of the past years in Ferguson could not move into peace without justice. It would have been so much simpler for us to gather in the sanctuary and pray and send our intentions for peace. It was just plain uncomfortable to hold both our hope for peace and our acknowledgment that justice would be a long, hard process before any real peace. In 2018, more than ever, we are each called to our own work of justice.

The road on which you will walk is for you to find, for this road is different for each of us. We each inherit a particular history of genes and the facts and fiction of our lives and our ancestries: joyful and traumatic. My parents gave each of their children the name of an ancestor. My name connected me with the strong pioneer women of my mother’s side of the family, one who came into the Salt Lake Valley in a covered wagon and another who loaded her possessions onto a wagon (which she called a buggy) and made the trek to northern Wyoming where she and her husband started their life together. My Wyoming pioneer Patty accompanied my life from birth into my mid-twenties. The year that I left the LDS church, she died at 104 years old. About ten years before I returned to the United States, I began a process of coming to terms with my name, working through her grandmother Patty’s diaries, finding the many gifts and tendencies that we shared in common. As I searched for my own peace and a deeper justice around what felt like abandonment, I found other narratives that had been invisible to historians and had remained gaps in family history: the places my ancestors’ lives crossed those of indigenous people. In my desire to come to peace with my ancestral name, I came face to face with a work of justice. As my eyes opened to the history of indigenous peoples and how the presence of white settlers, including my ancestors, caused destruction, I began to long for a way of reconciliation.

During my time in seminary, a work grew out of my ancestor’s diary that wove the stories of indigenous peoples with hers. At the same time (very much like my ancestor would have done), I knitted shawls that reflected her journey, the sun through the prairie grass, the beautiful night sky, and the orchards that gave her joy. When I discovered that my ancestor had fed soldiers on the way to the Bear River Massacre during which up to 450 members of the Northwest Band of the Shoshone were killed, I contacted a storyteller from the Northwest Band of the Shoshone, Patty Timbimboo Madsen. Lou and I sat with her and her sister Gwen and listened to them speak of their band and the massacre. I returned often to Brigham City and one day, I brought with me the shawls that I had knitted for them, one that was aqua for Gwen and I gave Patty the one I had knitted out of the Abenaki healer Molly Ockett’s life. With these shawls I gave them letters of reconciliation, expressing my sorrow at the part my ancestor’s played in the suffering of their people.

In November and December, I worked on a shawl for Forrest Cuch, a Ute elder who came to speak to us. When I sent him his shawl, I also sent the shawl I had knitted for my ancestor’s life with the following letter for the parishioners of St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church
and Rev. Michael Carney

My name Patty comes from my great grandmother and her grandmother who came to the valley in a covered wagon in the 1840s. I have felt them with me as my heart yearns for reconciliation. The yarn from this shawl comes from many places—from alpacas in Maine to sheep in South Dakota. When I was knitting, I held my ancestor David Sessions (my great grandmother’s grandfather) and his legacy of settling these lands that were already occupied by your people. I wove into this shawl his love of making rows to harvest that caused pain he could not understand and the mountains beloved of him and the Ute people, the sun that rises above us all, and the affirming beauty of the sunset. With this shawl I acknowledge the suffering that was caused by the white settlers among whom were my ancestors. I pray for reconciliation and affirm the survival of your people at great odds. May you be well. May you be whole. May God continue to shine on you as the sun.

In love and hope,
Patty Christiena Willis
Rev. Patty Willis
South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society

When Father Carney, read this he said that it was followed by a silence deeper than any he had heard in the church. At the end of February, we may gather a circle of reconciliation at St. Elizabeth’s church. I am hoping that some in our community whose hearts yearn for reconciliation will join me and Lou.

Will you join us or is there another work that calls to you? In our longing for peace, let us do the work of justice.

In love and community,