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A Boise church ‘repents’ and will remove a Confederate icon. Are others in Idaho next?

UPDATED: Sun., June 14, 2020

Staff at the Cathedral of the Rockies place a “We Repent” banner in front of a stained-glass panel depicting Robert E. Lee standing with U.S. presidents Abraham Lincoln and George Washington on Friday at the Boise First United Methodist Church. The chastened church plans to replace the image of Lee sometime this summer.  (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman)
Staff at the Cathedral of the Rockies place a “We Repent” banner in front of a stained-glass panel depicting Robert E. Lee standing with U.S. presidents Abraham Lincoln and George Washington on Friday at the Boise First United Methodist Church. The chastened church plans to replace the image of Lee sometime this summer. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman)
By Nicole Foy Idaho Statesman

BOISE, Idaho – One of Boise’s largest 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.

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.

At the urging of community members, the mostly white leaders and congregation of the Cathedral of the Rockies, the downtown campus of the Boise First United Methodist Church, said the time is now for their church.

“It’s not about removing sinners from the window,” Anders told the Statesman last week, “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.” 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 moved to 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.

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. 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, 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 Black woman elected to the denomination’s episcopacy.

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