Feast Day of John Roberts
. . . “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” – John 7:38
John Roberts was called to the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming as missionary to the people of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. He came from a post in the Bahamas by stage coach in the middle of a blizzard in 1883, and he stayed until his death sixty-six years later. He raised a family, founded eight churches, started one school and superintended another, and shared his faith in Jesus with everyone he could.
The reservation is vast – almost the size of the states of Rhode Island and Delaware together. It’s in a high altitude desert bounded by mountains; prone to fierce and changeable weather and savage happenstance. When I was parish administrator at Trinity Episcopal Church in Lander, one of the reservation border towns, I once looked through the burial records. In the era in which Father Roberts was in Ft. Washakie there were deaths by influenza and pneumonia, by hostile Indian attack and by gunfight. There were two notations for a man who had frozen to death just on the far side of South Pass. He was locked in the snow and couldn’t be retrieved – an avalanche? – and a burial was done at the site in midwinter and an interment at the cemetery late the following spring.
I imagine John Roberts covering the Rez, an area half the size of his native Wales, on horseback. Under the vast dome of heaven it would have been just him riding alone or with a couple of friends. (How would he have known whom to trust?) And he might have looked out across miles of empty prairie as he rode, watched thunder clouds like tall ships throwing shadows and thin threads of rain or snow onto the ground way off in the distance. It can make a person feel mighty vulnerable to see bad weather coming and to know there will be no way to get to shelter before it strikes.
But I’ll bet he loved how, at nightfall the oranges and violets of the sunset were snuffed out in the absolute darkness of the sky and how billions of stars swarmed the heavens like bright white bees. He would have known how the constellations wheeled across the heavens from season to season and how the moon waxed and waned. And the stories of the peoples he served, in their native languages, would have kept him company through all his days and nights, for he devoted himself to learning those stories and the customs of the tribes.
What were the rivers of living water that poured forth from his heart? Kind words in times of trouble, comfort in illness or grief, healing ritual, Gospel stories in the Arapaho tongue, the education of girls, empowerment of some to shared leadership, the founding of churches throughout the region – these are the things we know. We can guess at moments of joy and sorrow shared with his friends, Chief Washakie among them, moments of fierce terror shared with disgruntled congregants, the teaching of his own children and grandchildren, and times of love, anger and forgiveness with his wife. Here is more of his tale.
In this time of Lent, we can ponder the ministry of John Roberts and use it as a springboard to think about our own unfolding stories. What is the legacy you will leave behind when you die? Whether you are great or small, out of you pours a river of living water. How can you learn as much about it as possible so you can help it on its way? Out of your heart pours a gushing flood to quench the thirst of the world.
Laurie Gudim is a writer and religious iconographer who lives in Fort Collins, CO. You can view some of her work at Everyday Mysteries.
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