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You Bring a Gift That I Don’t Have; I’ll Bring a Gift That You May Not Have

By Rev. Robert Thompson

Ephesians 2:14-22 I was a delegate to the United Church General Council in Sudbury in 1986, where the church made our first apology to the Indigenous People. Of all the apologies made to the Indigenous People in Canada, it was the very first one. Though that was nearly forty years ago, I still have some very vivid memories of that experience. Those memories may not exactly fit the facts about what happened, but I think they are close enough to be credible. I remember that we were meeting in a big hall at Laurentian University in Sudbury when we agreed to make the apology, and that the building stood on a hill overlooking a small lake which was on the campus. The First Nations people had erected a teepee beside the lake, and after we had agreed to the apology, the whole General Council made our way down the hill to the lake, and the leaders joined elders, who were waiting inside the teepee to receive the apology. There were many Indigenous people standing around a big bonfire outside the teepee, and the rest of the General Council delegates joined them. I found myself standing next to an Iroquois woman about my age, who was from the Six Nations Reserve outside of Brantford Ontario, and I asked her what the apology would mean for her. She said that she hoped her two teenage sons would now be able to learn the Iroquois language. Her parents had both been Residential School survivors, and they had painful memories of the humiliating punishments they had received whenever they had been caught speaking Iroquois. Because of those memories, her parents had made it a rule that the Iroquois language would never be spoken in their family. The woman and her siblings had never been given the opportunity to learn Iroquois. She hoped that the acknowledgment of that wrong, would open the way for her sons to cherish and receive their own language.

My question, “What would the apology mean?” must have been asked of another man around the circle, because I heard him saying, “When you people came to our land, we tried to walk the trail together with you, but we found that we had so much baggage, that it was hard to keep up. And so, we kept dropping off pieces of our baggage, so we could keep up. And then, we realized that we had dropped off too much baggage. This apology will give us the opportunity to go back down the trail and pick up the pieces of the baggage we left behind, that are essential to us if we are to continue to be a people.” In my mind, that is one of the things that has been happening ever since. The Indigenous People have been retrieving their past, so they can continue and thrive, into the future, as a people.

I had decided to speak on this topic before I realized this weekend was the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. I wanted to highlight, that in the spring our Church Council had voted in favour of a General Council remit that, if passed, will change the Basis of Union, to establish an autonomous Indigenous Church structure in The United Church. The resource paper that accompanied the remit says that its approval will enable the Indigenous Church to define its own structure and processes within The United Church of Canada. It acknowledges Indigenous peoples’ rights to their own spiritual identities and to self-determination. This has the potential to create a new kind of relationship. In the words of the National Indigenous Council, we will be moving “from ‘missions to Indians’, towards being ‘partners in God’s call to all the earth.’”

That new possibility excites my soul!

In that original 1988 Apology we said, “We did not hear you when you shared your vision. In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ we were closed to the value of your spirituality. We confused Western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and length and height of the gospel of Christ. We imposed our civilization as a condition of accepting the gospel. We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result, you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be.”

“We did not hear you”. We did not listen. Jesus would not have done that. One of the things that made him so special was his ability to hear the cries of all people. The reading from the Letter to the Ephesians that Kim shared with us, says “Christ treated us as equals, and so made us equals”. But that is not how we taught our faith to the Indigenous people.

I think back to that Indigenous man beside the bonfire, and it brings me to wonder what all we dropped off beside the trail of our own journey, that made us who we became. I think that one of the things we dropped off was our ability to hear. We didn’t bring our ears to hear – only our voice, to speak our own truth, believing there was no truth but ours.

Perhaps it was fear that caused us to do that. Perhaps we were afraid that if we listened to the Spirituality of the Indigenous people, it would end up diminishing our own Spirituality. We continue to do that to each other. But I don’t believe that to be the truth. I believe that when we listen, and learn from the Spirituality of others, it causes our Spirituality to expand – not to diminish.

In that 1986 Apology, Rev. Bob Smith, Moderator of The United Church at the time said, “Long before my people journeyed to this land your people were here, and you received from your Elders an understanding of creation and of the Mystery that surrounds us all that was deep, and rich, and to be treasured.”

But we did not hear them when they shared their vision. Now, I’m prepared to listen. Now I want to hear their vision. Now I have a deep feeling, that without their vision and our vision, shared and mingled together, we will have no vision of the way forward. As I said, the new possibilities, as we move down the trail to the future together, you bringing gifts that I don’t have, and me bringing gifts that you may not have – those new possibilities excite my soul! And I think Jesus would be glad.

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