Yesterday, Feb. 16, was Elizabeth Peratrovich Day and today is the first Sunday of Lent which is a season of preparation on the Christian Calendar. Some may see little connection between these two days, but I view their proximity as a fortunate convergence.
I am sad to say that I did not know about Elizabeth Peratrovich and her legacy as a courageous civil rights leader until moving to Juneau in 2010. I am grateful now to have learned something about her life and work. Born in 1911, her Tlingit name was Kaaxgal.aat. She was of the Lukaax.adi clan of the Raven moiety. In 1931, she married Roy Peratrovich. Together, they raised a family, served as officers in the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood, and worked for civil rights and justice for all.
In 1988, Alaska set Feb. 16 as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day in honor of the Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act; passed by the territorial legislature on that day in 1945. The legislation appeared to be headed for defeat until Peratrovich, the Alaska Native Sisterhood Grand Camp President, rose to testify in favor. She spoke about the awful treatment to which she and other Alaska Natives were subjected, and she called upon the legislators to embrace the spirit of our country’s Bill of Rights by passing the Anti-Discrimination Act. When asked by a senator if its passage would eliminate discrimination in Alaska, she famously replied, “Have you eliminated larceny or murder by passing a law against it? No law will eliminate crimes but, at least you, as legislators, can assert to the world that you recognize the evil of the present situation and speak your intent to help us overcome discrimination.”
Her bold oratory shamed the senators and swayed the vote. It was a monumental victory for all Alaskans.
Thankfully, Peratrovich’s story is becoming better known. What fewer may be aware of is the role her faith played in her commitment to social justice and civil rights. Each year that I have been in Juneau, I have had the honor of offering prayers at Elizabeth Peratrovich Day observances. I have been asked to do so because the church I serve, Northern Light United, is considered the successor church to Memorial Presbyterian, where the Peratroviches were active members. At Memorial, Elizabeth served as a deacon. The ministry of the deacon bears testimony that social justice is central to Christian life. The Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church defines the role of deacon as “one of compassion, witness, and service, sharing in the redeeming love of Jesus Christ for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the lost, the friendless, the oppressed, those burdened by unjust policies or structures, or anyone in distress.” As a champion for social justice and the rights of Alaska Natives, Peratrovich served “those burdened by unjust policies or structures.” Her work for civil rights was consistent with her faith.
In similar vein, the season of Lent, for those who observe it, is a time to make connections between faith and life. Popular culture notions of Lent focus on “giving something up.” But the Lenten journey is more about taking time to reflect on our values and to examine whether the way we are living is consistent with our convictions. Lent is not a time for withdrawal so much as it is a time to commit to live with faith and integrity as disciples of Jesus. What does it mean so to live? According to Luke’s gospel, Jesus identified the purpose of his ministry as good news for the poor, release for the captive, freedom for the oppressed and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, a reference to economic justice for all. With Jesus and Elizabeth Peratrovich as our Lenten guides, we are asked to consider how we are serving the poor and working to free those who are oppressed. The question is not ‘what will we give up,’ but ‘what are we doing to make the world a more just and compassionate place?’ Whether or not we observe Lent, it is a question I believe we all do well to consider. Our answer will make all the difference.
• Campbell is the pastor of Northern Light United Church