Unsettled

(Christian Courier article, August 13, 2012 issue)

I’m reading Unsettling the Settler Within by UBC professor Paulette Regan. Regan argues that non-Aboriginal Canadians must undergo “decolonization” before any genuine reconciliation can occur with Aboriginal Peoples. Regan painstakingly presents her case with credibility borne from her experience as an Indian Residential Schools claims resolution manager for the federal government.

I’m unsettled. And not just by this book. The catalyst for my unease was serving on a grassroots committee to bring the CRC’s reForming Relationships exhibition, Kisemanito Pakitinasuwin – The Creator’s Sacrifice, to Sarnia.

I’m learning some things, about myself as a Christian, first of all, and secondly, about aboriginal issues. As a Christian, I’m learning to look within … to examine whether I harbour prejudice. I live near Ipperwash and I have friends and family in Caledonia, the site of one of the most recent struggles involving First Nations people. Those conflicts colour my perceptions. But I haven’t made much of an effort to know more, or to understand better. I haven’t been a listener. If I want to have integrity as a Christian, loving God and my neighbour, I need to cultivate an openness to, as Regan defines it, the “Other.”

In a recent Christian Courier editorial, Michael Wagenman noted that “love is being slow to speak, quick to listen.” He was writing about the development of a curriculum for faith-formation in young people that allows them to participate, that encourages them to be more than vessels into which we pour knowledge. Love isn’t like “downloading information,” he said. I agree. Love is enfleshed in respectful relationships.

At our deepest levels of being we all want to be heard. Simple listening can be an affirming act. In a discussion, nothing is more frustrating that being shut down without an opportunity to share your viewpoint. Serving on a committee that seeks improved relationships with our aboriginal neighbours or reading books about the fallout of residential schools can function as small, but concrete ways, of adopting a “listener” posture.  

My listening has, in fact, begun to broaden my outlook. Usually that’s what happens when we really listen to others. I’m gaining a better understanding about our shared past. For example, I knew that aboriginal people were decimated by the smallpox virus brought here by white settlers. I always believed this was simply a tragic “accident” of history. Then I was informed that some settlers gave infected blankets to indigenous peoples deliberately, knowing full well that it would wipe out families and even whole tribes. I tried to verify this. What is historically accurate is that Lord Jeffrey Amherst, a British commander during the French and Indian War (1756-63), wrote a letter to his subordinate about using smallpox-infected blankets as a possible means to eradicate their Native enemies. While it’s not clear if Amherst followed through on his plan,  William Trent, commander of a local militia in Pittsburgh, did. He wrote in his journal, dated May 24, 1763, “… we gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.” I had always assumed I knew the history of “colonization,” but maybe not.

I also found I needed to adjust my perceptions about time. In my mind, it was eons ago that Jacques Cartier stumbled upon Newfoundland. I’m not connected to that event. It didn’t impact me on a personal level. But historical events that impact you personally remain close. I’m beginning to understand how recent and continuing their struggles are to First Nation Peoples. The relocations to reservations, bad-faith bargaining by white officials, compulsory attendance at residential schools and ongoing racism are contemporary currents in their lives. The last residential school wasn’t closed until 1996 and there are still 80,000 former students still living.

More than anything else, it was the art that propelled me to a new place. I watched a video about Ovide Bighetty’s preparation for this series of artworks. His humility was arresting. He sought advice from his Cree elders and also from his Christian mentors. In fact, he gave the honour of choosing titles for his paintings to his elders. It took courage to pursue this project. Some Christians objected to his vision of Jesus clothed in aboriginal garb. Some Native peers objected to his use of aboriginal symbolism for the “white” religion. He risked rejection from everyone to create this visual narrative of an aboriginal Easter. But from these canvases, a solemn Cree Jesus challenged me to recognize his image in all peoples.

One of the venues for the exhibition was a downtown church. Passersby stopped in to sample the fry bread and to chat. Two friends who came specifically to view the art introduced themselves: Iva Stankovic, 21, from London, Ont., originally from Bosnia, and Ashley Stone, 21, who identifies herself as Ojibway/Chippewa, from Aamjiwnaang First Nation. Ashley explained to me that she is a Christian. Both women appreciated the art, but Stone, in particular, was deeply stirred to see both of her identities combined in the paintings: “It’s beautiful. They tell a beautiful story. It’s interesting the way he put the Creator and the God of Jesus Christ together.” 

 I still have many questions: about colonization, residential schools, Caledonia and where we go from here. Regan writes, “We must work as Indigenous allies to ‘restory’ the dominant culture version of history; that is, we must make decolonizing space for Indigenous history – counter-narratives of diplomacy, law, and peace-making practices – as told by Indigenous peoples themselves.” I’m ready to ask, “Please tell me your story.” And I’m unsettled enough to listen.

 

 

 

At Redeemer CRC with Diane Plug and Mary Abma …

True Bulletin Confessions

(Christian Courier column, July 23rd, 2012 issue)

I didn’t want to be our church’s bulletin editor, ignoring for months the repeated pleas, and even urgent prayers from the pulpit, for someone to step forward. Shame on me. I had my reasons, I thought. I’d recently retired from teaching only to be recruited for painting at our church, drama and art workshops, committee work, judging science fairs and writing contests and more. In my journal I groused, “I feel like I’m in the same place I was when I was working, for crying out loud, pulled in a hundred directions…. I want to pray that someone will step up and do the bulletin, so I don’t have to. But, Lord, I’ll do it if somehow you make it clear to me that that’s what I should do.” (Thus, take note. Here follows a cautionary tale. If, like Gideon and me, you say you want a sign, God will take you at your word). An elder asked me point-blank to be the bulletin editor, just temporarily. I ended up doing it for three and a half years.

 
There’s a moral here, or maybe several. Sheepishly, I discovered I liked doing the work. I could do it on my own time, at home. Everyone was so appreciative! I felt the love as a bulletin editor far more than I ever did as a catechism teacher. (That’s a cautionary tale for another time.) Doing such a “visible” task also spared me from sundry other jobs.

 
I found that God could be served in the details, even mundane clerical details. As I began fleshing out that revelation, it brought surprising satisfaction. I could enhance announcements, crafting phrases to build community. Abrupt reminders about meetings on scraps of paper or curt messages left on my answering machine could be gentled to be more welcoming and gracious. Inserting a few extra “please and thank yous” gave the bulletin a more courteous tone. The “congregation” became “our church family.” A note from the deacons became a note from “your” deacons, reminding us that their diaconal work is done on our behalf. Some announcements simply needed a smiley face. Some needed to be revised for inclusivity. Who can say if these tiny edits contributed anything at all to enrich our church’s fellowship? But I like to think so. I like to think that our God is so big that even the most minute details, offered in his service, find their place in the coming of the kingdom.

 
I took photos of our church family, adding them to the bulletin under the heading Around God’s House. Random shots of Sunday school kids with palm branches, teens slouched in the front lobby, and old guys peeling potatoes served to put a face on the “communion of the saints.” I wanted to show the congregation to itself: see how diverse you are, see your service to one another, see how lovely you are dwelling together in God’s house!

 
But it wasn’t just what I was doing to the bulletin, it was what the bulletin was doing to me. Putting it together on Thursday drew Sunday closer, the sermon titles, hymn numbers and upcoming sacraments inhabiting the forefront of my consciousness, calling like “silver trumpets” to “holy convocations” as the old hymn has it. The church was getting “in my face” with cheek-pinching affection, like a doting mom or grandma, brooking no resistance.

 
I began to pray more often, spontaneously, for my church. I found myself loving the people of my church with uncommon tenderness. Week after week I typed the names of brothers and sisters in the Lord needing prayer in their struggles – illnesses, sorrows, losses. Week after week I typed the names of those same brothers and sisters praising God for his mercies, “new every morning,” – healings and recoveries, weddings and anniversaries, the birth of children and grandchildren. I typed the names of members celebrating birthdays in the upcoming week. I logged dozens of emails weekly from the pastor, the clerk, the deacons, the head counsellors of GEMS and Cadets, the leaders of Coffee Break and VBS. Week after week I saw God dot-matrixed, duplicated and folded 150 times. God – all over every bulletin.

 
When I put the weekly CRC-Newsletter into the mail slots, again, I would find myself praying, moved by the sheer number of denominational ministries and events streaming live to my local church from everywhere. All those missionaries and pastors and laypeople proclaiming and conferencing and teaching and learning! All that money raised by the CRWRC for Haiti and Japan! A bi-national church, a global presence! And, in the basement of the Wyoming CRC, the Holy Spirit breathing renewed servanthood into my depleted grudging spirit, refilling my empty wineskin as I photocopied and stuffed mail slots in my own dry and thirsty little corner.

 
Say it with me: I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God….