My intention with today’s service is to create space for Phyllis’ story and the vulnerability she shares with us. I had the opportunity this week to attend a webinar with Phyllis Webstad and hear her firsthand accounts of what it was like to attend the residential school in the Williams Lake area and how her story came to be a the Orange Shirt Day movement that grows every September. We use this time to listen to the story of elders, of residential school survivors and generations that have been affected.
The telling of one’s story has cathartic properties. Creating, writing, sharing a life event helps one make sense of what happened and one’s place in the world. When turmoil and trauma have occurred, the sharing of one’s story helps the teller process the event and also can provide a means of hope to others in their struggles and brokenness. The United Church of Canada has made the Orange Shirt Story and others like it a priority and is committed to reconciliation and reparation with those who were affected by the Residential School system. Churches, including the United Church, ran the schools that saw some 150,000 children displaced and taken from their families as part of the Federal Government’s aggressive assimilation program.
In 1986, the United Church of Canada was the first denomination to offer an official apology to those affected, and since that time, we have been striving towards living into right relations. At the 43rd meeting of the General Council in Oshawa in 2018, to which I was blessed to have been a commissioner, we received the Caretakers Report and the Calls the Church. In its essence, the report outlined the Indigenous Church’s desire for self-determination within the denomination. Indigenous ministries have been present since Church Union in 1925. The Calls to the Church from the Caretakers of the Indigenous Circle put us on notice that First Nations people will say what their ministry and theology and governance look like. We heard the call to dismantle the colonial structures that left them out of the decision-making processes. The desire for Indigenous peoples to live their faith in accordance with their spirituality and understanding of Jesus and his ministry. I am proud of our denomination’s out-front leadership with respect to Truth and Reconciliation. And this is why this Sunday is different and set apart… it’s why we hear a story of an orange shirt that represents those things that were lost to a people…but there is hope…that by listening and finding empathy we can make reparation with our First Nation brothers and sisters and learn from their teachings. When Phyllis was asked what we as non-Indigenous could do to help, she only asked that we be open to learning and hearing the stories… to wear orange… to Phyllis this is a symbol of a little bit of justice for all survivors.
As the paraphrase of Psalm 90 revealed, sometimes we do not know where we are going or where we have been… yet the Creator has an overview of the whole of the journey. Learning the history, listening with an open heart and without judgment is healing and restorative work. I leave you with this call from the Caretakers report that it might inspire and move us to become intentional about living into right relations:
We will maintain right relations with the broader United Church and educate them about our need to Indigenize our work and decolonize what continues to harm us. We do not want to experience the feeling of exclusion at the table of decision or have our concerns minimized by others. We will teach you who we are, what our values are, and place into practice how we want to work among ourselves and with others. We have faith that the Spirit of Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, the evidence of creation, and the love of God will move us forward on the road of true reconciliation so that we can know “the beloved community” of “All Our Relations.”
Amen and Amen.