June 30 Worship

June 30 Worship

Twenty years ago, after teaching as an adjunct in Toronto for several years, I was looking for a new ministry position and Heather suggested that I needed an adventure. A student of mine invited me to apply for the position of Coastal Circuit Minister for the United Church’s Central Mainland Marine Mission in BC. I was offered the position, based in Prince Rupert, and very soon thereafter had packed up the car to head west.

There is a long history of mission ships along British Columbia’s coast. The United Church participated in this ministry for about 100 years, until, in 1985, the last of the mission boats became too expensive to operate. The position I assumed twenty years later was in essence a continuation of this ministry, but with the use of ferries, water taxis, roads where there were any and occasionally, float planes.

The history of ministry to the coast is a complex one that weaves together many threads. In the mid-nineteenth century, British possessions such as Canada were caught up in something of a fervour for mission. Thomas Crosby, the most famous Methodist missionary, after whom the United Church’s mission boats were named, was part of a movement that saw the wealth and power of the British Empire as a God-given opportunity to save and civilize the heathen living in isolation and ignorance in remote areas. In some ways these missionaries were caught up with a fever not unlike that of the gold prospectors who flocked west and north from the late 19th to the early 20th century.

By the time I arrived on the coast in 2005, the United Church had changed from fervent evangelism to recognition of its colonialist errors with tentative efforts at reconciliation in its outreach to First Nations. But there were many folks in the dozen or so villages that I visited who longed for the days when every village had a resident missionary and participation in the church was a way for members of the indigenous community to create a role for themselves within their villages by connecting with the wider church and the Euro-Canadian civilization. While the United Church was struggling to give up its former delusions of grandeur, some of the First Nations folks still longed for the days when our denominational representative on the Coast was an 85-foot 129 ton steel-hulled yacht called the Thomas Crosby V. When what was variously called the “God-Ship” or the “Come to Jesus” ship arrived in a village and blew its mighty horn, the whole community knew the Church had come to them, bringing not only ministry, but medical care and often mail and cargo as well.

Instead of arriving by ship on my travels out from Prince Rupert, I had hitched a ride on a float plane headed to the village of Klemtu for my first visit to a native community. It was only a day or two after having arrived at my BC base.

I was coming to Klemtu to attend a funeral, which I soon learned was the most important religious occasion in the life of any village. Funerals are preceded by several days of memorial gatherings where hymns are sung and testimony is given. The formal service can last for hours as speaker after speaker pays tribute to the deceased and anyone so inclined can offer prayers, indigenous language or English or both, or a musical tribute. Following the service there is an interment, often involving an ocean voyage to an uninhabited island that serves as a burial ground. And finally, there is a feast attended by virtually all inhabitants of the village, as well as any sojourners (like me) who happen to be among them. Typically, there are 500 to 800 people.

Back to my arrival in Klemtu… the float plane I was riding in touched down in the quiet waters of the harbour and the pilot expertly guided it toward the pier. He asked if I was OK with tying it up since there was no one on the dock as there usually was. Tying up required that I step out onto the pontoon and grab hold of the dock. Having done this sort of thing on small boats before I assured him I was fine with that. However, as the plane floated in it seemed to me I had better jump up on the dock because it felt like we might float right past it. Giving a mighty push on the pontoon in order to get past the gap I overlooked the fact that my jump would surely send the plane further from the dock and with a widened gap there was room for me to fall into the Pacific. Which I did.

I pulled myself out without much fuss and the plane got tied up. But I can remember as I felt the cold, wet water soaking me (did I mention this was March??), thinking that I can either try to pretend this didn’t happen or I can treat this as a baptism into this new ministry with First Nations folks. Well, there was no way I could pretend it didn’t happen. So I made the most of it.

People from the village were out on the dock very quickly. And I later learned that people in the village of Bella Bella a hundred miles away heard about the new minister falling in the ocean almost as soon as did those in Klemtu. It can be difficult to find a conversation starter with people from a culture one doesn’t know, but when you fall out of a plane upon arrival, you have broken the ice, so to speak. Years later, folks around the North Coast were still asking ‘Did you really fall into the ocean?”

But what I came to see as significant about my ignominious introduction was how big a contrast it was to the way the United Church minister used to arrive in a native village, on the bridge of a ship that was significantly larger than even the biggest fishing vessel in the community. And with a horn blowing a strident call to worship. Now here was me, dripping wet and shivering, crawling up onto the dock.

Over the following two years, I frequently encountered the fact that the United Church, once a significant, even dominant social actor in coastal communities, was now a humbler institution. Not everyone appreciates the virtue of humility, although it is one of the primary virtues of which our faith tradition speaks. But it was a lack of humility that lay behind the colonization process of residential schools in which our denomination played a significant role. I was granted the gift of embodying this change in status and attitude not only as a dripping wet circuit minister, but more significantly as a representative of the United Church at many meetings of Compensation Commissions which held hearings in Indigenous communities during the time I was there.

Prior to the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was one of the government responses to lawsuits such as that brought by Willie Blackwater of which we spoke last week, a process was established to enable survivors of residential schools to come forward and tell their stories in a non-adversarial environment. If they chose to do so, the commissioner who heard their evidence was empowered to make a preliminary monetary award that was available to the claimant without precluding them from participating in any further action that arose from what became the Truth and Reconciliation process.

These hearings were held in private, and the Commissioner did not question the truth or completeness of anything the claimant might say. Claimants could have their own advocates or legal representatives with them to offer support. The church that ran the residential school they had attended could have a legal representative present, not to cross examine, but to address, if needed, any issue that might need further clarification in order to determine liability as between government and church. The government of Canada also had a lawyer present with the same role to play. And finally, the claimants were asked if they would like to have a representative of the church present. That person’s role was to respectfully hear the evidence and, in the case of the United Church at least, to offer words of apology, acknowledgement and regret. It was this latter role that I played in a number of hearings.

The protocol established by the General Council was that I first read the apology offered by our Moderator in 1998 and then added my own statement if I felt it appropriate. It was always appropriate to offer my own words since First Nations have an understandable hesitation about giving too much weight to written words. Nonetheless the read apology was respectfully heard. I will read an abridged version to you now:

From the deepest reaches of your memories, you have shared with us your stories of suffering from our church’s involvement in the operation of Indian Residential Schools. You have shared the personal and historic pain that you still bear, and you have been vulnerable yet again. You have also shared with us your strength and wisdom born of the life-giving dignity of your communities and traditions and your stories of survival…On behalf of The United Church of Canada, I apologize for the pain and suffering that our church’s involvement in the Indian Residential School system has caused. We are aware of some of the damage that this cruel and ill-conceived system of assimilation has perpetrated on Canada’s First Nations peoples. For this we are truly and most humbly sorry. …You did nothing wrong. You were and are the victims of evil acts that cannot under any circumstances be justified or excused. …we are the bearers of many blessings from our ancestors, and therefore, we must also bear their burdens. Our burdens include dishonouring the depths of the struggles of First Nations peoples and the richness of your gifts. …As we take steps toward building respectful, compassionate, and loving relationships with First Nations peoples. …As we travel this difficult road of repentance, reconciliation, and healing, we commit ourselves to work toward ensuring that we will never again use our power as a church to hurt others with attitudes of racial and spiritual superiority. “We pray that you will hear the sincerity of our words today and that you will witness the living out of our apology in our actions in the future.”

As a witness to the testimony of these folks I heard stories as harrowing as Willie Blackwater’s. Some of them haunt me still. I also heard stories of resilience and of mutual support of students, one for another. Some students spoke fondly of some of their teachers and appreciatively of the education they received, but the loss of culture and language was too high a price for any of them to have willingly paid.

One of the stories that really struck me was of a woman who, as a young girl, was locked in a closet and denied dinner for speaking the only language she knew. “We never used food to punish children in my village” she told the commission. Not the most serious abuse perhaps, but it caught my heart because it conveyed how profound the sense of bewilderment at being thrust into a strange culture was for these children.

There was one hearing I attended where the claimant told of gross and repeated sexual abuse at Alberni Residential School. He was quiet and dignified, almost matter of fact in the way he spoke. But the depth of the damage done to this man could be understood from his voluminous medical record over years of extreme alcohol abuse.

I read the apology to him and spoke my own words of regret and he received them quietly, but that night he came by the home of the local minister with whom I was staying. She told me that he wanted to speak to her about the hearing and he told her in a voice of almost childlike amazement, “you know the church sent someone out here to apologize to me. All that way, all these years later, but they apologized, to me.”

Does a little humility make things right? Of course not. But humility from those who did great harm by acting out of arrogance is a necessary first step toward reconciliation. For this one man at least, it was a first step that helped restore in him the awareness that he was a beloved child of God, worthy of respect. May we continue to move forward as a church with all the children and communities we harmed toward the day when we can embrace each other in the assurance that we are all beloved of God.


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