Fall 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 2 · pp. 150–151 

From the Editor: Missions and Indigenous Peoples

Vic Froese

Not all missionary stories have happy endings. In Canada, one of the most ambitious domestic mission programs has recently been roundly condemned as a collective act of genocide. Some critics go so far as to call it a crime against humanity. I am referring to the Indian Residential School system that operated in Canada for over 100 years. Government funded and church administered, the program had about 130 separate schools operating across the country. One hundred and fifty thousand First Nation, Métis, and Inuit children went through the system, where teachers permitted them few expressions of their Native culture, often forbade them from speaking their mother tongue, and required them to participate in Christian religious observances. Even worse, an estimated 4,000 young residents died of malnutrition and disease, and many were emotionally, physically, and even sexually abused. Canada’s largest churches (Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and the United Church of Canada) staffed and administered the schools for all but the last twenty-seven years of the Residential School era.

In 2008, the government of Canada issued a formal apology to survivors of Residential Schools for the grievous harm done to children and to the communities from which they were taken. All churches involved in the school operations have likewise offered formal or informal apologies for their part in a project that saw good intentions go badly wrong. For many survivors and their families, healing has finally begun. For others, the wounds are too deep.

The association of Christianity with the brutalities of Residential Schools makes it easy to understand why many Natives today want nothing to do with our faith. It also makes it remarkable that significant numbers of Indigenous people remain deeply Christian. In fact, Native Christianity has matured to the point where strong spiritual leaders and theologians have emerged from their midst, intelligently articulating theological views enriched by traditional spiritual sensibilities and practices.

We are pleased that several Christian theologians connected with the innovative North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS) have contributed articles to this issue: Terry LeBlanc (Mi’kmaq-Acadian), one of the founders of NAIITS; Ray Aldred (Cree), current chair of NAIITS; and Cornelius Buller, a non-Native founding member of NAIITS. Each is convinced of the need to contextualize the gospel for Indigenous peoples by appropriating, adapting, and learning from their beliefs, symbols, and practices to deepen and fortify Christian faith. They are equally convinced that we rationalistic Western Christians have much to learn from Native spiritual traditions about, among other things, the {151} all-pervasiveness of the Divine Spirit in the human and natural world, and how it binds us tightly together.

Brian Gobbett, Rod Wilson, and Deanna Zantingh offer perspectives on mission to Indigenous peoples as sympathetic participant-observers. Brian writes about Native missions as a keen historian and anthropologist with a special interest in First Nations concerns. Rod, a retired professor of anthropology himself, has spent considerable time with Aboriginals in various settings and shares mission lessons he has learned. Deanna, a Master of Theology student, offers thoughts on missions stimulated by her many experiences with the troubled but resilient Mishkeegogamang First Nation community in northern Ontario.

Doug Heidebrecht’s paper outlines what a Mennonite Brethren theology of peace might look like. While it does not directly address issues raised in the other articles, his piece brings up an important question: If peace must have a central place in the Mennonite Brethren theological vision, what difference does that make to how we do mission?

Also included here is the text of a statement by representatives of Mennonite Central Committee Canada and four Canadian Anabaptist-Mennonite conferences (including our own Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches). It was presented to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Edmonton, Alberta, in March of this year. Along with expressions of sorrow at the suffering of Residential School survivors and of repentance for Mennonite racist attitudes, the statement commits Mennonites to dialogue with Aboriginal peoples, to show them hospitality, and to walk together with them into a healthier and more just future.

Ministry Compass features a wonderful sermon preached by Lori Ransom (Algonquin) on Ascension Sunday in 2009. Lori’s sermon not only communicates the yearning for reconciliation with non-Native Canadians that many Aboriginals feel but also initiates that reconciliation by reaching out to us and even to those who ran and taught in Residential Schools.

My hope and prayer is that the reflections printed in these pages will make us wiser, more empathetic, more ready to stand with our society’s “least.” May it be so.

Vic Froese, General Editor