Fig Tree Logo

Lutheran pastor lends spiritual, ethical perspectives

Martin Wells saw that the synod and watershed overlapped.

Martin Wells, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) pastor, who retired in 2017 after 18 years as bishop of what is now the Northwest Intermountain Synod, offered a spiritual perspective on his ties to the region and salmon during the recent One River Ethics Matter (OREM) conference. 

When he was bishop, Martin realized that the Columbia River Watershed coincided with the synod with 112 congregations from the Snake River in Wyoming through Southern Idaho to the Oregon border, the Clearwater River west to the Columbia River at Tri Cities and all of Eastern Washington with the Spokane, Methow and Wenatchee Rivers. 

"The Columbia nourished towns I served and fed my spirit as I visited them. The map issued my call," said Martin, who grew up in Alaska, eating sockeye, king and chinook salmon.

As a merchant seaman on the Gulf of Alaska between Seward and Kodiak during college, he knew the abundant sea life could be lost by overfishing. So he saw that people needed to be stewards.

Standing on the shore, watching a creek boil with salmon ready to spawn, he was moved by their tenacious homing instinct to follow the stream to the mountains.

"I stood in awe, as indigenous people have, and felt called to stewardship of the land, river and forest," said Martin, who calls people of goodwill to advocate for ecology as part of Columbia River Treaty renegotiations. "I urge us to see how economic greed challenges the rights of others."

"I consider the watershed our common home. It belongs to everyone yet no one," he said.

The OREM conference calls for the new treaty to include more than power production and flood control. He calls for it to include justice for those excluded by the first treaty.

"We also need to admit the betrayal of spiritual values for centuries since my church and other churches adopted the Doctrine of Discovery in the 16th century. It allowed Europeans to take lands of indigenous people," he said.

Martin said that helpful Nez Perce met Lewis and Clark, sheltered them through winter, taught them to build canoes and follow the Clearwater to the ocean.

In contrast, settlers made treaties that they ignored, took land for private ownership, and brought diseases and religion. 

"My people and church took lands and waters. We took their children to schools to learn our language and assimilate," he said.

In 2021, the ELCA disavowed the Doctrine of Discovery and is looking into the abuses, including those at the residential schools they sponsored.

"I confess my church benefited from white supremacy that built churches on stolen land, assumed people were less than human and broke treaties," he said. "Assimilation policies marginalized, oppressed and denigrated indigenous people."

Pope Francis recently met with First Nation parents and children in Canada to hear their bitter memories and open wounds of children being taken from their communities, families and traditions. He asked for forgiveness for ways Christians supported colonization and assimilation of indigenous people.

"The Pope's words stay with me," said Martin. "Some wounds were economic from the loss of livelihood and salmon. Injustices continue in ongoing violation of the watershed. The river's flow has slowed to warm pools. Women and girls are lost to the culture of violence and dispensability. There are many losses."

He sees the treaty as a way for U.S. and Canadian governments to address the wounds after 50 years of inequality.

"This is a spiritual issue," Martin said. "The river needs champions. We have new technology to move salmon. We can return the river's use to the common good as part of the Creator's sacred commons. Our hope is that individuals and communities honestly evaluate their conduct. Every person is responsible for the watershed so water nurtures trees, life and fruits, all are treated justly, and people are caretakers for creation.

"I love being present when the Spokane call the salmon home, go out in canoes, release salmon in Latah Creek and promise everyone a fair share of the catch," Martin said. "We must do better than easy solutions."

For information, email

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, November 2022