In the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, Canadians increasingly view Christianity as the enemy of Indigenous people.
The “truth,” as conveyed mostly through the mass media, has shone a harsh light on the federally funded, church-run residential schools for Indigenous youth, almost all of which closed by the 1970s.
The “reconciliation” part of the TRC process has received far less attention. But inter-spiritual reconciliation has been going in through a variety of Canadian church denominations for decades, including for 32 years at the Vancouver School of Theology on the University of B.C. campus.
VST has long offered an Indigenous Studies program for aboriginals from throughout, B.C., Canada and the world, which has worked to bring “the best of Indigenous Christianity into the framework of traditional Indigenous practice,” according to VST’s Shannon Lythgoe.
More than 50 graduates from VST’s Indigenous Studies program have gone to take leadership roles in aboriginal communities across Canada and beyond, says program director Ray Aldred, who is Cree.
This month VST announced it is the recipient of a $400,000 grant from the Luce Foundation. The funds will be used to expand its efforts to blend Christianity with an “Indigenous understanding of knowledge, sharing, celebrating, story-telling and Biblical interpretation,” according to Lythgoe.
Almost two in three Canadian aboriginals call themselves Christian, according to the 2011 National Household Survey.
I asked Ray Aldred to put together a guest blog post, below, in which he describes the significance of the $400,000 grant in light of VST’s ongoing work with aboriginals:
Over its 32-year history of intentional interaction with Indigenous peoples, the Indigenous Studies Program at the Vancouver School of Theology has developed into a program that is intuitively fulfilling many of the action items of the TRC. The program was the result of VST responding to Indigenous leaders’ request to make room for Indigenous peoples to celebrate, examine and express their spiritualities.
In an effort to continue to respond to what Indigenous communities are requesting, the Indigenous Studies program is developing “The Teaching House that Moves Around.” It’s styled after the elders’ teaching house or lodge. The teaching house provides space to work out the complicated nature of Indigenous identity within the Christian Church.
Western theological education has a propensity to focus almost entirely upon clergy competence, but we want to shift to focus upon ways to further develop the competency of the whole community.
Fifty graduates from the Indigenous Studies program have gone to take leadership roles in their communities. They include Rev. Willard Martin, Elder in the Nisga’a nation and current coordinator for the Anglican Sacred Circle. Others are leading Indigenous churches. Rev. Scott Furukawa is currently the pastor at Waialua United Church of Christ in Hawaii, where he serves a diverse community of Filipino, Japanese and Caucasian members.
Others, like Rev. Mary Fontaine, have developed ministries that empower other Indigenous people, as well as helping Canadians decolonize their churches and hearts. Mary has lead Hummingbirds Ministry for over 10 years with a group of Cree, Metis, and Squamish elders. They have a strong mandate of reconnecting Indigenous children to their traditions under the Elders’ guidance, in an effort to restore the broken relationships resulting from colonial establishments such as residential schools.
The awarding of the $400,000 dollar grant by Henry Luce Foundation to ground theological education in Indigenous communities will provide an opportunity to further develop and expand our program, but more importantly, it will help VST to continue to put the Indigenous agenda as its own agenda. Not that VST would seek to lead but always responding to the call to actions from the Indigenous community. We are merely following in the memories and imagination of those who have gone before, seeking to realize our hope in those who will come after; to be co-laborers in the present as we work to effect reconciliation and the growth of the church and society that holds Turtle Island – also called Canada – as sacred.