What will it take to improve relationships between the Church and Indigenous Peoples? Mackenzie Griffin, an Alberta writer with Cree and Saulteaux ancestry, reflects.
If you’ve ever done a Kairos blanket exercise, you know emotions and tensions can run high. The photo here from a video at KairosBlanketExercise.org shows the start of one, with a patchwork of blankets on the ground. A blanket exercise is an activity, often led by Indigenous elders, in which participants are guided to imagine themselves as the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island and experience the story of 500 years of colonialism.
It’s heavy stuff.
The first time I did one, I was 21. I was the only Indigenous participant besides the elders leading. I watched as dozens of members of my church reflected on the violent and traumatic history not only of Canada, but of our churches as well.
I felt a little angry as I watched people come to tears. They struggled to process the truth, some even hearing it for the first time. I wrestled with that because the reality of residential schools, genocide and forced displacement are stories I’ve known for a long time. It was hard for me to understand that non-Indigenous peoples needed to grieve too. And that was okay.
Yet, that wasn’t even the most significant revelation that day. The elder leading the group asked a question I have ruminated on ever since: “Where is our Indigenous fruit?”
In John 15:16 Jesus states, “I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.” God calls us to love one another as He loves us, to remain in Him, keep His commands and share love with others so we bear good fruit.
So, where is our Indigenous fruit? How have non-Indigenous people shared the love of Christ with Indigenous people?
There are Indigenous people in our communities and even churches. But, generally speaking, Indigenous presence and leadership in Canadian churches is slow to develop despite centuries of mission to First Nations peoples. As Christians, do we turn a blind eye to this? Perhaps this is understandable – after all there is pain in confronting the truth.
Romans 5:3–5 calls us to “glory in our sufferings because suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, which has been given to us.”
We should find peace in that. Suffering is not always something terrible. Sorrow is something that bands people together and reminds us we need to care for one another because we have not always done so. Jesus calls us to bear good fruit, and yet I am reminded repeatedly that there is deep-rooted pain for many Indigenous people that keeps them from the love of Christ.
So, do we simply wait for an Indigenous person to walk through our doors or pass the task of loving them to someone else because it is not our problem or too scary? Perhaps we don’t know an Indigenous person, or maybe we do and are simply afraid we won’t say the right thing. But isn’t that the same with everyone everywhere?
Can I encourage you to simply make time and take time? Search out new friends and build relationships because community matters. I grew up outside Edmonton in a small, conservative, white town. I don’t have as many connections with my reserve back home as I would like, but when I moved to a new city I made it my goal to build relationships with the Indigenous Peoples in the area.
While my city church isn’t on reserve land, it’s not far away, and it isn’t hard to meet community members if I make time and take time. Community activities like the annual salmon feast, traditional plant walk tours hosted by local elders or storytelling events are open to the public.
You can find numerous opportunities to meet Indigenous people and learn their stories and tell yours. We all have stories, no matter who we are. It is important to come with humility and curiosity, for we are all sinners.
We must remember that relationships take time. A long time. Especially if we must unlearn what we thought we knew about Indigenous Peoples or about our own relationship to Creator and to Christ.
God calls us to love one another, even those we don’t understand or who have hurt us. The way of Jesus is not one of shame or heavy guilt for past truths, but rather to go and do something about that truth.
As Christians, we are sent to share the gospel with those who have not yet heard it. But that doesn’t mean imposing our views of what Christianity should look like on others. We need patience and compassion to listen to stories different from our own. It means asking how we can be part of their story. It means celebrating that following Christ for Indigenous Peoples might look different, and that’s okay and even to be expected.
Restored relationships between churches and Indigenous Peoples will take time. It cannot be solved simply by hosting one blanket exercise or attending a community event. There is distrust because deep-rooted trauma exists for many Indigenous people whenever they contemplate church, let alone step into a building. There is fear that the mistakes of the past will be repeated. However, that doesn’t mean healing can’t occur.
Healing relationships comes as we tear down systems that oppress. It comes as we love one another and care in the way Christ cares for us. Healing is found as we trust in Him, knowing Jesus brings new life and only through Him can we be made right again.
So, let us build deep-rooted relationships, however difficult. Let us live with the truth and act out the truth. In this way, I believe, we will begin to see restoration in our churches, communities and the world.
Mackenzie Griffin is taking a master of theology program with NAIITS An Indigenous Learning Community. She is a Cree and Saulteaux writer who grew up in Barrhead, Alta. Photo of outdoor Kairos blanket exercise from a video at KariosBlanketExercise.org. This blog series is produced in collaboration with the Peace & Reconciliation Network. Read all the posts at faithtoday.ca/reconciling.