Monday, September 24, 2007

Sheldon Jackson College—Transform or Close? (Part 2)

Dahlia of the day: Paper Moon

Sheldon Jackson (the man) refused to take “no” as an answer from the Presbyterian Church. Jackson had asked the denomination for money to begin a Presbyterian mission in Alaska. He was short in stature but gigantic in faith and perseverance. He was able to convince the women of the denomination to support his efforts. Thus, the women of the Presbyterian Church (not the national Church) made Presbyterian mission in Alaska a reality.

Sheldon Jackson (the school) started as a boarding trade school for native Alaskans. It is too bad that most missionaries to Alaska (except the Russian Orthodox) tried to wipe out native culture. Fortunately we have learned from their mistakes. The Sheldon Jackson Museum (located on campus) has one of the most extensive collections of native artifacts in the state or country. The college tried to correct many of its wrongs by offering classes and activities to build up Native culture.

Sheldon Jackson (the school) has been successful in transforming itself as educational needs in Alaska changed. Various stages in the school’s history are:

· Boarding trade school.

· Boarding elementary school.

· Boarding high school.

· Junior college.

· Four-year college.

Many leaders in Alaskan villages and Native Corporations were educated at SJ. Degrees in Aquaculture, Business and Education were geared for rural Alaska.

SJ’s downfall began the moment it became independent from the Presbyterian Church.

For a moment I am going to move away from writing about SJ and talk about Presbyterian-related school and colleges—of which, SJ was one.

My eyes into Presbyterian-related schools and colleges were opened when I went to SJ as Chaplain. At that time there were two higher education groups in the PCUSA. United Ministries in Higher Education (UMHE) was the group that worked with Presbyterian ministries on State University campuses (they did not work with ministries supported and staffed by local Presbyterian churches). The oversight of UMHE ministries was the Synod. The other group was the Presbyterian College Chaplains Association. This was the group for Presbyterian ministries on our Presbyterian-related college campuses.

I believe that it was my first year at SJ when the UMHE national meeting was held in Fairbanks—at U of A Fairbanks. I went to that meeting to get to know other people who were working in college/university ministries. I was shocked by what I saw and learned. Most nights huge numbers of these church workers would migrate to the local bars! They had no idea of the damage they could be doing to Presbyterian (or any other church) ministries throughout the State of Alaska. Alcohol was and is a HUGE problem in Native villages. If word of Presbyterian university/college staff people hanging out at the bars had reached the villages it would have had serious negative repercussions to those village churches! Additionally, there were two ordained Presbyterian pastors who were in the leadership of UMHE national group. They service on neighboring universities elsewhere in the county. It was common knowledge in UMHE circles that they lived together and were not married. It appeared as though this had gone on for some time. They had chosen to get married while on a cruise to Alaska just prior to the UMHE meeting. No one in leadership in UMHE or the denomination staff seemed to care that these two pastors were living together and not married! My time at the UMHE gathering opened my eyes to a side of the Presbyterian Church that I had never seen face-to-face.

The Presbyterian College Chaplains Association was only slightly better. It was at those meetings that I came to realize how little “Presbyterian-related” really meant! At the time I was at SJ, only four of our almost 70 Presbyterian-related Colleges could meet the qualification of the Christian College Association. This is a little secret that most in the PCUSA don’t even realize! Occidental College (in the Eagle Rock section of Los Angeles) had tried for years to disassociate itself from the Presbyterian Church. I had served as Youth Director at Occidental Presbyterian Church for two years while at seminary. The church was just a few blocks from the campus. There was no indication of any kind from the college that it was related to the PCUSA! In fact, there was every indication that it was anti-Christian—if anything. Being “Presbyterian-related” has almost no “real” meaning.

Being “Presbyterian-related” helped kill Sheldon Jackson College.


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