FIRST NATIONS SUNDAY
A sermon by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, QC. June 20, 2004.
My own experience with and understanding of native people began in southern Saskatchewan in 1966. Nancy and I had been married for one year, and we were interested in working a summer in Canada. I had corresponded with the Board of Home Missions of the United Church, and they offered me a summer mission field 65 miles east of Regina. During that summer I worked in churches in two towns – Wolseley and Sintaluta – and on the Carry the Kettle Reserve which was six miles south of town. It was there and then that Nancy and I first met Jessie Sauteaux who played such an important role in later developments. At that time she was simply introduced as the President of the United Church Women.
Much has happened since that summer in 1966, and in my mind there have been three important landmarks in the United Church in our relationship with our Native congregations. The first was for the church to realize that Native leaders were needed in these congregations, and that we needed a better way to train people to be those leaders. It was Jessie Saulteaux who had the vision of Native congregations like her own being led by Native ministers. She said:
At the time of the first step to having a resource centre for Native theological students in 1984, I was standing at the opening ceremony, and it seemed to me that I saw a clear light around the people gathered there. Later on I saw many little lights--and I think that those lights are like many little stars and those lights are the lights of our young people as they begin training and become leaders in our communities.
We are going into a brighter future. All those little stars are going to get bigger, they are going to shine brighter. There are going to be more and more Native leaders to serve in our communities.
Then other people identified with and supported her vision; and they recognized that while our theological colleges in Nova Scotia, Montreal, Kingston, Toronto, Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Vancouver were doing a fine job of preparing ministers for most of the United Church, that something different was needed for Native men and women. They needed a kind of training for ministry where they could live and work in their own communities, and be supported and strengthened by their own culture and traditions.
And so a different kind of theological training was established – a form of extension education that today is called a “community-based model” of training for ministry. (And the irony is that this model is now starting to be used for training other ministers for non-Native churches too.) A centre was established at Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, and it was named the Dr. Jessie Saulteaux Resource Centre. Later it was moved to Beausojour, Manitoba. It continues to offer education for aboriginal people, and also to provide cross-cultural education for the wider community.
In the East, a similar vision was taking form, and the Francis Sandy Theological Centre was established on the grounds of our Five Oaks Centre at Paris, Ontario – very near to Six Nations Reserve. I just learned on Tuesday that the new director at Francis Sandy Centre will be Brenda Simpson who is a member of Ste. Genevieve United Church on the West Island. Brenda is an Ojibway woman who is originally from North Bay, Ontario, who has lived in Montreal for many years, and who has been a teacher at Vanier College.
A second landmark for the United Church came in 1986 with the apology of the General Council to our Native congregations. Let us listen again to the words of the Apology:
Long before my people journeyed to this land, your people were here, and you received from your elders an understanding of creation, and of the mystery that surrounds us all, that was deep and rich and to be treasured. We did not hear you when you shared your vision. In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ we were closed to the value of your spirituality. We confused Western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and length and height of the gospel of Christ. We imposed our civilization as a condition of accepting the gospel. We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result, you, and we, are poorer, and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be. We ask you to forgive us and to walk together with us in the Spirit of Christ so that our peoples may be blessed and God’s creation healed.
This took place when General Council met in Sudbury, and while I was not a delegate, I did serve on the Local Arrangements Committee, and so had a ring-side seat to what was happening.
The third important landmark has been for the church to recognize our complicity in what happened to native children in residential schools which were mostly funded by the Federal government, but staffed and run by the churches. The United Church is now in the process of working through legal claims made by Native people based on how their lives have been affected as a result.
In 1994 the General Council established the Healing Fund to address the impact of residential schools on Aboriginal people. On the United Church web-site, we read:
The schools contributed to the loss of language, culture and parenting skills in many Aboriginal communities as children over several generations were removed from their homes and sent to distant schools. In some cases, tragically, the schools were sites of physical and sexual abuse. For many Aboriginal people, the experience of the schools caused deep hurt.
This experience has brought about lawsuits against the Federal Government, and the various Canadian churches that ran the schools, including the United Church.
At the recent meeting of Montreal and Ottawa Conference, our theme speaker was Rev. Brian Thorpe. There were some important things about Brian being the theme speaker for the meeting of Conference. One is that he stayed the whole time which isn’t always the case with theme speakers. Another is that he was given several opportunities to address the delegates – not just two or three. And the third was that he actually had something to say.
So who, you may ask, is Brian Thorpe. Well, he is a mild mannered and soft-spoken person that you would never give a second glance until you hear him speak. Secondly, he is a United Church minister who was formerly the Executive Secretary of British Columbia Conference. But the reason I am talking about him today is that he is the lead person representing the United Church in the various discussions around residential school claims. I wish Conference had tape-recorded his presentations, so that we could all hear them. I will share just two stories.
At the residential schools there came about an Older Brothers organization, which was an act of resistance. It was older students who were telling the new, younger ones who to watch out for, and who never to be alone with. Brian Thorpe pointed out that it was the people with the least resources who were the most effective. And the lesson he drew from this is that when the church is more vulnerable and has fewer resources, we are more open to hear the voices of the marginalized. But he also said that you and I still have the choice to act as if we were mainstream, while the aboriginal community has never had that option.
Brian said that the question that security and power asks is, “How can we help you?” – and, “How can we help those less fortunate?” But he said that this is the wrong question for it doesn’t recognize what the marginalized have to contribute to the process – the answers they can bring. He says there is something about the arrogance of security in offering help to the oppressed. Brian said that the first thing we must do is listen, and that it will take many generations to bring healing. And secondly, when we hear the call to heal the victim, we need to recognize our own need for healing. He quoted a native woman who said, “If your liberation is caught up with mine, then we can work together. But if you have come to help me, you are wasting your time.”
It is very late – but not too late – for every United Church congregation to become better informed about the many tragedies that happened at the residential schools, and for us all to find ways to become part of a healing process that includes ourselves. I don’t have the answers. But I hope that here at Trinity we will take up this challenge, establish good relationships with our congregations at Kahnawake and Oka, and become part of the solution. (PAUSE) Let’s ask ourselves how we could start.