-Behind Bow Valley Ranch in Fish Creek Park-
This was an article I wrote for the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue’s Do Justice Blog (whew that’s a mouthful 🙂 ) I wanted to share it now here, as we’ve just passed Indigenous People’s Day and Canada Day here in Canada. In my circles and maybe yours too, there’s a few common responses to issues regarding Indigenous peoples in general, to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, and to Christians starting to be vocal in this sphere. 1 – The response where non-indigenous people say out loud or in their hearts, “Enough already, just get over it. We’re doing enough, your situation is actually your fault”; 2- The response where non- indigenous people want to help “those people” and have all sorts of ideas of how to do that for them; 3- The response where we spend time analyzing all the reasons why things are the way they are, defending, accusing, and trying to get a grasp on it – mostly just deferring our own ability to respond to it to some later day; 4- The response where Christians are told to focus on Jesus and saving souls, forgetting (or maybe never being taught?) that Jesus is found in anyone who asks our help; 5 – The response where people are good people, living normal hard/happy lives and just honestly don’t know how to proceed, where to take action, how to do anything differently, how to imagine anything differently, with regards to Indigenous people’s in Canada.
I’m going to posit that there is an “under all that” way, the way that has to start all reconciliation- from husband/wife, parent/child, all the way up to nation/nation – and its the dual notion of inviting and listening. Inviting someone else to speak and then listening to what they say. This is how we want to be treated – to be given space to say our piece and to be listened to; this is how we are called as friends of Jesus to treat others. And it can only be done in proximity, in relationship.
So what follows is what happened in a couple people’s real hearts when a small imperfect church tried this just a little bit.
In the fall of 2017, in the year of Canada 150 celebrations, the Canadian AboriginalMinistries Committee of the CRCNA invited pastors and churches in Canada to consider together what it means that the land we call Canada has been inhabited for far more than 150 years.
They asked, “What do the biblical calls to hospitality and reconciled relationships mean for your church’s relationships with local Indigenous peoples?” And they invited pastors to preach about this.
Rich Braaksma, the Western Canadian Regional Leader for Resonate Global Mission and one of the pastors at The Road Church in Calgary, AB, took this challenge. He reached out to The Native Center at the University of Calgary for anyone from the local indigenous community who could help our church enter these questions. One of the administrators there, Cheryle Chagnon Greyeyes said yes and then even offered to come to our church to speak to us about these questions.
That Sunday morning, Cheryle told us a little bit about herself, about who she was, where she was from and she told us a bit about the land the church was sitting on at that moment. She sang a welcome to us. The service continued as it usually did with a few songs and then with the Hearing of The Word. Pastor Rich got up and spoke about hospitality. He spoke of his recent travels to Oman and Bangladesh where hospitality is expressed with an invitation to sit and share tea, sweets, food. He spoke of the deeply biblical theme of hospitality and he spoke about the story The Good Samaritan in Luke 10. Love God and Love our neighbor, Jesus told the people who were looking to him to give them something to believe in. To which someone, not unlike ourselves, needed a caveat, because surely it was too much to love every person like a neighbor. Surely we can’t be expected to…well, LOVE just ANY neighbor. “Who IS my neighbor, Jesus?” someone asked.
And of course, Jesus refused to play along and to the questioner and the crowd he instead told a story about someone not like them, not liked by them. In fact, he told a story whose hero was a Samaritan, someone at the time, expressly overlooked, distrusted and looked down on by this audience. Jesus flipped the question and instead of defining who the neighbour was that they were required to love, he told a story about what the work of the neighbour would be, what the actions would be. He defined the actions that, in fact, would sum up the law and the prophets. We in the congregation heard this word, knowing we are both Jesus’ questioner and people in that crowd; both the loving neighbour, the ignoring neighbour and the neighbour who needs to be loved.
Rich and Cheryle then talked about hospitality. Rich asked her questions about her culture, what practices helped with hospitality and we learned a bit more about practices and the meaning behind things we perhaps didn’t previously understand like smudging, or the gifting of tobacco (it’s not ever for ingesting we learned!). Cheryle talked about ceremony and why it was important for her – how it is “kindness signified.” She talked about how good guests listen to their hosts and partake in the world of their hosts. They enter into the practices of the host, for it means you take seriously their place in the world and you take seriously that you are entering that place as a guest – you do not take over the home of your host for your own. And good hosts, in turn, care for the needs, the lives, the world of their guests.
The whole conversation was a practice in hospitality. Rich and Cheryle are different, absolutely. And there are differences that can’t be conflated into sameness and shouldn’t be. No one is saying that their different beliefs about the nature of the world and their different experiences of the world are interchangeable. But Rich and Cheryle are also neighbors and they were taking seriously what it meant to care for and welcome someone else’s dignity, their whole person, their God-given, Creator-given life. Their conversation opened this up for us.
But what happened on this Sunday was not limited to what it taught us in the congregation—it wasn’t limited to our thoughts and thinking about this issue. I think this Good, Big and Incredibly Loving God we serve loves to take what we learn in our heads and pull it right down into our hearts. I will give 2 examples of this, and I hope you read them, not as theological points, or as things to convince you of one thing or another, but as examples from a generous God to a few particular people of what might happen when you invite someone else over, when you open up space to hear another voice.
The first happening – A couple in our congregation, a few years ago, adopted 3 children of indigenous heritage. It is very important to their family that their children have meaningful and authentic connections to their cultural roots. Anyone who adopts knows a connection to the people and place of birth is vital to the health and resilience of their children. There is a yearning in us to know the family that brought us to this earth. They knew that their children’s birth mother was of Metis-Cree descent but as she herself had been adopted out of her family culture, they had not found anyone of this heritage for their children to connect with. Until this Sunday. After the service, this mother brought her children over to meet Cheryle, who is Metis-Cree. Now, to understand what happened next, you have to know that their youngest daughter is a reserved girl. She is warm and loving with her family, but will also hang back silently with people outside of family, often not making eye contact. When she met Cheryle, however, she looked right at this elder’s friendly face. Cheryle put her forehead to the forehead of this tiny 3 year old. And they looked at each other for what the mother said felt like 5 minutes! Then this little girl allowed herself to be held, kissed on the cheek, seen. Indeed, she nestled her face into the neck of this woman she just met. The mother wept. The father wept. The other family witnessing this wept. In the words of this mother in an email later, she said that this connection was “an experience beyond earthly explanation, for sure. My words do not do it justice.” Cheryle and this family will stay in touch, and while the children may not have their biological grandmother to help them interpret and make sense of their place and their story in this world, they now have another woman, inviting them into her life and her community so that theirs may be strengthened.
For this mom, to see her youngest daughter seen, cared for, connected to her root on this earth, that is a gift of Godly proportions. A gift given, in what some may call a coincidence and others may call grace. God knows what we need. And he provides, so often, where we are not looking for it. “Do not forget to provide hospitality for strangers for you unknowingly may be entertaining angels,” we read in our bibles. You may very well be welcoming those who would do God’s work in this world, even in your own heart, when you welcome a guest into your life.
The second story is my own. And like the story before, a bit of background is needed. My mom passed away after a very brief illness last year. About 6 months before her diagnosis my mom had been walking in Fish Creek Park past an outdoor art installation celebrating the western and indigenous influence on the area. On this day of dedication there was woman singing and drumming on the hill. My mom stopped walking, and listened for as long as she could. During this time, God spoke to her about his love for her. My mom felt God encouraging her through this woman singing—a thrill of hope. I remember this day, as my mom called me, excited, brimming with the words of her Father to her heart. And into her illness and before her death, she held onto that moment in Fish Creek and mentioned it often. It was a touchstone.
Well, this particular Sunday of Cheryle’s visit also happened to be the day we decided on to be my ordination Sunday. After the sermon came the official call, questions, prayers and the laying on of hands of my ordination and Cheryle had asked if she could sing a song of women’s blessing. To me, she said, this song was a prayer for me to know The Creator’s place for me in this world. To say it was beautiful doesn’t quite do it justice. It was haunting, unfamiliar but also arresting and ministering. I have longed to teach, preach, pray, lead my whole life and for the last 20 years I have been trusting that these things in me would come into fruition, not knowing how, when, in what context. It has been a long, twisty journey and to then be blessed into this ministry in this unexpected way was a gift beyond words.
After this Sunday service, after the ordination, my father went up to Cheryle, described that event in Fish Creek with my mom and said, “This is a shot in the dark, but would that have happened to have been you?” And Cheryle looked at him and said, “No, but I know of that event. My daughter sang at that.” At that point, my dad began to cry, weep actually. I have never seen him cry like that in public. In this incredible, unprobable circle of grace, a daughter was an instrument of blessing and encouragement to an unknown mother and 2 years later, her mother blessed and encouraged an unknown daughter. The women in that family were used, beyond comprehension, in the mystery of God’s all-seeing grace, to equip and encourage the women of my family for what lay ahead. My father kept coming to tears all day, even during family dinner later that night saying, “The Creator knew….God knew…”
AND THIS IS THE POINT. The whole point. We don’t know what we invite in when we open up our table. What we do know is that we have been called into being by a welcoming God. We know that we have been called by a God who just loves to reconcile – it’s his favorite work. To reconcile his people to his heart, back to their own hearts and back to the hearts of one another. In this year of Canada 150, we do not have to be afraid to talk about the effects of past decisions, past doctrines and the impacts these have on people today. Truth is essential for healthy relationships – and the truth of how the indigenous people of Canada was a truth we were not hearing for a long time. But now we are. And truth will never do us wrong, it will make us uncomfortable, but it will not denigrate or damage us, not if we have given up our stake on power and control – power and control that, as children of God, were never ours to begin with. And while we have to do this work, we also get the privilege of wondering and listening together at what the healing looks like. This is the good work of being followers of Jesus – to wonder at what it is to witness God doing his work of reconciliation in the world and to maybe even participate in it too.
We are witnesses to a grace that goes far beyond what we say we know-indeed it goes far past what we could ever know. This is a grace that goes to the centre of who we were created to be and to the heart of who this God is. He is the Community of Love, the triune God who made us ALL in His image. And this world, of all of us, is His. Not one inch is not his—The Creator knows and holds it in his hands.
We at The Road Church got to see this in sharp relief in that unique, unlikely Sunday service. We got to witness that when we welcome one another, its like welcoming The Other, The Very God, and when we make room at a table that is not even ours to own, it is a foretaste of His dream, His world made new. A world where we see and know and participate in the life of the Creator God and his goodness and his shalom for every person, every image of God out there.
And this is good news. This is good news that I am a somehow a recipient of, and good news that I am still Wonder-ing at.
Written by Jacqui Mignault, Pastor at The Road Church as well as a Campus Minister at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
-Post Script- Cheryle came and visited us at The Road Church again, leading us in the KAIROS Blanket Exercise, and has even visited some of us in our homes, teaching, laughing, talking, singing, dropping off coffee makers and gifting smudge kits-if that’s not a Happy Canada Day thing to celebrate, I’m not sure what is.