Becoming Beloved Community Grant Spotlight: St. John’s Land Acknowledgment Plaque
By The Rev. Kara Wagner Sherer
On Dec. 4, 1888, members of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chicago gathered to dedicate the church building they had built for $1,963 on land “given” to them by Sheriff John Gray. This is the date celebrated by the parish as its anniversary—its history beginning in 1883, when Mrs. Boswinkel organized a Sunday School.
But of course, that is not when our history began, nor was it the true cost of the church. St. John’s members began to dig deeper into our history and the white privilege which supported our founding and thriving in the city of Chicago. We did not have to look far; both the American Indian Center and the Ho-Chunk Nation Chicago Branch are within three miles of the church. While Illinois has no recognized tribes or tribal land, Chicago is home to the sixth largest population of Indigenous people in a U.S. urban area.
A trip to Montreal opened my eyes to how land acknowledgment can open a path to facing our history and toward healing and reconciliation. Using a statement developed by Anglicans in Canada and with the assistance of Dorene Weise of the American Indian Association of Illinois (AIAI), we at St. John’s developed our own land acknowledgment statement, which we had engraved on a plaque:
St. John’s stands on the land of Native peoples. For thousands of years this was the territory of the Council of Three Fires, the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Odawa. They welcomed the Ho-Chunk, Fox, Sauk, Miami, Kickapoo, and Illinois confederacy tribes and offered assistance to the first Europeans to travel here. These nations were forced from this land in 1833 by the Treaty of Chicago. St. John’s now stands on this land, seeking a new relationship of honor and respect for the Ojibwe, Lakota, Dakota, Navajo, Choctaw, Cherokee, Potawatomi, Odawa/Ottawa, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Oneida, Blackfeet, Cree, and Alaskan Native peoples, our Chicago neighbors.
The process has taught us three important things about anti-racism work. One, the roots of injustice are in our history, which must be faced and named. Two, the work of antiracism is about relationships and restitution. Dr. Weise insisted that the tribal affiliations of our neighbors be part of the land acknowledgement and we continue to seek relationships with those neighbors. The stealing of land, culture, and language is not past but present, so St. John’s now makes a monthly donation, just like our gas bill, to the AIAI to support cultural survival. Three, the anti-racism cannot be merely performative.
After we finished the statement another local Indigenous leader said to me, “I hate land acknowledgments. It’s just an excuse for white people to try to look good, without changing anything.” I almost pulled the plug on the plaque installation, but decided to go ahead, realizing that we could be doing the wrong thing, or the right thing the wrong way, but that the work of anti-racism is not about being perfectly right, but recognizing our sins, repenting, and trying again.
Ironically, the cost of creating this brass plaque was $1,900. It is now installed in the sidewalk, just in front of the front doors of the church. Our land acknowledgment is printed in our history and Sunday bulletin and is read aloud before services and events. It is just a beginning. But beginning is what we need for racial healing and reconciliation to take root.
The Rev. Kara Wagner Sherer is a cradle Episcopalian who has served as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chicago for 16½ years. St. John’s is actively working to identify, disrupt, and dismantle racism in our church and community.