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Reflection June 21, 2020

Parkminster June 21, 2020

Three and a half years ago, I left my work with the then, Aboriginal Ministries Circle, now Indigenous Ministries Circle, a place that had been my work home for the previous eight years. In those eight years I heard so much and my heart broke in so many places.  This work brought me great joy and enabled me to move into a world that otherwise I would not have seen. I was brought in with open arms. It was 6 months before I realized that many thought I belonged to an Indigenous community. 

Awareness of the challenges within the church came when I was a meeting coordinator for the United Church General Council meeting. At this GC, a presentation was being done to share information on a multiyear research program where the presenter referenced an example to the salmon munching, drunken Indians. At this, although I was in another room, simply listening to the presentation my heart stopped, my breath caught.  So did the breath of the Indigenous representatives and this week of work of reconciliation and apology began.

This has been a story which is so much the part of the relationships with Indigenous Partners. Poor statements, broken promises and then begins work – if we are lucky, on Reconciliation and Apology.

This example truly opened my eye to the brokenness at the UCC and the need for reconciliation. Yes, there had been two apologies long before this point, but I now clearly saw the longer term effect of the brokenness.

From that point I moved to become program assistant Rev Laverne Jacobs from the Aboriginal Ministries Desk.  During time with Laverne and then his successor, Maggie MacLeod, I sat in on meetings, simply to take notes, but it was the greatest learning experience I could have ever asked for.  At each sharing circle I acknowledged how honoured I was to be able to sit in and take in the wisdom spoken.

My position helped to coordinate travel for and provide care for members during meetings. I therefore made friends through these conversations. Although sometimes I was the invisible note taker or driver I heard many in depth conversations about reality in the members own families and communities.  The committees involved were Aboriginal Ministries, Living into Right Relations, National Aboriginal Spiritual Gathering and The Healing Fund.

At times things went smoothly but sometimes things did not go as planned at all.

There were times of anger – grace and forgiveness.

In 2008 the Living into Right Relations gathering with intentionally gathered Indigenous and non Indigenous from each presbytery taught us to remember that at this time we cannot draw the line so simply to Indigenous and non Indigenous  because the Metis have a history that must be considered too.   This event also reminded us that the relationship with the United Church is a broken one through a broken chalice.  Through the “It takes a village” exercise by Kathi Camillari of BC we were taught about the familial repercussions of Indian residential schools. 

For me, the sadness of when the children returned home and because of the lost language and culture were not treated the same has stuck with me since then. Everyone should have a home to return to. There are the many stories of those who were not treated well or abused at the Residential School. They could never return home the same.  The family teaching that was broken due to the time being away from home.  Relationships could never be the same; mother teaching daughter, father supporting son, sibling to sibling friendships.   And this continues through the seven generations since these times.

Each meeting was set up with such intention but inevitably something would happen, and new teachings came. From partners to the East or to the West or the partners through history.   One meeting had a busload of us returning from the 1st National Spiritual Gathering in Norway House Manitoba and we needed a location for the busload to stay before heading to the airport home in the morning. Being United Church, we were watching our costs and there was a Retreat Centre we had booked for the overnight stay. We arrived around dusk and all were given keys to their rooms and I thought all were settling in for the night after having a sandwich dinner.  Later I found a few of the older gentlemen gathered together and a heated conversation was going on. Coming up on this conversation was one of the more challenging to me personally because it taught me that I didn’t have an understanding of the triggers that could cause such pain. These gentlemen were residential school survivors and arriving later in the evening at a residence with dim corridors to basic rooms with only a sandwich for dinner triggered memories to them of their times in residential school times. While there was little I could do to correct that night I vowed to continue looking for ways in the future to not harm anyone like was done that day. Two of these gentlemen have now passed on but this memory and the eagle feather given to me by one of them keeps this learning alive.

The eagle feather is one of the many things that are part of the preparation that happened for each meaning. As the support staff it was my role to ensure that all items were brought to meetings to set up our central focal point. This involved either our tablecloth of 4 colors or strips of cloth for the centre of the table. We reminded ourselves of those in the north, the south, the east and the west. This centre always also included a candle, and then there could be sweetgrass, tobacco, smudge or a bundle of sacred things for the location that we were in. To me it was bringing the spirit of God, of the Creator to be with us wherever we went.  In 2008 the approval to create the Aboriginal Ministries Circle came through a meeting at the GCE in Quebec City.  During times of discussion and questioning about whether this would be a good venture, having a centre like this helped us to remember that the Creator God was with us and would guide the conversation and decision to the place it should go. 

From that time of approval the focus was on creating the Aboriginal Ministries Circle, a unit with each staff member being representative of one of the Seven Sacred Teachings; Wisdom, Honesty, Love, Respect, Courage, Humility & Truth.  This time of growth was fast in order to begin the work that was necessary. More meetings were held and National Gatherings were planned as a place for communities to share their spirituality, wisdom and challenges of their communities. Each gathering had a component to learn of the community they were in. In 2016 we were in Oneida and traveled to the former Muncy Residential School location in Moraviantown. In a farmers field where the Mount Elgin residential school had stood was now a beautiful monument which shared pillars of the 7 teachings, names of those from the community in the residential school and benches where one could sit and reflect on what that means for them on that day and into the next.  I have returned to this monument a few times on my own and am surprised that I can simply drive around this farmers home and spend time in this place. 

In the year prior to this Spiritual Gathering was the final session of the TRC and through work with Hamilton Conference I was able to attend these closing ceremonies. Over the years I had listened to the earlier events and heard people share their truthful and hurtful times at Residential Schools. My heart was breaking as I listened and worked on the next program/plan with the United Church. From the closing event, I have a notebook filled with wisdom and promises made and like so much in the past it feels like now it is over we are supposed to be done with “it”. I am incredibly pleased to see the work that continues to be done at Parkminster.  Without the history being brought forward we cannot continue to move forward.

It will have been 34 years now since the original Apology by the UCC to Native Peoples.  There is a cairn was created in Sudbury to keep from forgetting this history.

This apology must stay in our forefront- When you hear these words:

·         we were closed to the value of your spirituality

·         we imposed our civilization

·         we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were

we see the power used in them – can we also see the power in these words and follow through.

·         walk together in the spirit of Christ so that our peoples are blessed and God’s Creation healed

Very Rev Bob Smith acknowledged in 2016 that we, the church, are making changes at glacial pace but things are moving.

Former moderator Jordan Cantwell wrote, “It is a comforting thought that we can revisit the past and make amends.  That we can repair what we have torn apart and restore what we have destroyed. But Isaiah reminds us, it is a choice we make to be Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

For myself, I remember that if I feel enough is done – enough money has been given, enough attention is paid, enough conversation held – we did not all start at the same place and until we are all created equal – enough is not done. We follow a God who is one of many people and many nations – some of these people and nations are hurting – therefore not enough has been done.