Last weekend I did something I’ve never done before. I had the opportunity to go to a native reserve, only about an hour’s drive from where I live. There was an ecumenical gathering to consider what role and responsibility the Church has to play in light of the recent calls to action made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). I was quite nervous as we arrived the first evening, unsure of what would lie ahead…
Some context: I’ve had very little experience and exposure to indigenous teachings, culture, and to activism surrounding the issues faced by indigenous peoples. It’s only been in the last few months, as I’ve been engaging with the material of my Master of Social Work program, that I’ve come to know, or really “connected the dots,” about the great injustices faced by the peoples who are native to this land.
As a big “F” (“Feeler,” for others who love Myers-Briggs!), I have cried many tears in the last few months: tears of sorrow, tears of shame and a few tears of hope. When I share this with others they often say, “oh, sorry to hear that.” No. Don’t be sorry. If we are to take steps towards reconciliation and peace we need to be moved by this. In particular, as people of faith, we must confront the pain that has been caused by using Christianity as a tool for power and assimilation. There is much heaviness here.
And so, as an eclectic group of church folks, we gathered to consider steps forward. There was much beauty and wisdom that emerged from this weekend that was led in collaboration with elders from the Six Nations community. However, I believe the most powerful moment took place on our first morning together.
We began our day at the Woodland Cultural Centre, which sits next to the Mohawk Institute, a former residential school. Before touring the school, we had a ceremony of greeting to the start the day.
Rick, one of the elders, with a young adult (about my age) named Taylor by his side, offered a greeting to us. He shared that this type of greeting would often take place long, long ago when the settlers had traveled through the brush to meet the native peoples in their clearing, at the edge of the woods.
Each of the elements that Rick brought forward were pieces of nature, recognizing that creation connects us to the Divine. The ceremony began by waving the wing of an eagle around each of us, so that you could feel its gentle breeze. This signified that as settlers, we had made a long journey and were dirty from our trek, needing to be cleaned and brushed off.
Next, Rick passed along the softest skin of a deer that could be found. This was used to wipe away our tears and clear our eyes so we were ready to see. Afterwards, the softest eagle’s feather was passed around to clear our ears so that we might hear. Finally, water was given so that we might clear our throats to be able to speak with integrity.
After this beautiful invitation and welcome was extended to us, Rick invited us to gather together and plan how we might, using our own symbols, reciprocate this greeting. The 50 or so of us gathered came together and started to think through what we might do. Quickly, it became clear that we had different ideas and approaches on what we thought might be the best way to give a greeting.
Some people believed we should use the exact same symbols, but use our own words. Others thought that we should keep it as simple as possible and use only one symbol. Others, brought ideas and suggestions from their particular faith traditions.
I must admit, after thirty minutes of conversation I thought to myself, “my goodness! If we cannot come up with an appropriate greeting, how are we to do the hard work of reconciliation together?” After about forty-five minutes, Rick asked if we could wrap-up, as we had to carry on with our agenda. I think we all wondered how our greeting might come together, but we were out of time and needed to share. We had thought and talked long enough. Now, it was time to act.
We stood as a group facing the dozen or so indigenous peoples in our midst. We began by extending our hands, with one of our group members saying, “we are not of one mind. But, we come with openness. Ready to listen and to learn…”
As soon as she began to speak, something shifted in the room. I was immediately overwhelmed with emotion and noticed others around me were also moved to tears, indigenous and non-indigenous people alike.
Next, we put drops of water on their feet to show the desire to be servants and walk together.
Finally, a woman in our group who was seven months pregnant offered her belly as a symbol of the future generations. It was a promise that we will teach our children so that the pain that was inflicted will never take place again.
Despite this powerful time of encounter, I don’t believe that the greeting we brought was anything too special. I do believe, though, that the reason it worked well was because it came from a place of deep respect and a desire to move forward together, despite our clumsiness. Despite our differing thoughts on what is “right.”
There is much work ahead of us as we work towards reconciliation. There are many conversations to be had and decisions to be made. There are policies that need to be changed. One of our speakers shared that the Greeks define reconciliation as “being friends again.” If healing and change is going to take place for our indigenous peoples, we need to step forward, “into the clearing,” and explore what in means to be in relationship with one another. To be friends again.
Rachel is energized by connecting with others through tea dates, bus rides, and sharing a meal. She is on staff at The Gathering Church as the children’s ministry coordinator and is currently working on her Masters of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University.