Sunday, May 30, 2015

We arrived in Ottawa Saturday night, not knowing what to expect of these full days to come of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Closing Events. Little did I know that it would be such a pivotal event in my life, pushing me into a new way of seeing the world and our country of Canada.

I'll share a few memorable moments and words from our first day.

We found our way to the start of the 8km Walk for Reconciliation and joined the crowd in listening to speakers and honoured guests welcoming us and commenting on the TRC. In English, French, Ojibwe and Cree, they shared their journeys and hopes for this new chapter in Canada's life together. 

One indigenous leader talked about the First Nations' response to the trauma and pain of the residential school legacy. "We need to name it, claim it, let it go, and replace it with something new - this creative work of replacing what has been let go is something that all of us here need to work at together," gesturing to the gathered crowd. I looked around and found myself surprised to notice that this was probably the first time in my life that I was in such a mixed group of indigenous and non-indigenous neighbours. The reality of our segregated society hit me.

As I was reflecting on the sadness of how neighbours had come to this development of separate societies living side by side, another indigenous leader asserted, "Anishinaabe people have been here thousands of years, we must not let the events of recent years define us." Immediately I was humbled by the recentness of this conflict. It's true. Our indigenous hosts have been through a lot, but they are still in their land that they have been living in sustainably for thousands of years. The smallness of our troubles in comparison to their great history and cultures gave me hope. How beautiful our communities could be if we made space for the sturdiness of history to guide us together!

An indigenous elder then came to the podium. Wearing his traditional regalia, he shared his journey as a survivor of the residential school system. Anticipating a heart-wrenching account as I'd heard at other events, I was surprised to hear his experience of self-discovery. "I have worked hard to find out who I am," he explained in French and Cree, "and I have come far. From our dark history, the sun has been found. It took me so long to say I love you to me, you, the world. But now I can say with confidence, I love you." The next and final speaker added to this story of restoration and healing, calling for reconciliation which will be the "healing of the spirits of our nations." Amen!

We began to walk.
 
For the two hours, around 7000 people calmly walked through the streets of downtown Gatineau and Ottawa, drawing the attention of passersby. Along the way, pushing Rohan in the stroller, we met people from across the country, from many different nations and religious traditions, and even a few international representatives. Rohan even got out a few times to walk too! As we walked, we talked to each other. Conversations revolved around reconciliation, visions of how our society could be different, stories from survivors, and the hope that we had for how the TRC report could move us forward as a new community. Walking past Parliament Hill, conspicuously uninvolved in the event, I heard talk turn to our need for political action for reconciliation, united across party lines and at both local and national levels. Even when silent, my thoughts stayed with themes of living together with our indigenous neighbours in new ways. This two-hour collective meditation on reconciliation and living in the right way was a powerful act. I knew God was walking with us. (For a video made by organizers Kairos Canada, with a cameo appearance by Rohan, check out: https://youtu.be/30JbW0sPbcA)
 

When we arrived at Ottawa City Hall, musicians and speakers continued the day as people mingled on the lawn. A tipi was set up and Rohan crawled towards it. Inside two elders were welcoming guests, offering chances for smudging and conversation. Rohan  and I went inside and he immediately made friends with the grandmothers and grandfathers inside. How precious for him to be a part of this, I thought. For him, there are no boundaries between us and he has smiles for everyone. What do I and our generation need to do to allow him to continue living in this way, with love for all?

 
As our group was waiting for others to meet up and head back to Ottawa Mennonite Church, who was hosting us, I watched CBC radio host and University of Manitoba administrator, Wab Kinew, charm the crowd. He was giving a "shout out" to each of the nations present, calling out the names of indigenous nations from across the country who responded with cheers when he called their names.   It was a glimpse of how our country could be: joyous in our diversity and our gathering together. Celebrating, honouring, and sharing our rich cultures with each other. What a vision of reconciliation! 

 

As you’re hopefully aware, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) formally draws to a close with final events in Ottawa May 31 to June 3. Although the TRC is ending and some Canadians are hopeful that we can now put the abuses of the Indian Residential School (IRS) system behind us, the reality is that the work of reconciliation is ongoing.

As a church that was an active part of the IRS system, a significant part of this responsibility falls on our shoulders.

What can and should churches do to move in the direction of reconciliation with First Nations people?

The hope of reconciliation is right relationship, so for many the next step is as simple as seeking out opportunities to relate well. Be a good neighbour to the First Nations people we live near. Visit Wanuskewin, Batoche, Fort Carleton, Ancient Echoes Interpretive Centre. Listen and ask questions. Attend and enjoy the many First Nations cultural events open to the public. No special skills required, just show up with a desire to learn and understand.

In addition to relationship-building, we also need to do our own work as a settler community of faith. Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the TRC, spoke in 2014 to a group of Mennonites wondering about the next steps towards reconciliation. The whole talk is worth a listen, but in case you don’t have an hour to listen to one of Canada’s greatest leaders… some of the things I picked up from Justice Sinclair:

1) We have our own work to do in undoing racism and understanding settler privilege. In spite of our best intentions, the way we see our world and our neighbours is impacted by our hidden prejudices and self-centeredness.  The way we see ourselves and, in a Mennonite church, our heritage and history, is at best incomplete and one-sided.  Do we dare take an honest look at ourselves and the whole story of how we’ve come to be who we are?

2) Reconciliation demands restoration: of power, of property, of treaty rights. Justice Sinclair tells the story of a kid who steals another’s bike. Later, feeling guilty, he goes back to the bike’s owner and asks for forgiveness. “Well,” comes the reply, “first give me back my bike and then we can talk about forgiveness.”  

You and I weren’t there as the Canadian government meticulously removed First Nations people from their land; we didn’t sanction the IRS or its abuses. We didn’t steal the bike. But—and this is huge—we’re still holding the bike. We benefit from use of the bike, from the income and stability it affords us, from the confidence and opportunities of being bike owners. What does it mean to give back the bike? Is it enough to pay compensation for the abuses of the IRS? Is it enough to share the land with our First Nations neighbours? Do we owe them more than that?

3) There are major theological implications to our relationship with First Nations people. Spiritual abuse was a huge part of the devastating impact of the IRS, by design. Was Christianity twisted by the government, by deviant clergy, for their own destructive ends? Or was the Church’s agenda of mission--converting savages and saving their souls—also to blame? In other words, did the means of forcing Christianity on native children ruin the otherwise good end of spreading the gospel?  Or is was the goal of conversion itself the problem?

These are big questions of great importance for the ongoing relationship of Christians with First Nations people. Do we (still) view First Nations spirituality as inferior, something to lead people away from? Or are we worshiping the same Creator in (very) different ways? Or somewhere in between: can we respect and learn from each other’s spirituality, while holding fast to our own beliefs and practices?

Justice Sinclair suggests that if the goal of Christians is still to convert, though by gentler means, then reconciliation is not possible. I’m not sure what we do with that; the call for evangelism is one of the most strongly held beliefs in the Christian tradition.  And yet, reconciliation demands respect and equality. Does our current theology have the tools and space to work at this balance?  Are our intentions, whatever they are, clear to those neighbours with whom we seek relationship?

We have some work to do.

This last month at Wildwood we've had three wonderful sermons, and three wonderful bible study sessions that examined the scriptures that people most commonly reference when discussing same gendered relationships in the Bible. It was a wonderful sermon series, rooted in scripture that contained a powerful message about love and grace. But now, I ask you to please put your magnifying glass away.

Being one of the people at Wildwood Mennonite who identifies as part of the queer community, I can’t help but feel like when we explore this topic – it can become extremely personal. Not that it was a negative experience, but you soon realize that living as a queer person, it feels like that people zoom in on me, and people latch on to me and my story. This is okay, but you often realize how much you are talked about. Fortunately people have been very affirming, but it feels odd when people discuss you or your sexual orientation so publicly. Very rarely do I discuss my heterosexual friend's sexual orientation so publicly - zooming in on the personal details of their life. I'm feeling like I need a bit of a break, so please put your magnifying glass away.

I’m not always aware of what it’s like to live on the other side. In his recent blog post Joe shared about his privileges of be being in the straight majority – he only has to think about his sexuality when he wants to.

“The rest of the time, I’m free to identify myself—or not—through a variety of other categories: pastor, father, neighbour, American, sports fan, etc.  Even when I’m with my wife, holding hands as we walk down the street, those other labels are what come to mind for most of the people we walk past.  I never assume that someone is thinking “there goes another straight couple… keep your sexuality to yourself!”

Not so for many in the LGBTQ* community.  That label is attached to so much of what they do and who they are: “our new neighbour, you know, the lesbian.”  “The gay parents at my kid’s school.”  “I think my yoga teacher must be gay.”  Etc. (And those are just the well-intentioned labels.)  At any point their sexuality is up for discussion and commentary, whether or not it’s relevant to the situation at hand.  Especially at church these days.

I would hope people in the church would see me for my faith which I believe defines my character. Under that umbrella I serve as the church treasurer, a person in the communications profession, a taxpayer, worship leader, a person who loves to dance, a person who loves to laugh, a person who loves the faith, a person who eats, sleeps, and reads the paper. I do all of these things from a Christian perspective – not the gay perspective. I am reminded that in my baptism I am a Christian, my sexual orientation does not have to define me or my actions. My identity in Christ defines me. So please, put your magnifying glass away.

After a month of thinking, talking, and writing about sexuality, I’m tired of the subject.  I know that many of those who’ve been thinking, talking, and listening along with me are also tired of it.  “Are we done yet?” and “Okay, let’s move on now” are commonly expressed sentiments in the church this week, even from those who (like me) have been moved and challenged and experienced the amazing gifts of the Spirit at work throughout this conversation.

Yeah, I’m ready to move on to something else, in formal and informal conversations, and especially in worship.  And never fear, we are: a service of praise and thanksgiving this Sunday (with poetry and song instead of a sermon), then some guest speakers before we head into Lent at the end of February.

And yet, if I’m tired of thinking and talking about sexuality after just a month, I can only imagine how exhausting it must be for LGBTQ* folks whose identity and interactions with society are so often defined by their sexuality.

That’s one of the privileges of being part of the straight majority: I only have to think about my sexuality when I want to.  The rest of the time, I’m free to identify myself—or not—through a variety of other categories: pastor, father, neighbour, American, sports fan, etc.  Even when I’m with my wife, holding hands as we walk down the street, those other labels are what come to mind for most of the people we walk past.  I never assume that someone is thinking “there goes another straight couple… keep your sexuality to yourself!”

Not so for many in the LGBTQ* community.  That label is attached to so much of what they do and who they are: “our new neighbour, you know, the lesbian.”  “The gay parents at my kid’s school.”  “I think my yoga teacher must be gay.”  Etc. (And those are just the well-intentioned labels.)  At any point their sexuality is up for discussion and commentary, whether or not it’s relevant to the situation at hand.  Especially at church these days.

Sometimes it’s a choice to be noticed for a sexual orientation or gender identity.  But much of the time it isn’t a choice, just a label that someone else puts onto them whether it’s relevant or not.  And of course, the LGBTQ* community aren’t the only people to be labelled and boxed in by an external qualifier beyond their control: this is also the experience of many minority groups that are defined by their race, their income, etc.

What would it mean for the church to have our agenda set not by majority opinion, but by the needs of people in the minority?  What would it look like for pastors and leaders to follow a path laid out by the experiences and voices of the marginalized?  I think I’ve experienced a small taste of that this month, and even though I’m tired, I’ve experienced God in the listening and learning.

May God give us strength to continue long past the point of interest and convenience towards genuine truth and justice.

When

Adult Sunday School: 9:45 a.m. 
Worship: 10:45 a.m. 

Family Singing Time: 10:15 a.m. 
Junior Sunday School During Worship

 

Contact

Phone 306-373-2126
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Pastor Joe Heikman
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