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Evangelicals still reaching for reconciliation with Indigenous people

23 October 2017
Theme:

A recent EFC-sponsored gathering of denominational representatives provokes reflection

By Wendy Beauchemin Peterson

It is 1995. Former MP Elijah Harper has called a Sacred Assembly around the theme that Land is Sacred – a statement both Indigenous Jesus-followers and traditional Indigenous peoples can affirm.

Brian Stiller, then president of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, is addressing the gathering of First Nations, Inuit and Métis leaders along with non-Indigenous denominational leaders, missionaries and high level government leaders. Brian receives the only standing ovation given to a church leader. Why? In the words of Pastor Larry Wilson (Cree), “Brian spoke from his heart.”

Some evangelical reconciliation efforts, 1995–2016

During this event, Brian invites Christian Indigenous leaders to select leaders to form an EFC Aboriginal Task Force to work towards reconciliation between evangelical churches and Indigenous peoples. Wally Mckay (Cree) and I (Red River Métis) are appointed by the leaders as co-chairs. Other members include Terry LeBlanc (Mi’kmaq Acadian), Ray Aldred (Cree) and Larry Wilson (Cree).

Eventually, the EFC morphs the task force into the Aboriginal Ministry Council. Mavis Etienne (Mohawk), Adrian Jacobs (Cayuga), Chery Bear (Nadleh Whut’en), and others join the council. Ray Aldred chairs. Our work includes numerous meetings with politicians and church leaders.

It is 2000, a year invested with hope for this new century. Yet, Indigenous realities reflect society’s assigned role as a marginalized people. Gradually the gravity of these realities gain momentum in news cycles and are slowly embedded in the consciousness of other Canadians. Most members of EFC’s Aboriginal Council are active in reclaiming their cultures that have been outlawed and demonized.

The North American Institute for Theological Education (NAIITS) is formed with Terry LeBlanc as executive director. Ray Aldred, Cheryl Bear and I are three of the founding board members with Shari Russell (Saulteaux) joining later.

Its first symposium is held at Canadian Mennonite University with invitations extended to church leaders, missionaries and educators – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. We find agreement in rejecting a manifesto of sorts, issued by a mission organization, listing the cultural activities Christian “Indians” cannot do, which would effectively re- demonize “all things Indian.”

Our symposium presentations are published in the first Journal of NAIITS. This forms an initial defence of contextualization and points a healthier way forward. (An aside: Sometimes contextualization is spoken of as redeeming Indigenous culture; however, that expression seems to ignore the redemption of culture still required in the non-Indigenous Christian communities.)

Baby steps, giant steps

It is 2017. Twenty-two years have passed since the EFC issued their invitation to work towards reconciliation within evangelical circles. Since 1995 many baby steps and a few giant steps forward are in evidence in Indigenous land.

A number of denominations and Christian institutions deliberately employ First Nations advisors and leaders. For example, Patti Victor (Sto:lo) serves as Sly:m (Indigenous Elder) at Trinity Western University. Major Shari Russell (Saulteaux and a NAIITS board member) serves as Territorial Aboriginal Ministries Consultant for The Salvation Army. Ray Aldred serves at Vancouver School of Theology after his time at Ambrose University.

NAIITS now identifies as simply NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community with six degree programs in Canada, U.S.A., and Australia in partnership with Christian educational institutions.

Many of the Indigenous people mentioned here continue lasting relationships with the EFC and serve as informal advisors both to EFC staff and denominational leaders.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in 2015 has clearly delineated steps expected of the Christian Church to make amends for both sins of commission and sins of omission and to create an improved relationship. The EFC through Aileen van Ginkel invites leaders – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – to gather to discuss steps forward.

On Oct. 4–5, leaders converge on the campus of Canadian Mennonite University for a Denominational Gathering on Reconciliation. The EFC’s invitation has been accepted by 22 people representing 15 denominations. Larry Wilson and I represent EFC Indigenous advisors. Ray Aldred, another advisor, calls in for a phone interview. Shari Russell, Patti Vickor, Shannon Perez (Sayisi Dene) and Howard Jolly (James Bay Cree) are some denominational representatives drawn from First Nations communities.

Hope for reconciliation

Aileen van Ginkel leads us in ruminating on various questions, one of which is: “What gives you hope in relation to reconciliation efforts among Indigenous and Settler communities that you see taking place in Canada?”

Some of the responses may reflect your experiences. Revelations of abuses have raised awareness of Indigenous populations that subsist and persist alongside the dominant culture. Gratitude is expressed at this gathering for those involved with advocacy, such as Steve Heinrichs (Mennonite Church of Canada), for a variety of resources developed, and for the stories of Indigenous experiences shared. Some view reconciliation steps as the “blooming of the Holy Spirit.”

Nevertheless, a sense of urgency remains.

Another question presented is “What could we do better together than alone?” Suggestions include establishing Indigenous storytelling teams so congregations can hear from leaders firsthand; identifying allies and advocates who can advise church groups; intentionality in providing opportunities for small group conversations; and inviting Christian Indigenous leaders to speak at denominational conferences or hosting a conference led by Indigenous leaders.

Strategic ways forward

We end the conference with noting some strategic ways forward. Together denominations can develop more resources and make these available. Another suggestion is to reframe our faith stories so they are inclusive of the people here before our denominations and ethnic groups arrived in the land.

We need to embrace the truth that reconciliation is the gospel. The task of reconciliation has been given both to the Church and to individual followers of Jesus. We need to acknowledge that the stories of abuse do not only belong to the past. We need to commit to our own learning so that we have a fuller understanding in order to change from “Us/Them” to “We.”

A common theme that emerges is the need to develop genuine one-to-one relationships. It is important to invite Indigenous neighbours to our homes, to open our family table to others who can enlarge our perspective. Together we can develop small and large circles of reconciliation.

In closing, the EFC invites those gathered to form a “next steps” working group. All seven people whose names are suggested agree to serve.

A highlight of the conference – in addition to meeting new people and reconnecting with old friends – was the blanket exercise led by Larry Wilson. Congregations and conferences that need someone to provide an Indigenous perspective will surely be blessed if they invite Larry to lead this educational experience.

Deep appreciation is due to our university hosts, EFC organizers and the denominational leaders who took precious time to attend this discussion. May the relationships going forward be pleasing to our Creator and Lord.

Wendy Beauchemin Peterson (she's at bottom left of the large group picture above this article) of Steinbach, Man., has served as adjunct faculty at Providence University College and Seminary since 1994. She is also on faculty at NAIITS.