By JOHN FORTMEYER
SALEM — For the past several years, state Rep. Vic Gilliam sought persistently to see a statue of Oregon missionary pioneer Jason Lee replaced in the nation’s capital with one depicting the late U.S. Sen. and Gov. Mark Hatfield. With each successive year, his goal grew closer to fulfillment, halted only at the last minute last year on his fourth attempt.
But this past year, Gilliam (R-Silverton) has battled amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an incurable neurological disorder better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which led to his resignation from the state Legislature Jan. 30.
However, that hasn’t brought an end to legislative efforts to see the change take place in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. Early during the current legislative session, Gilliam’s very close friend, Rep. Brian Clem (D-Salem) introduced House Bill 2025, which proposes replacing the statues of both Lee and pre-statehood leaders John McLoughlin with statues of both Hatfield and Abigail Scott Duniway, a women’s rights advocate, newspaper editor and writer. A state panel had recommended last year that Duniway and Native American leader Chief Joseph — and not Hatfield — be honored with statues in the Capitol. The statues of Lee and McLoughlin have stood in D.C. for 64 years.
So for a fifth year, evangelical Christians who adamantly oppose the idea again pray it doesn’t happen. Aaron Auer of Salem-based ROAR (Restoring Oregon’s Amazing Roots) Ministries and Vaughn Longanecker of Aloha-based Christian Heritage of the Northwest Ministries have been among those who say taking Lee from the U.S. Capitol would denigrate the state’s spiritual roots by drawing attention away from Oregon’s religious heritage. They are dismayed by any attempts to see reminders of those Christian roots — such as the Bible held in Lee’s hand in the statue — taken from public settings.
“This would be a monumental historical tragedy if that ever occurred, as Oregon, actually the world, has no similar individual with the unique achievements of Rev. Jason Lee, having started the first church, orphanage, educational system, and government in a newly settled area, the Northwest,” said Longanecker. “There’s no equal in all of history … We owe it to our progeny to make sure they know, understand, appreciate, and continue to memorialize this unique individual that contributed more to our culture than any other man.”
Janice Dysinger, a Gresham resident who also has opposed removing the Lee statue, believes the efforts to remove it may be based on “some prejudice against a statue that depicts a missionary with a Bible in his hands being a statesman.”
Dysinger calls for those who share her concern to contact their local legislators by phoning the Oregon Capitol switchboard at 800-332-2313 or writing to Rep. Jennifer Williamson, chair of the House Rules Committee, at email@example.com
“The more testimony against it, the more difficult it is to get members to pass it,” said Dysinger. “It can be as simple as ‘Leave the statue of Jason Lee where it is in D.C.,’ or something along that line.”
Auer last year said the fact that the proposal was halted in Salem was miraculous and occurred largely because of one man — Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem). Despite massive pressure placed on him in an unprecedented, emotion-filled bipartisan display at the Capitol by almost the entire state House delegation, Courtney refused to let the bill co-authored by Gilliam and Clem, which had been passed by the House, go to the Senate floor. Agreeing with his firm stance was fellow Democrat Ginny Burdick of Portland, now president pro tem of the Senate.
Blockage of the bill last year became an emotionally charged topic, according to The Oregonian, because by then the highly popular Gilliam had been diagnosed with ALS. Because of Gilliam’s intense desire to honor Hatfield, who he considered a personal mentor, all but one of the 60 House members marched with Gilliam into Courtney’s office, lobby and hallway to demand action on the legislation.
But their efforts went nowhere. According to the newspaper, Courtney and Burdick disliked that the Hatfield proposal didn’t follow the state panel’s recommendations that Chief Joseph and Duniway be memorialized.
Gilliam had also proposed three earlier bills in other years for a Hatfield statue but they also went nowhere, so the killing of the latest legislation last year was a big disappointment for both him and Clem.
Ironically, while some Christians are expressing deep concern over losing a symbol of faith for Oregon because of Gilliam’s efforts, Gilliam himself alluded to his own Christian faith in his resignation message.
Gilliam wrote that he intends “to turn my primary focus on personal faith and the important path as a follower of Jesus.” He also quoted Galatians 3, from The Message version of the Bible: “Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out — in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?”