Reflecting on the Pope’s apology with B.C. mission worker John Johnstone
John Johnstone and his wife Jenn work with Multiply, the mission agency of the Mennonite Brethren churches in Canada and the U.S., in B.C. seeking to build and strengthen relationships between First Nations and the Church through education, prayer and bridge-building encounters. Johnstone is part of the Leq’á:mel Nation, located about an hour away from where he and his wife live in the lower mainland. Holly Hannigan of the Mennonite Brethren Herald sat down with John to talk about the Pope’s visit to Canada and apology for the Church’s role in residential schools. The following is some of what John shared in that conversation.
WAS THE POPE’S VISIT AND APOLOGY SOMETHING YOU WERE PAYING ATTENTION TO? DID IT MEAN SOMETHING FOR YOU TO HEAR HIS APOLOGY?
Not until you had sent me the link did I pay any attention at all to it. It would be similar to Stephen Harper and his apology. Words spoken into existence can have great power. James 5 says that they can lift up or curse, condemn and put down, but they can also be very empty. Like the word reconciliation.
For myself, the word reconciliation has become a useless word that is empty, shallow and hollow. It's been used so many times with no follow up or no follow through that how can that words carry any kind of weight anymore?
Words spoken into existence have the ability for great power. God spoke the world into existence. So words have great power and [the Pope] asking for forgiveness, that’s a big deal. But I'm sure everybody is waiting for the what's behind it and how are the churches going to follow up with that? And not just how is the Catholic Church going to move forward now that that speech has been given, because I have never heard the Bible speak in the language of Mennonite Brethren and Pentecostal, or any of these denominations. But I've heard it speak in the language of every tribe, nation and tongue.
We want to separate ourselves and say, oh, I wasn't there, it wasn't me, not my generation, not my denomination. But it’s not just what is going to happen with the Catholic Church after this, but what is going to happen with THE Church?
WHAT IS YOUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCE NAVIGATING YOUR FAITH AND CULTURE?
I’m part of the Sixties Scoop. I was stolen from the hospital, from my mother. My half sister tells me that the nuns came three times to have my mom sign the papers and give me up. And she said no all three times. And they took me anyways.
I was fostered out to a white family in a white community over on Vancouver Island. And then after two years of being fostered, I was adopted into a white family in a white community over here on the mainland, where I’ve grown up for most of my life. I was fortunate enough that I didn’t get adopted really far away because that was usually the goal. “Take the Indian out of the child” so you could be left with a good being to be absorbed into the body politic.
If we no longer know who we are as a First Nation, then we don’t know our language. We don’t know our culture or we don’t know our connectedness to the land. We are no longer who we say we are and we are just absorbed. So for me, I never grew up with my culture. I never grew up with any of that. It’s not until the last 16 or maybe 18 years that I’ve been able to find my family.
I’m starting to understand who I am is being connected to the land. I’m connected to all the things I am part of creation. I’m part of the created order. So I am in relation with all that is created. And so I start to learn that and understand that. But before that I had no idea who I was.
GOD, THE CREATOR, IS SO MUCH BIGGER AND GRANDER THAN WHAT THE WHITE CHURCH IMAGINES HIM TO BE.
My wife got up one morning and said that she was going to church. She’s taking the kids and I can come or stay home. And I was just like, I’m not afraid of God. I’m not afraid of anybody. I’ll go to church. And it was a pretty snotty attitude, but it’s what got me through the door.
First you run into all the happy, shiny, smiley people and you’re like, Man, these people are weird. But after you get past that and the preacher seems every once in a while that he’s just speaking right into your life and things that need to be touched and healed and blessed and lifted up and all those kinds of things. I started to enter into this kingdom and finally gave my heart to the Lord.
God, the Creator, is so much bigger and grander than what the white church imagines him to be. He is more than that. So the churches are completely and totally missing out when they don’t have the Indigenous cultural understanding of who Creator is because he is so much more than the box he is put in. One people group can’t contain it, can’t know it, can’t present it. I was just really kind of blessed to be able to grow up and understand some of that white church understanding, but then also to be brought into some of the Indigenous understanding of who the Creator is.
WHAT DOE S RECONCILIATION LOOK LIKE FOR YOU? WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR YOU?
I’m done with the word reconciliation because even when I Google it, it says go back to right relationship. The Indigenous people will tell you that there never was a right relationship to go back to. So why do you use the word reconciliation? Maybe let’s come together and figure out our past and start to move forward in a good way.
My favorite term is ‘rightness of relationship.’ If you’re journeying with someone in a good way, that is good for you, good for me, good together. That’s rightness of relationship. But when I stand on your head so that I can further myself, it doesn’t seem like rightness of a relationship. It seems like that relationship has greatly broken down and been fractured and destroyed.
My elders and our chiefs, they use the words truth and reconciliation, but they were smart enough to put that word truth at the beginning. So if we don’t know the truth, if we’re not sharing the truth, if we’re not understanding the truth, if the truth is not part of reconciliation then we don’t have reconciliation.
When I ask the Creator What’s the whole thing, what’s the deal? it’s about salvation. It’s about salvation for every tribe, nation and tongue. It’s about salvation for mankind, not a people group. When we can get to the place where we are in rightness of relationship with those that are around us, salvation will begin to be birthed into existence because it’s relationship that birthed salvation into existence of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
HOW DO YOU NAVIGATE SHARING THE GOOD NEWS OF THE GOSPEL WITH PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN SO HURT BY THE CHURCH IN THE PAST?
It’s difficult to have these conversations because not only have they been assimilated because our skin is too dark or our eyes are too dark, our hair is too long, our language is gibberish, and we’re savage and subhuman. We’ve been told we’re not acceptable to God.
So for us to be part of the kingdom, we need to change who we are. As the great late Richard Twiss would say, “We don’t need to leave our sin-stained culture and then enter into the white man’s sin-stained culture so that we can be known by God.”
“When we come to Christ as First Nations people, Jesus does not ask us to abandon our sin-stained culture in order to embrace someone else’s sin-stained culture. Nowhere in the New Testament is there any call to believers to form a separate culture from the world; we were created to be separate from the world but not to leave it. So many believers have misinterpreted 2 Corinthians 6:17 as a call to leave the world. But what Paul is talking about is internal, personal holiness, not a separate culture he wants us to create, as if simply living in it will make us holy. In forming our own Christian culture, all we have done is to leave the world without a witness from the inside, where we are supposed to be. When Native Christians reject the culture of the ancestors, Native people are left without a witness for Jesus Christ from within the cultural contexts of their spiritual, traditional and ceremonial life experiences.”— Richard Twiss, One Church Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You
How many First Nation people are out there that actually know who the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are, that are able to hang on to their culture and know that as an Indigenous person, the Father who has created all things loves them? They are created in his image and his likeness and he is okay with their culture and thinks it’s beautiful. Yes there are some things in it that are troubling, just like there are things in the white man’s culture that are very troubling.
YOU, MY INDIGENOUS BROTHERS AND SISTERS, ARE IMPORTANT IN THE KINGDOM BECAUSE GOD LOVES YOU AND WHO YOU ARE. HOW YOU ARE AND YOUR CULTURE IS BEAUTIFUL.
It’s difficult because how do you bring the word Bible into the conversation when the Bible was used as a weapon to oppress? How do you bring Jesus into it? Because as he was used as a weapon, the Father was used as a weapon, the church was used as a weapon. How do you tell the story where it is good news, not news of assimilation, not news of colonization, not news of residential schools, not news of the Sixties Scoop, but brought in a way that it is good news of relationship?
I do know that what the Creator’s given me to share, I can’t not share it. Just comes out. That relationship is important, and if we’re not in relationship then we’re not moving the kingdom forward. We’re advancing a people.
We need to tell them, you my Indigenous brothers and sisters, are important in the kingdom because God loves you and who you are. How you are and your culture is beautiful. We have to have the Indigenous brothers and sisters with us.
WHAT ARE SOME NEXT STEPS FOR THE CHURCH TO MOVE FORWARD IN RIGHTNESS OF RELATIONSHIP?
We think the story starts when we were born, and it just carries on from there. But without knowing the beginning there’s going to be no love in our hearts. And if there’s no love in the heart, how do we expect things to change, things to move forward?
Being educated in the true history and looking at the beginning of the story, knowing the truth, is a good thing. But if we don’t allow it to seep down into our heart and have a heart posture shift, we’re never going to get to the place where we are able to take a piece of that love that the Father had for the Son. The only way is for hearts to be changed. How do we do that? We don’t. God does. We become a part of that by praying.
But when we pray that prayer, are we praying that with love in our heart? Do we have compassion for the First Nation people whose land we’re on right now? Do we have love for them? Do we even know where they are? Their communities, their tiny little communities that we have stuck them on, do we even know where they are located around our churches?
The Bible is pretty clear on saying if you pray without love in your heart, then you’re just a clanging cymbal. Or if you do good deeds but don’t do these deeds with love in your heart, you’re just a resounding gong.
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” – 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
How do you know if your heart’s not in the right place? It’s hard. Nobody wants to say, “Maybe my heart’s not full of love.” That’s something that we have to ask the Holy Spirit to help reveal to us.
When my church family begins to pray with love in their heart, then God will be able to do great and mighty things. Great and mighty things would be to reach out to my cousin and touch with the Creator’s love that says, My Son knows you, sees you and loves you. Please accept my Spirit that you may be guided in helping to live life to its fullest.
WE THANK JOHN FOR SHARING HIS HEART WITH US AND REFLECTING ON THE TOPIC OF TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION AND HOW THE CHURCH CAN TAKE PART IN THOSE EFFORTS.
John Johnstone serves among First Nations people groups in Western Canada through Multiply, the mission agency of the Mennonite Brethren churches in Canada and the U.S., alongside his wife Jenn. Interview reprinted with permission from Mennonite Brethren Herald, Sept. 2022. Photo of John and Jenn Johnstone from Multiply.net. This blog series and related podcasts are produced in collaboration with the Peace & Reconciliation Network. Read all the blog posts at FaithToday.ca/AllThingsReconciled.