Monday, 7 April 2014
General Secretary's Weekly Letter
April 4, 2014
I was in Edmonton last week for the whole week. I haven’t been travelling a lot since taking on family responsibilities three years ago, but this was important.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created out of the settlement agreement between Aboriginal groups, churches, and the federal government to address the legacy of Indian Residential Schools, held its seventh and final national event It was the same week that all of the Conference Executive Secretaries and Speaker would normally have gathered in Toronto to meet with management staff from the General Council Office for our semi-annual “staff leaders” meeting, so we held those meetings in Edmonton instead to enable the whole group to be part of the Truth and Reconciliation event.
The United Church of Canada was instrumental in forging the settlement agreement 8 years ago and, with the leadership of successive Moderators and the Indigenous Justice and Residential Schools Committee, this work has been high priority for us ever since. With the Commission’s mandate just over a year from completion, the Commissioners are entering their writing phase, and the churches and other parties are reflecting on the work that will need to continue after the Commission’s work is completed.
For anyone who has not been to any of the national or regional Truth and Reconciliation events, I can just say that they are a powerful experience. Well, I will say more, but in saying it I recognize that whatever I tell will convey so much less than having direct encounters and hearing the stories of individual survivors.
There were a lot of United Church people there: in addition to the Moderator and staff leaders, there were many from Alberta and Northwest Conference and neighbouring Conferences, significant groups from Toronto Conference and the All Native Circle Conference, and the president of London Conference. I kept running into people I knew, and I know there were many others I didn’t see. I was struck by comments from people who had heard about these issues for years, and were surprised to find the depth of understanding that came through experiencing this event. Hearing the stories, told with anger and with grace, simply is terribly moving.
I was one who approached the event with some degree of apprehension. I’ve heard some of these painful stories before and seen the impacts of the residential schools on friends and colleagues. I knew it would be a painful time, and it was. It was also an uplifting time and a time of learning. I’ve encountered some of the difficult stories before, but there is so much that I haven’t heard, that I don’t know. For any of us who did not attend residential school, we will never fully comprehend the experience, and can always seek deeper understanding.
Being the United Church representative in a listening circle with a group of survivors was an uncomfortable yet precious experience. The experiences those survivors told have left strong images in my mind of the children they were and the things they experienced.
Here was a young teen sent home after a year at her school because of her rebellious nature, now doing healing work helping others in her community come to grips with the aftermath of their residential school experiences.
Here was a lonely 6-year-old who wanted to go to school to be with his older sisters, but wasn’t allowed to talk to them at the school. Instead he talked to the moon he saw out the window at night and thought of it shining over his parents at home, too. The gentle elder remembering these things said he learned to cope by supressing his emotions.
Here was an elder who has shared traditional spiritual practices with people in his First Nation, and others across Canada and in other parts of the world. A holy man. He studied the Bible at residential school, but knows the sacred truths it contains were broken in the way the students were treated.
Here was an elder telling of his 4-year-old self leaving on a boat, and looking back to see his mother crying on the shore. The abuse that followed at the school was so shockingly different from what he had known at home. Sixty years later, the sense of desolation is still there.
There are common threads through these experiences, and yet each story is unique, personal, and important.
Statements made on behalf of the United Church, and the Canadian Council of Churches, left me feeling both proud and humble.
Many elements of the event were livestreamed , and we have posted videos on the United Church’s YouTube channel. There was so much to hear, and so much to say about the experience of hearing these things.
The Truth and Reconciliation experience is heavy, but not unrelentingly so. Part of the way survivors cope is by enjoying visits with schoolmates, sharing funny memories, looking at pictures of themselves as kids, and lifting up hopes for better lives for children and grandchildren.
Personally, I found balance in enjoying visits with church friends, northern friends, First Nations and Inuit friends, non-Aboriginal friends, survivors, and the next generations.
It is in relationship, as well as lifting up the painful stories that must never be forgotten, that we will, together, figure out the things to do to make sure that these things are never repeated. There is a place for all in our church, and all Canadians, in this process.
Peace be with you.