How does The United Church “of Canada” contribute to the health and healing of Canada?
In the days immediately before and after Canada Day, I’ve been immersed in experiences that prompt this question: the events surrounding the G8/G20 (including the World Religious Leaders’ Summit); our own Journeys of Black Peoples gathering; activities related to the Queen’s visit, including the Official Dinner with her Majesty this week; and more. In all of them, I see evidence of how holy, healing Spirit is moving through people of faith.
I hope to write about each of these, but let me begin with yet another—the extraordinary Remembering the Children Ceremony that took place at Fort Normandeau, Alberta, last week.
God’s healing work of soul and community was evident as hundreds were welcomed to the river bank to remember the children who attended the Red Deer Industrial School (1893–1919, managed by the Methodist church, so “one of ours”) and especially those buried in the associated cemetery. Spirit’s signature was in every quiet sob, each wisp of sacred fire smoke, and gentle breezes over water, through trees.
It was a bright, hot day reminiscent of any last day of school. And those seeking this particular end-of-school release were of all ages. The names of over 300 former students were read aloud. Some elders wept as the names of their parents and parents’ siblings were read.
Children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren accompanied the elders fully. On any other day these children and teens might be playing in such a crowd, or at least off on their own, but today they stood silently and respectfully, often representing their family as they stepped forward to receive a token of remembrance. “Look, there’s his great-granddaughter going up,” I heard from beside me.
The tokens—small stones sewn into pouches—were offered for the families of each former student. An old woman behind me held hers tightly, saying to her daughter, “This is good medicine.” A woman in her thirties reached over to hand her rock to her daughter. Clearly she wanted to say something as she offered the rock—but couldn’t. The silence of the stone was eloquence enough.
Hospitality to all was extended by the Four Bands of Hobbema, Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (Nelson House, Manitoba), Paul First Nation, Stoney Nakoda First Nation, Saddle Lake Cree First Nation, Whitefish First Nation (Goodfish), the Métis Nation of Alberta—and by The United Church of Canada.
It was the people of Sunnybrook United Church who got all of this started. In 2005 they began working to protect the residential school cemetery as a gesture of healing and reconciliation—a way of living into our communal words of apology. With the support of the broader church (Alberta and Northwest Conference and the General Council) they reached out to former students and their families.
Along the way, their mandate and their number grew. They extended their work to include exploring the history and legacy of the school. And the Working Group on the Red Deer Industrial School Cemetery was formed with both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal leadership.
What happened on June 30th was amazing. Students’ families were appropriately the most honoured guests. Others (with some overlap) included all three national Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners, Resolution Health Support workers, political leaders, church leaders including myself, and interested members of the public. The reading of the names of all former students, with honour songs and a feast to remember the children, Métis dancing and fiddling, and speeches all served to release the souls of the children. Our church’s words of apology were seen and heard again—and, by some, for the first time.
I left Fort Normandeau that day knowing that, while much work remains, a huge step in the process of healing had been taken. Chief Commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair spoke about the tragedy of the “missing children”—children whose whereabouts after attending the school remain unknown—and of the necessity of efforts such as these to separate truth from rumour. Commissioner Marie Wilson paid tribute to the many years of United Church leadership in this healing work.
I am convinced that this locally inspired activity represents a model of healing for our nation. It’s not about some grand national strategy initiated from one central place. It is about particular communities taking their part in God’s healing work seriously enough to invest in the hard work of learning, relationship-building, and change. By asking for and receiving the support of the Conference and the General Council, we are able to learn and work together—and inspire other communities in similar paths.
Following Sunnybrook United’s example, what would it mean for my community to take healing action? What would it mean for you to do the same? These are worthy questions that help us participate in God’s healing of soul, community and creation.
And as I said near the end of my remarks at the Remembering the Children ceremony:
Our hearts will be broken again and we will take heart together. May we all commit ourselves to walking together, eating together, enjoying and caring for creation together, being in circle together. May we have the courage—the heart—to live by Creator’s ways of truth and healing.