The Mission for Oregon

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

An Occasion to Write

While finishing undergraduate classes in 2000 for a B.S. in geography at Oregon State University, I took a class called "Reconstructing Historical Landscapes." The project I chose was to investigate the area of Lancaster Drive, on the east side of Salem. Because I assumed information that specific to be scarce, I chose to do an entire history, starting with the history of occupation of Native Americans.

My mind and senses quickly became immersed in imagining all that had passed away. I used the traditional methods of reconstruction: written histories and news publications, autobiographical journals and correspondence, comparison of aerial photography, historical maps and artists' rendering of the city; oral tradition (meaning interviews of those who remembered its former state), home and building architecture trends to date the age of a neighborhood, land-use and vegetation markers, and, archaeological findings.

The project was a success; I presented it in powerpoint to the class and got an A. But once it was finished and time passed, I saw the particular legacy of one man's work, everywhere around me. Reverend Jason Lee's hand was all over the city; "Jason Lee Manor" apartments were there along Center Street. Willamette University, just east of downtown Salem, had itself been founded by him. The Mission Mill Museum, in the heart of Salem, preserves the permanent structure of his residence in the Valley. An entire state park called "Willamette Mission" was memorializing the place of his first attempt to evangelize the Native Americans, ten miles north. Lee's Indian Manual Training School lies just north of where Lancaster Drive ends. Even the great and beautiful Methodist church on State Street, near the University, was the church Jason Lee founded (though the structure had been updated to its current glory after he passed away).

A picture I took after a storm the previous night; the engraved image of Rev. Jason Lee upon his tombstone

In September of 2007 Salem Riverfront Park hosted a mass-evangelism effort. Over a single weekend more than one hundred churches in the city and the outlying region came together to attract city-dwellers to come, hear, and receive the gospel of Jesus Christ. The name of this unparalleled event: Salem Riverfest. During that time in anticipation of the festival I pondered on the spiritual legacy begun by Jason Lee. I remembered not spending hardly any time at all reading the writings of Jason Lee and his first wife, Anna Maria Pittman, which at first glance seemed full of faith in God and with hearts bent solely on sharing the gospel with the Native Americans.

I knew then that it was time to go back and uncover the tale of their lives, notwithstanding their faith. How did they impact the Native community? Did the missionaries truly desire to serve God by coming here and engaging them? If they were indeed serving God by conscience, how can you and I in the 21st century come to grips with the tragedy of their impact? Their work, indeed--simply their intrusion in the Valley--quickened the spread of disease which took nearly all their lives. Jason Lee came for evangelism's sake. But before he left Independence, MO, he helped set U.S. law to encourage American settlement of the Oregon Territory. The story of invasion and persecution of Native Americans is one that has been told many times. So goes along with it the story of suffering caused by many peoples in history, sent out to foreign lands in the name of Christ, to save the world by their proclamation.

I do not expect the story of his mission to be entirely endearing. There may be some rather disappointing findings to report along the way. Nevertheless, the purpose is set for uncovering the whole tale, in all its variety.

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