Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The ugly American

Yes, that's me.

As long as you're in the majority, you can feel quite noble about teaching English to an Iraqi family. You can even feel quite clever that from one week to the next, you remember (mostly) how to count to 10, say "thank you," "good bye," and "same thing" in Arabic.

But it's humbling when you barely scrape through a brief conversation in French, always desperately grasping for words and having to stop yourself from tutoyer-ing.

And it's even more humbling when you join a group several of whom could speak English to you but among themselves can also converse in Spanish, Portuguese and German.

That humility, however, is the key to getting beyond my sad communication situation. The embarrassment of never quite keeping up with what's going on. The ignominy of trying to speak -- and being wrong. The mortification of having worse grammar than a three-year old. The frustration that nearly all significant conversation is out of reach due to your limited vocabulary and even your banal attempts can be stymied by poor pronunciation.

Yet, to avoid the shame of being that ugly, ethnocentric monoglot, I must be willing that my speech be uncouth, inelegant, and imprecise.

There's really no way past it without going through it.

En avant!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015


For an event centred around redress for horrific, sustained, systemic abuse of vulnerable people within a country, the tone was remarkably hopeful.

The officers of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were serious, unafraid of speaking hard words, firmly denouncing the cultural genocide and calmly but insistently calling Canadians to a better future.

This is a Canadian story, not an indigenous one. That was repeated over again. Regardless of whether an individual is complicit in any way with the residential schools (e.g., affiliation with decision-making governments of the past or involved churches), all Canadians bear a responsibility to acknowledge our shameful history and seek a better way forward.

Mayor Brian Bowman, unsurprisingly, spoke of the importance of moving forward, for the health of our communities, city and country, calling Canadians to take action to support positive change. We heard this from him after the Macleans article, and I have no doubt his heart is in it. What remains to be seen is how he takes action through policies and budgets to support his words.

Also unsurprisingly, Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak gave an unvarnished challenge, evoking the plague of missing and murdered indigenous women and the tragically disproportionate number of Aboriginal children in care as signs of continuing colonial mindsets. He urged those present to make change in this lifetime so the next generation isn’t calling for another TRC around First Nations young people apprehended by Child and Family Services in 40 years.

Yet, “We gather in hope,” said the elder who mc’d the local gathering at University of Winnipeg on June 2, 2015. (I thought it was Lavallee, but may have ascribed that name to the wrong person.)
Treaty Commissioner James Wilson also spoke of hope amid the burden of facing the terrible truth of the past. He wanted to point a way forward where native and non-native could “walk gently together to turn our greatest shame into our greatest source of pride.”

Another theme was relationship and family.

With the treaties, we entered a relationship, said Annette Trimbee, president of the University of Winnipeg. It did not go well historically, but in the present, she wishes the U of W to be a place that acknowledges that connection between the land and its history and makes it known through more than formalized learning.

Aboriginal families showed remarkable resilience, observed Commissioner Wilton Littlechild via live feed from Ottawa. In those unspeakably tragic cases where the students died before returning home, the government succeeded in permanently separating children from their families, and the schools did wreak havoc on the survivors who often grew up to parent their children in the model of the heavy-handed and abusive treatment they received at the schools, patterns which are likely connected to the CFS crisis we currently see. But in general, the families returned to each other; the bonds, though damaged, remained. “Family is critical to the journey of reconciliation,” Littlechild said.

The elder mc called for a new attitude. “I’m tired, I’m fed up with people who want to help,” he said. “We don’t need help; we need relatives.” Family love us even when we’re weak and broken or just a bit crazy. He spoke of how the residential schools took away the students’ confidence in their capacity. “To be healthy, we must learn to be together in dignity.”

Here, he slipped into a third theme of the morning – spirituality. Manitoba is based on the Cree meaning Creator’s resting place. The elder’s language was familiar as he spoke of the need for transformation.

Reconciliation is a spiritual journey, emphasized broadcaster and educator Wab Kinew by pre-recorded video.

Littlechild called for a return to spirituality through language, culture and the land. There is a sacred trust, he said.

One call that particularly caused me to take notice was Commissioner Marie Wilson’s demand that denominational schools ensure their comparative religion courses include teaching on Aboriginal spiritualty – facilitated by an accredited First Nations person. This will be a challenge for some, as evidenced by MCC’s brouhaha with Immanuel Pentecostal Church. I don’t think evangelicals like comparative religion, except so far as learning about another religion gives the apologist better tools to convert the (in their mind, inappropriately-attached) believer.

Commissioner and Justice Murray Sinclair, via live feed from Ottawa, said we must apologize and atone and support the healing journey. This is a beginning, not an end.

It was an event for Aboriginal voices, a time for First Nations people to assert their dignity and capability and say what they need to say in their own way. But there were other voices. There were heads of churches – Anglican, United – whose apologies appeared in video montages. There were clips of former prime ministers speaking from the heart about Canada’s need to work toward reconciliation for the horrors of residential schools. Missing was any representative of the current government. Perhaps it was not their place to be speaking at this time, but their absence from any part of the proceedings was noticeable. In the local crowd, the absence of leaders from my own denomination was a marked omission to me, though I didn’t see who sat in the overflow, and perhaps my boss and I would count for some as representatives. I also saw no evidence of the police force, though of course, out of uniform, I would not recognize anyone other than Clunis. Given the disproportionate number of Aboriginal people in prison as well, the lack of visible law enforcement presence was also discouraging.

Sure, it’s just a ceremony, a formality. But if this event isn’t on our radar, have we any hope to get involved in the long, messy and painful work of reconciliation?

And that is where we must start. Walking together, in equal dignity, with gifts to receive and gifts to share.

Littlechild left us with 7 simple words (which are in fact two phrases short of a Jesuit prayer) we need to speak to each other: I’m sorry. I love you. Thank you.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Are we done with that yet?

Not even close.

Ry Moran of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, established at the University of Manitoba to serve as an archive and continuing holding, research and service and education centre for materials around Canada's Indian Residential Schools, emphatically but without rancour asserted that it is almost offensive and certainly lacking compassion for members of majority culture to say indigenous people should just "get over it already."

Moran gave a presentation on the centre at Bethel Mennonite Church, May 20, 2015, sponsored also by MCC and KAIROS. Housed in Chancellor Hall at the U of M (an ironically colonial edifice, but a building of honour on campus, located in a serene, wooded spot along the river), the centre's tagline is "built on integrity, trust and dignity."

Moran's aspect conveys dignity and his impassioned presentation spoke of the need to establish trust between indigenous and majority peoples in Canada.

One of the ways trust was broken is that not only were the treaties not honoured by white Canadians, it was through education -- which First Nations people requested in good faith, knowing their children would need to respond to the changing world around them -- that violence was perpetuated on aboriginal peoples.

"It was a direct attack on families," Moran says. Not an argument I've heard before, but one that makes sense, and, again, multiplies the sense of betrayal that the government's "educational" strategies for First Nations youth would aim at disconnecting the backbone of a communal culture.

Once he finished his presentation, the floor was open to questions and comments. The theme that quickly impressed itself on me in both the questions and Moran's responses was education.

"Education is how we got into this mess and it's how we're going to get out of it," Moran said earlier in the evening and it was driven home.

Moran's tips for how we can move toward reconciliation all revolve around education:
  • learn
  • understand
  • explore (i.e. learn more!); push against the status quo
  • recognize contributions of Aboriginal people
  • take action
  • teach others.
In other words, get education, transform your behaviour as a result, then educate others.

"The majority of society doesn't fundamentally understand the particular challenges and concerns of indigenous people in Canada," says Moran. 

Besides understanding the generational trauma wrought on a people and the effort required to begin to heal the wounds, there is also an understanding required of what reconciliation itself is all about.

Reconciliation is both a goal and a process, says Moran. It's a journey that doesn't go in a straight path. Real change is needed, but sometimes things can get worse in the process of trying to make them better, he observed, mentioning South Africa as a place that has experienced some of the latter.

And, of course, it takes a long time.

Through it all, addressing a mostly white audience, a mostly Mennonite audience -- that is, a group that was for the most part not complicit in the government or church aspects of the residential school, but one that certain has pockets of self-sufficient, paternalistic people who may be quick to voice the hurtful sentiment "why can't they just get over it?!" -- Moran was well spoken, and more importantly, gracious and hopeful. Despite having worked for the TRC for years hearing dreadful personal testimonies of heinous treatment children received in residential schools, he spoke of the need for reconciliation without bitterness or blame. That said, he was quite clear that majority Canadian society have not yet taken ownership of our responsibility for the harm that was inflicted.

It was an audience member who insisted that the path between truth and reconciliation is not as short as the title suggests. Repentance, confession and forgiveness must lie in between, the audience member said. We must admit our wrongdoing and truly accept our responsibility and need for change and for forgiveness before the deep and restorative work of reconciliation can really take place.

So, no, we're not done with truth and reconciliation yet. The multi-year national commission and cross-country event process may be drawing to a close next weekend, but as for reconciliation? We've only just begun.

*post likely to contain many grammatical errors. Ongoing editing to ensue. But I suspect I managed to beat Esther Epp-Thiessen (who sat next to me, scribbling in her notebook as well) to blog reflections on the event, though hers will likely be more thoughtful than mine.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Mystery worshipper

In my job, I have opportunity (and feel slightly obligated) to attend other churches. The experience of walking into an unfamiliar worshipping community has become quite familiar. So there's less raw emotion & fear of rejection, and more clinical detachment & analysis of patterns in my approach to the situation.

Frankly, as a single person, I'm fairly accustomed to walking into places by myself, and as an ambivert, I'm equally okay with lurking around the edges without speaking to anyone and being greeted and dragged into conversation. As far as churches in my denomination go, I generally know a fair bit about the church and its pastor(s). So I recognize that my perspective may not be shared by others.

I realized, walking into a strange church last Sunday, that I was kind of a "mystery worshipper" -- a stranger who goes into a service and provides commentary on it.

Perhaps unlike some mystery worshippers, there are certain theological emphases I look for in churches of my denomination, particular words I want to hear and some I don't. I look around the sanctuary to see if the congregation is visibly homogenous or whether it offers the suggestion of diversity. I observe how many voices are heard from the stage and whether there's any gender diversity there.

The congregational singing is always interesting. It's less important that the band be professional, though I do always hope for solidly competent with a leader who knows how to lead, not merely sing into a mic. Does the congregation sing along? Do they know how to harmonize? (The presence of hymnals -- albeit ragged, stained and neglected -- in the pew pleased me as did the singing of the hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy," but my enjoyment of an acapella verse was severely marred by the fact that I couldn't hear a single voice other than my own singing the lovely, simple, moving alto line. On the other hand, robust man-singing almost made up for it.)

However, much of this is theory, semantics. I don't want to reinvigorate worship wars. We all could probably bear having some of our linguistic tics pointed out. Where the rubber truly hits the road with mystery worshipper visits is the friendliness quotient. This is probably one of the hardest to change, because it's not just tweaking wording or shifting programming; it costs something to be friendly. Something is required of us to welcome a stranger. Hospitality, in fact, is not free -- it demands we give something of ourselves.

This church was halfway there. I was warmly greeted at the door by professional smilers who held the door open to usher me in. But there's a reason Wal-mart greeters are a stereotype calculated for dismissal. An obligatory greeting is better than none...but not by much. There's really no exchange in that interaction; the script has been written to keep things moving along. Greeters aren't bad, they just don't count toward a genuine sense of actually meeting someone at church to lay the possibility of a relationship, which, I think, is a big part of what we are looking for in a church home. That's why we use the language of family.

Similarly, whatever version of the passing of the peace/turn-and-greet-your-neighbour a church does is a worthy practice (regardless of the distress it may cause the shyest introverts), but unless people are doing more than handshaking and peace-invoking, it will not create the impression in the visitor that hospitality has occurred.

I walked out of the church without a single individual having addressed me as a human being rather than an obligation.

I don't necessarily judge, for in such a large church, how is one to know who is new and who simply sat in a different part of the sanctuary, or came to the early service instead of the late one. And even in a small church like my own, it is so easy to turn to my friends and begin to share our weeks, or to start running down the list of people I need to speak with on committee issues. But if community really is a value, and if God's love for us is to be experienced personally and individually, not facelessly or collectively, we need to make sure that anyone who walks through our doors gets a taste of our belief that each person is created in the image of God, loved deeply and fully by him, and therefore, of value to us too.

I'm a proponent of commitment to a local church body, but I do think any regular churchgoer should on occasion put him or herself in a strange-to-me church situation, preferrably alone. Seeing another body's rhythms from an outside perspective provides helpful insights for what works well or doesn't in your own community, and helps you experience what it's like to be the outsider. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Postscript to the postscript

Have I fallen prey to my own pet peeve, defeating my own argument? Is four-part harmony singing "culturally" Mennonite, like paska and schmaunfat?

I argue vociferously, no.

It may be true that choral-quality congregational singing is a feature of mainly of North American churches populated mainly by socio/ethno/cultural or DGR/S Mennonites, but this is a tradition which, regardless of the original intent in its adoption, has theological value.

In this age, we are re-learning to appreciate visual imagery in worship, but through most of Anabaptist history, the values of simplicity and humility stripped ostentatious beauty from our religious practice...except in our singing. And even that is a recent development, the four-part tradition only arising in the 19th century (I think).

The tremendous importance I ascribe to singing fully harmonized hymns is not based in conservatism or tradition but in its living expression of our value of community. Through part-singing, simultaneously, but differently, we work together to present a beautiful offering to God.

Furthermore, congregational worship is not a spectator sport -- it should require participation. We run a greater risk of leaving a religious gathering utterly unchanged if we are merely entertained, never called upon to partake in rhythms or actions directed at God (and, in some ways, ourselves and each other) in concert with the body. Hymn-singing affords the opportunity for all ages to participate in our liturgy.

So, although a love of hymn singing (particularly a weakness for German hymns like Gott ist die Liebe) may be a characteristic of the farmer-sausage-eating set, it is not a cultural hang-up we need to set aside in order to better be the diverse, welcoming, learning-minded church God wants us to be.

Who wants to join me In the Rifted Rock?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

MCC Manitoba 50th gala

“Clark – is that even Mennonite?!”

It’s a bit disheartening that we’re still saying things like this today when we’ve worked so hard to convey that a Mennonite is someone who subscribes to an Anabaptist perspective on faith, not a person named Penner who likes farmer sausage. But is does make a good story – and the Right Honourable Joe Clark handled it with aplomb. 

“I am a Mennonite by aspiration,” he said.

Amid the many definitions of Mennonite, this statement might still be discouraging, but in the context of Mennonite Central Committee’s 50th anniversary gala, it was just right. Especially as the former prime minister remembered how Mennonite churches, with the help of MCC, “did more for the boat people” than anyone else in Canada during the refugee crisis of the late 1970s, early 1980s.

Clark praised several other noteworthy MCC responses to world problems, like its work through the CanadianFoodgrains Bank to not only provide food relief during the Ethiopian famine but to stay long-term, managing distribution and rebuilding. He named MCC reps Ken and Linda Stucky who welcomed dignitaries into their home in East Jerusalem as Canada talked with Palestinian leaders about their right to self-determination. 

And he praised MCC – an organization driven by Christian faith (“in the name of Christ” being an imperative part of every iteration of its tagline) – for extending care as readily to people of other faiths and those with no faith. He commended this impulse to work outside our zones of familiarity.
Here was his challenge to us. That we continue. “In a world where examples of conflict are grievous and expanding, we Canadians need to give higher priority to humanitarian dimension of our character,” said Clark. The peace and development emphases that have consistently been MCC’s gift to the world are needed more than ever.

“Positive change can happen – does happen – where people work for the common good.”

This resonated with an exhortation I recently heard from Rabbi Alan Green of Shaarey Zedek: We are living in a new moment in history, he said, when we can actually meet and live alongside people of other races and religions, both in physical proximity and through the world-shrinking capacity of the internet. At this open invitation interfaith celebration of Seder, Green was modelling how this harmony of difference is not merely a co-existence of peaceful tolerance but of curiosity and respect for each other’s beliefs.

This is the kind of world Clark was asking us to see as he invited us to “get on a bus” we’ve never been on before. He was referring to a story he told of taking a bunch of foreign dignitaries up the Banff-Jasper highway by coach when snowstorms cancelled air travel. He’d remarked to the prince of Brunei that it was probably the first time the man had been in a snowstorm. A dignitary from Indonesia leaned over and told Clark, this is the first time His Highness has been on a bus.  

“We simply have to learn more about the lives of people who’ve been on a different bus,” said Clark.

Here, he explicitly mentioned practitioners of Islam who are both frustrated by co-religionists who do violence and atrocities in the name of truth faith, and mistrusted by neighbours of other or no faith who fear all expressions of Islam. Yet the Syrian refugee families we welcome now are not so very different than the refugee Mennonites from Russia for whom in large part MCC was started to help.
Our assignment for the next 50 years? “The challenge of a strong reputation is the expectation that you keep on earning it.”

Amen. Mennonite Central Committee and constituents, may we not rest on our laurels, but continue to see new people and places that need intervention; may we “get on different buses,” have new experiences, and never stop learning. 


1. Little mention was made of the fact this event was held almost 6 months after the original date due to a last minute cancellation. The original venue had pulled the plug a day before the event when it was discovered that one of the performing groups, an Aboriginal healing drum circle, intended to hold a smudge ceremony on the premises. In a city famous for marginalizing its Aboriginal citizens, MCC Manitoba chose to bear the cost of cancellation rather than sideline these performers, no matter how little their role.

2. Glancing through the program, I felt a twinge of sadness. How can you have a Mennonite event without congregational singing? Clearly, my sentiment was shared because an impromptu hymn, "Be Thou My Vision," was added to the program after the offering. Unfortunately, the venue’s hymnal wasn’t available to all singers, so between potentially faulty memories and multiple versions of familiar verses, we weren’t always singing the same words, but it was gratifying nonetheless so be singing together -- a picture of community.

In fact, congregational singing had not entirely been forgotten. The closing song, an original piece Timothy Corlis commissioned for the event, interwove a hymn of creation with Aboriginal songs, a German hymn, and congregational singing on verse 2 of “Come Let Us All United to Sing.”