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.”

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Sky high

Blue sky
60 PSI
Tall and skinny
Hello, spring!

AKA, after spending more than an hour with degreaser and a toothbrush, splattering the walls and floor with fine black grime, I managed to partially degunk my chain. It's time to put the fat lady away for the season and bump over the streets on this slender girl. Repacking my headset and bottom bracket with grease can wait -- it needn't prevent me from waking my Skyline from hibernation. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The alternate universe of fat biking

It changes the whole experience of biking, said one of the guys at the shop.

He wasn't just talk about the extra stability and snow-busting power of the extra-wide tires.

Having had my bike for a week at that point, I thought I knew what he was talking about. Sort of.

Sometimes, I wish I could just have a normal ride like old days without someone commenting on my fat bike, he said ruefully.

I haven't had quite the extreme experience he refers to, but the interactions I now have around winter cycling are certainly very different than with my mountain bike.

Then, people would ignore me "in person" (that is, in my building, or when I was locking up), and swear at me from their cars.

Now, everybody has to comment. Cool tires! (Look at the width, people; I didn't just switch these out with whatever the store put on a mountain bike -- the whole frame had to be redesigned to fit these puppies.) Now that's a good bike for winter. (As though you would know because you've tried it?) Look at that bike!

But the clincher today was when a man in his car rolled down his window at a stoplight, not to swear or chastise, as was the most common reaction with my mountain bike, but to start a conversation about my fat bike.

Yes, we have truly entered a different world.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The anti-bike blog


I do not think [that word] means what you think it means

It has become a weekly, almost daily occurrence. A how-to article or blog post will come across my path – usually in my facebook feed – touting the wonders of winter cycling.

Not one to learn a lesson quickly, I keep clicking on them. Inevitably, I navigate away in frustration.

It’s fun! It’s easy! Anyone can do it! You don’t need special gear; you can even look chic while you’re doing it. Oh, and get off your high horse – being a winter cyclist doesn’t make you special.

This is the message of all these articles.

Lies, I tell you.

Now, far be it from me to dissuade people from cycling, but I think we may need different words for the varying circumstances that fall under the umbrella term “winter cycling.”

Take Vancouver and Seattle, for example, where bicycle enthusiasts will talk about “winter” cycling. I’ll grant you that a bone-chilling, relentless, drenching rain is its own special brand of miserable to bike in, but it’s not -40C before windchill.

Toronto and New York, I believe you that a repeating cycle of freeze and thaw makes for treacherous, icy roads, but it’s not 2 months straight of -20C and below when nary a snowflake melts.

Montreal, I understand that fresh snow, while beautiful and peaceful, is a bit of a challenge to bike through – because we get that too.

It just seems like winter cycling in Winnipeg and Saskatoon and Yellowknife is in a different league than the fair-weather cities where the authors of these articles evidently dwell. Those of us who cycle year round in continental extreme may not be superhuman (ask anyone I went to high school with and they’d fall over laughing if you used words like “athletic” or “energetic” or “hard core” [not followed by “nerd”] to describe me) but we do have an extra measure of stubbornness or persistence in the face of discomfort and potential danger. It’s probably more a mental strength than a physical strength, but the point is, I don’t think “anyone can do it” quite cuts it.

It may not require special gear, but at very least, it takes the kind of appropriate winter wear pathological drivers often neglect to own. And frankly, it IS easier with special gear.

You don’t need to wear ski goggles and a neoprene and fleece mask that makes you look like Darth Vader, but it sure is easier when you do.

You don’t need the special lobster mitts or the fantastic handlebar encasing hand-warming system pogies, but you’re likely going to want better mitts than the fancy but paper thin leather gloves you wear in your car.

As for looking chic while you do it – thank you, Amsterdam, for reminding us that you’ve never had personal experience with the formula that the attractiveness of your clothing is in inverse proportion its appropriateness for the plunging mercury.

You could simply use whatever bike you have, but why would you want to if you can possibly afford an alternative? Even more true in the freeze-thaw locations than in Winnipeg where salt simply doesn’t work half the time, why would you subject a lovely summer bike to the ravages of water and sand and salt that characterize winter roads?

As for wider tires, I believe bike couriers – for whom a bicycle is an extension of their very bodies – when they say skinny slicks work great for them, cutting through the snow and rolling safely over ice; I just don’t believe it would be so for me. I know from experience that the wider the tires, the more stable I feel – and the more confidently I ride, the better everything goes. My fat bike is definitely more work to pedal, and yes, it’s a tad embarrassing when a long-legged, skinny-jeaned hipster flies past me on his 10-speed-style fixie as though I were standing still, but it’s so worth it when I’m dealing with road snakes, and mercury ice and brown sugar and mashed potatoes.

I was infuriated when one of these authors who was extolling the merits and accessibility of winter cycling wrote that he puts his bike away when it reaches 5 degrees: anything below that is just too much. If that's Celsius, I can’t call him enough names. Even if that’s in Fahrenheit, -15C  would still have you sitting out 80% of a normal Winnipeg winter.

Don’t you tell me what it takes to bike in winter, bub.

Cycling in winter means covering every inch of my body because exposed skin will become frost-damaged over the course of my commute – but wearing a light coat that wouldn't suffice for standing at a bus stop, because as long as I keep moving, I’ll warm myself up. Cycling in winter means fat tires to deal with a plethora of weather-affected road conditions from slippery to uneven to rock-like (manhole covers are terrifying given the myriad ways that small stamped metal surface oozing rancid air may differ from the snowy pavement), not to mention the ruts and potholes already existing in the pavement. (By the way, the snow does NOT fill up the potholes, rendering the road surface even.) Cycling in winter means having enough energy to keep cranking the wheel around and around despite all the forces of the universe attempting to convince your muscles and the components of your bike that it’s simply too cold to move.

Finally, cycling in winter means a constant terror of falling, an ever-present fear that translates into tremendous triumph. I wouldn’t say winter cycling is fun, but simply by virtue of making it to your destination despite the odds, despite the scorn and bafflement of others, each trip is a victory, and there’s a certain pleasure in that. It’s satisfying to get around on your own power despite conditions most people think are unbearable. It’s energizing to be out there in the elements and undefeated by them.

Sure, winter cycling is doable, and there’s even something great about it. Now that you’ve got the story straight, will you join me?

Updated Apr. 6: alternate title added