This past summer, many Canadians were shocked, horrified, and heartbroken as news broke divulging the discoveries of the unmarked graves of more than 1,300 Indigenous children at former residential schools that were government sanctioned and run by various churches.
These reports were met with numb disbelief by some, anger and outrage from others and belligerent denial of the gravity of our shameful history from others. Canada Day celebrations in many cities were cancelled or significantly toned down in the wake of the sobering discoveries and disturbing testimonies of residential school survivors that began to surface and circulate.
As a church, we wanted to let our First Nations brothers and sisters, as well as the rest of our community, know that we deeply grieved the injustices and unimaginable suffering experienced by the precious children and families who were so cruelly torn apart; many never ever to be reunited. But how do you express care, concern, and love in the face of such devastating pain and crippling trauma that has irreversibly impacted generations?
I walked next-door to have a conversation with my soft-spoken, gentle giant of a neighbour who just happens to be First Nations, or “Native”, as he calls himself. I told him that we wanted to create a display at the front of our church building that would convey our solidarity with our Indigenous community and asked if he thought it might be perceived as trite or offensive. He kindly assured me that it was a thoughtful gesture. Then he gave me a bottled water and we sat on his patio and talked at length.
Noting the cross by his front door, I asked about his experience growing up. As he shared some of the stories of relatives who had gone through residential schools, I realized that the testimonials I had been reading and hearing online were not exaggerated in any way. However, it was his immediate family’s experience with racism and criminal abuse at the hands of those charged with keeping the peace that horrified me. Tears come to my eyes and my heart aches even now recalling his chilling account of a young child killed in cold blood, his family heartlessly prevented from seeing him and a subsequent massive cover-up.
One would expect rage, bitterness, hatred, or a desire for vengeance, but instead there was only quiet resignation; an acknowledgment that in speaking up for themselves and telling the truth, other victims had paid dearly with their freedom, and even, their lives.
I asked my neighbour if he and his wife would consider joining us for a special service at our church entitled, “A Time to Mourn and A Time to Heal.” They graciously accepted my invitation. At the end of the service, I stood before these beautiful people and on behalf of “The Church” expressed our sorrow and asked for their forgiveness for the countless atrocities that had been committed against the First Nations people in the name of God and Christianity.
They graciously forgave us. Then, standing before our congregation, my husband, Mark, and I shared the Communion Bread and Cup with our dear neighbours who are also our brother and sister in Christ. There were no dry eyes in church that day as hearts were reconciled and knit together in love, declaring the truth that “every child matters” because we are all fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image and so very, very precious in His sight.
Cynthia Pelletier is the pastor of Kinnaird Church of God