As a Japanese Canadian, and by temperament, I prefer to steer clear of controversial subjects in my preaching. So why did I speak on the potentially divisive topic of reconciliation with our Indigenous (often referred to as First Nations in Canada or American Indians in the U.S.) sisters and brothers? The demonstrations in Charlottesville where protesters shouted, "Blacks will not replace us; Jews will not replace us," had just occurred. Here in Canada, earlier this year a young man in Québec City gunned down six people while they were worshiping in a mosque, so I was conscious of the turmoil people were experiencing related to issues of race.
The leadership of our church has been constructing a five-year strategic plan and I was about to preach a series on our vision and values.
One of our core values is reconciling.
With the demonstrations in Charlottesville as well as the act of terror in Québec City fresh in my mind, I felt I needed to preach about reconciling as it relates to people of different races and ethnicities.
Also in Canada, a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called our government and the churches to address and redress atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples throughout our country's history.
The confluence of these circumstances and the guiding of the Holy Spirit led me to preach on reconciliation, particularly in relation to the First Nations people who are very much our immediate neighbors in Vancouver.
I normally begin to prepare my sermons a month out (although my actual prep time is fairly typical of most preachers at 10-15 hours per message), as I describe in this article.
Knowing this would be a tough message to prepare, I began working about five weeks ahead of time. I sought the counsel of one of my former seminary classmates, Soong Chan Rah, who regularly speaks on race and justice-related matters. He pointed me towards a book by the late Native American Christian leader Richard Twiss, One Church, Many Tribes which I found very helpful.
I also listened to recordings of two talks on Indigenous themes by Mark Buchanan, a pastor friend of mine who for many years served a community on Vancouver Island surrounded by the Cowichan peoples.
I met with Janene Erickson, a First Nations leader in the aboriginal health care world, who gave me some very helpful counsel as well as resources on the history of Canada's Indigenous peoples.
Occasionally, I will integrate a live testimony into the sermon. For this message, I asked one of my colleagues, Milissa Ewing, whose ancestors include First Nations people, and who is passionate about serving as a bridge between the non-native and native worlds, to share part of her journey and calling.
Each week, I also vet my sermon past a group of our site (campus) pastors and at least one layperson and woman during a feed-forward process which I describe here. The week I preached the sermon, I added two First Nations members of our community to the feed-forward team as well as someone who has worked extensively with Indigenous peoples.
Whenever I'm speaking on controversial issues, I want to make sure that I'm getting a lot of informed, candid feedback and I will make adjustments. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I seek to be bold but not abrasive; I want people to hear, but not respond by shutting down. I want to make sure that I do all I can to tie up every loose string and aim to make the presentation bulletproof.
Most important of all, I want to be in a prayerful space, open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This sermon, and others on controversial topics such as abortion or sex, invariably face some resistance and criticism. However, I have to remind myself that I'm not trying to win a popularity contest, but called to be faithful and offer people the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27).
In August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, demonstrators marched and shouted, "Jews will not replace us; Blacks will not replace us." We were reminded yet again that racial turmoil is alive and real. Earlier in 2017 in Québec City, a young man gunned down six people as they were praying in a mosque. We're living in a time when xenophobia, the fear of a stranger, feels like it's on the rise.
In a world where doors are being slammed shut to unwanted foreigners, I am proud of Canada's welcoming spirit. Nicholas Kristof, the columnist for the New York Times, has written that "Canada leads the free world and now may well be the finest example of the values of America's Statue of Liberty.
Lady Liberty faces the Atlantic Ocean to welcome many of the immigrants travelling by boat to our continent. Canada has emerged as a great country.
But our nation has also been stained by the sin of racism. In 1876, the Indian Act was passed by the Canadian government, and they seized control of First Nations' land without compensating them. The Act also set in motion a process that would lead to the destruction of Indigenous traditions. In 1914 in Vancouver, Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims aboard the ship Komagata Maru were turned away from our shores because of their ethnicities. In British Columbia, a special head tax was levied against the Chinese. During World War II, the Japanese were banished to internment camps. While Canada has made a lot of progress in the last 50 years, we still have a long road to travel as we seek to become a more inclusive and perfect Canadian mosaic.
Today, we're going to be exploring our core value of reconciling. One of our church's goals is to continue to cultivate an ethos where people of all different backgrounds are welcomed, loved, and served. We believe that God has called us to a ministry of reconciliation. God, through the apostle Paul, makes it clear that he commissions each of his children to this ministry of reconciliation.
Reconcile with God
(Read 2 Corinthians 5:14-19)
In this message, I want us to explore how we become an instrument of reconciliation in the world when we become reconciled to God. I want us to see how specifically we are called to this way of life in relationship with our First Nations sisters and brothers. I say "sisters and brothers" because we share a common Creator and Father in heaven. Rather than use the word "reconciliation," "conciliation" may be more appropriate, because many of us have never had a relationship with Indigenous peoples.
This text shows us that if we want to become an instrument of reconciliation in our broken and divided world, our first step must be to truly reconcile with God.
One of the signs that we have truly come to know God, according to the apostle Paul in Romans 5:5, is that we have a sense of God's love streaming into our hearts. As God's love is "poured out into our hearts" and as we spill over with that love, we become more loving people.
Jesus taught that the mark of a person who is truly his disciple is not having a tattoo of a cross on your ankle, not a set of doctrinal beliefs (even as important as they are), but the mark that a person really knows God is love. Jesus said, "By this everyone will know that you are my followers, if you love one another" (John 13:35).
Miroslav Volf, a theologian who now teaches at Yale, was born and raised in an ethnically divided and war-torn Croatia. He contends that ethnic cleansing is the result of a false sense of purity of our own race or bloodline.
Let me illustrate from the country of my origin: Japan. Part of the reason why many Japanese people in the years leading up to and during World War II subjugated other Asians to cruelty, slavery, and even murder was because they viewed themselves as descendants of the gods and therefore superior to other people. They had a false sense of purity.
Here in Canada, part of the reason that colonists from Europe stole the land of Indigenous peoples—"steal" seems to be the plainest word, as the native people in some cases were physically forced off the land and never compensated—and also broke treaties with, enslaved, raped, and murdered many native peoples was because they saw the Indigenous people as being savages, as being less than human. Many of the colonists justified heinous acts toward First Nations people because they saw themselves as being superior due to a false sense of purity.
Most of us here have not been directly involved in the literal genocide of a people group. But almost all of us have fallen prey to stereotyping people of other races or ethnicities or racially profiling people in our imaginations.
My own father was an immigrant from Japan and was truly one of the finest and kindest people I've ever known. But when my younger sister was picked up from our home in Montréal for a date by a guy who happened to be black, my dad felt compelled to follow them in his car. They drove into downtown Montréal to stop at this guy's apartment. My dad, who is normally understated and shy, got out of his car, approached them, and said, "Why don't you spend time in the living room of our home?"
My sister was terribly embarrassed and I cringe recounting the story. But I offer this illustration to show that even the best among us can stereotype other people. And stereotypes are not harmless—in that they affect the way we treat people. Have you ever walked by someone of another race or ethnicity on the sidewalk and a stereotype popped up in your imagination?
Miroslav Volf observes that when Jesus began his ministry, he not only remade things but renamed things. He called things clean that other people were calling unclean.
Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5:17, says: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is Here!" In verse 16, he writes: "So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view …"
When we meet Jesus Christ, we become new, and we no longer see people from a worldly point of view. When we are transformed by our relationship with Christ, we see people differently because what we see is shaped by who we are.
One of the clearest signs that we are being changed by Christ is that we don't see people through a racist lens, and instead we see the beauty of God's image and others—particularly those who are different from us.
As I said, one of our core values is reconciling. As a faith community, we also want to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada's call to action. Amazingly, of the 94 calls to action, only five are addressed to the church. And one is addressed to the Pope—so unless Pope Francis happens to transfer to our church, we have only four. The TRC of Canada is calling the church to acknowledge the atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples, in some cases at the hands of the church, and to educate congregations on the true history of our country.
Today, through this message, we are taking one small step to respond to the TRC recommendations.
Acknowledge the past
So what can we do? We can acknowledge what happened in the past to our Indigenous sisters and brothers. We can listen to the stories of our First Nations neighbors and in so doing say, "I see you." We can also embrace the beauty of native cultures and in so doing honor them and enrich our faith.
Acknowledging what happened in the past may sound superficial, but it means more to our Indigenous neighbors than we realize. I was recently with a new friend, Janene, who is a leader in the Aboriginal healthcare world. She shared with me that when some of the first colonial leaders from Britain stepped foot into what is now known as British Columbia, they jubilantly reported back to the British Crown that there were no people here. Obviously, there were many native people here, but they didn't see them as human beings.
In a tragic twist of irony, the host people of our country were not given the right to vote in federal elections until 1960. The native people who had served as stewards of this land were not given a voice in who would govern them.
Five years ago, while preaching a sermon here, I made a passing reference to the fact that Indigenous people had been abused by the colonists. After the service, a man came up to me, introduced himself as Colin, a chief of one of the First Nations peoples here in British Columbia. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he said, "I want to thank you for acknowledging what was done to our people. This is the first time in my life I've ever heard someone who's not native acknowledge what happened to our people without being under external pressure to do so."
I put my hand on his shoulder and said, "I am so sorry for what the Christian church did to your people. As a leader of the church, I apologize and ask your forgiveness." If there are Indigenous people listening to my voice, as a leader of the Christian church, from the bottom of my heart, I say to you that I'm so sorry for what the church did to your people in the name of Christ. The abuses didn't reflect the heart of Christ, but I'm sorry and ask something we don't deserve—your forgiveness.
Listen to the stories
We can acknowledge what happened in the past, and we can also take time to listen to the stories of our Indigenous sisters and brothers.
I am deeply grateful that our church had the privilege of hosting dialogue circles in anticipation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gatherings. In those circles, our First Nations sisters and brothers shared their stories, and I was deeply moved, and in some cases disturbed, by what I heard.
I recall hearing a now-elderly woman, who I'll call Karen, share part of her story. When this now grandmotherly lady was five or six-years-old, she remembers a man carrying a clipboard who visited her home (and then all the homes in her community). Not long after, she and many other children from her community were forced onto a bus against their parents' wishes: a bus that took them to a residential school here in British Columbia.
When she and the other kids arrived in the dormitory, they had all of their native clothes removed and destroyed. They were given uniforms to wear. Each girl's hair was cut exactly the same way. The girls were told they would no longer be called by their names; instead, they were given a number, like 73. That became their new identity.
Karen remembers that one morning, when she was taking a cold shower with the other girls in the dorm, one began singing a hymn in her native language. A nun came and dragged her out of the shower and began strapping her with a belt for speaking in her native language. The little girl knew only a smattering of English and could only plead in her own language asking why she was being punished. This provoked the nun to strap her even more. Karen, and the others, were taught that God made a mistake when he made them Indian, and this mistake was being corrected.
Karen recalled how the nuns and the priests taught the children that the Christian God was love, but as they watched their lives, they came to the conclusion that their God was very mean indeed.
Cheryl Bear is a First Nations friend. She is a pastor, artist, and author. In a book she's written she shares a poem written from the perspective of a First Nations mother who lost her son to a residential school.
My son when they took you away, you were so young and strong
I just couldn't wait for the day to have you back home where you belong
The only thing that kept me alive, was knowin' I would see you again
There was no way for me to know, you'd come back a man I don't know
My son, where did you go when they took you away?
I don't recognize you anymore, the scars of life are deeper than before
No, I don't recognize you anymore
Then the son speaks:
Mother when I went away, I looked back to my home
You know I really wanted to stay when I thought of you there all alone
The only thing that kept me alive, was knowin' I would see you again
As we see even in this brief poem, when parents were forcibly separated from their children, both parents and children were deeply scarred, and we can imagine how their wounds were passed on from generation to generation to generation. It's also understandable why some turned to alcohol for solace. I'm sure I would've done the same if I had been in their shoes.
Why rehash the past? As writer William Faulkner said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
Many of us do not feel like we were raised in particularly privileged families. You may feel like nothing was handed to you—that what you have you earned by the sweat of your brow. But almost none of us here can look back over our shoulders and say that our parents or grandparents were forcibly separated from their parents and then forced to attend inferior schools where there was a high probability they would be physically, emotionally, or sexually abused.
Most of us here can't look back over our shoulders and say that our parents or grandparents were denied loans to start a business or enterprise or, when wronged, denied the opportunity to seek legal counsel or representation (which was the case for Indigenous people until 1952) simply because of our race or ethnicity. Most of us cannot say that our ancestors were denied any meaningful opportunity to amass wealth to be able to pass it on to future generations.
So as hard as our family histories may have been, in comparison to the history of most Indigenous people, the boundary lines for us have fallen in better places.
We can acknowledge what happened in the past. We can also listen to the stories of our Indigenous sisters and brothers, and by doing so, say, "We see you."
Embrace the beauty
Third, we can embrace the beauty of Indigenous cultures.
Yes, Scripture teaches that all cultures are stained by sin, but that every ethnic group also contains resemblances of the beautiful image of God.
Most of us are fine with adopting a Christian hymn using European music of pagan origins, which is the case with Charles Wesley's hymns that were used in the bar room melodies of 18th-century pagan England. But we are uncomfortable when it comes to adopting a practice from Asia or Africa or First Nations peoples, feeling that they are idolatrous.
My friend Mark Buchanan pastored for many years in Duncan on Vancouver Island, which is inhabited by many Indigenous peoples. He and his wife Cheryl spoke here on First Nations issues. Mark shared how when he was serving as a pastor there on Vancouver Island, he was surrounded by First Nations people, and partly through his ministry in Duncan, he and Cheryl were convicted by the Holy Spirit to get to know their Indigenous neighbors. In time, he would go on to mobilize his church and other churches in the area to do the same. Once when he was speaking to a group from another local church, one of their Christian leaders said, "Okay, Mark, we'll go with you." Then he threw down the gauntlet: "But we're not going to have to do a sweet grass ceremony, are we?!" At the time, Mark had no idea what a sweet grass ceremony was. But sweet grass was the epitome of idolatrous practice for this man.
At that point, Mark had only one First Nations friend up in Nanaimo. He approached him and said, "Tell me, what is this sweet grass ceremony?" His friend ran upstairs and got some sweet grass, which is like sage, and he lights it on fire and wafts it around.
Mark said, "What's going on?"
His friend said, "While we're meeting together, we often light sweet grass and waft the smoke onto our hair and onto our clothes. And as we meet, the smoke does two things. It has the power to cleanse and purify us and carry our prayers up to heaven. Whenever we're tempted to be untruthful with one another, we will smell the aroma, and it will remind us that we've promised ourselves to be truthful."
Mark said, "I need this for my church board meetings!"
Whether it's using sweet grass in a way that is sanctified and set apart for God's purposes, or emulating native people's generous hospitality toward strangers, or truly caring for God's good Earth, we can embrace the good, true, and beautiful elements of Indigenous culture—the parts that reflect the image of God—into our Christian faith.
Be a bridge
In 2 Corinthians 5:15, Paul writes: "And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again." Those of us who have been reconciled to God are called to no longer live for ourselves but for him—for Christ.
Each week, we are reminded that Jesus Christ died on the cross as a sacrifice for sins that we could be reconciled to God. Many of us feel a gratitude to Jesus for laying down his life so that we might be united to God. One of the best ways we can express our gratitude is by loving those around us, including our Indigenous neighbors.
The apostle John asks us in Scripture, "Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen" (1 John 4:20).
Our pastor of family ministries, Milissa Ewing, has First Nations people in her ancestry. She feels called by God to this ministry of reconciliation that we've been talking about. I've asked her to come now to share part of her story and calling:
My name is Milissa Ewing. I am a descendant of Chief Joe Harris of the Namgis Band of the Kwakwakawak Nation. I am also a descendant of Annie Summers from England, of George Barr from Ireland, and Ole Loraas from Norway. I am honored to speak today about reconciliation, something that is close to my heart and central to what I believe God has called me to.
In a city like Vancouver, there are many of us—children of parents from different racial backgrounds, people who aren't quite sure which ethnic box to check off on the census. As a kid, there were moments where it was advantageous to be considered First Nations—like when the Aboriginal Education teacher would pull us from class to go to a pow wow or do some arts. There were also times when it was more advantageous to be considered Caucasian—like when the racial jokes would start up and the "Indian kids" were left out of birthday parties and cliques.
Generally, I tried to fly under the radar and not be identified either way. But people who don't fit into a neat census category make some people uncomfortable. When I was in the sixth grade, my family lived in a small, racially charged town. There was a huge divide between the townsite and the reserve. One day, while swimming at the public pool, I accidentally splashed another kid, who yelled at me, "Go back to the reserve, you dirty Indian." At first, I looked around because he couldn't mean me! I was flooded with shame when I realized that his comment was directed my way.
That same week, I tried to befriend a First Nations girl, Lisa, in my class, and her mom told her, "Why do you want to hang out with that white girl from the suburbs?" What? White girl? Again, I thought, Surely she thinks Lisa means someone else, but when I probed further, I realized I was the white girl to whom the mom was referring.
This, and other incidents like this, began to shape how I saw myself. I became someone who didn't belong anywhere. As I got older, I learned to distance myself from anything First Nations because it was "safer" and more acceptable. But I was often reminded of my "otherness"—be it an inappropriate joke, racial profiling, or "Well, you're not like the other Indians." I didn't feel at home in either culture, and a false identity took hold. I was someone who didn't belong, and even worse, I felt like an imposter—like someone always pretending. Without me even realizing it, a false name, a false identity took hold: imposter.
Names are very powerful. In Aboriginal culture, names hold significant meaning. Ken mentioned Karen, who was given a number instead of a name when she went to residential school, stripping her of her identity. We see now how many First Nations are reclaiming traditional names as a way of taking back what was stolen. My dad, George, has been reclaiming his First Nations heritage and is in talks with his cousins about a naming ceremony—a new name to signify his new identity.
Over the past years, I sensed God calling me to be his agent of reconciliation. Actually, "sensed" is the wrong word. I have had my heart broken for the Aboriginal People in our country, and I know beyond a shadow of doubt that reconciliation or conciliation is a big part of why God has called me to be a pastor. But, as you can imagine, with that false name "imposter' I have always felt a bit sheepish and uncomfortable with this. Even in my work with First Nations students as a teacher, as I have been embraced by First Nations men and women, I always had this feeling like I don't belong. When asked to weigh in on Aboriginal issues, I've wondered what God was up to—"You know, God, that I don't really have a valid voice here, right?"
But names are very important to God, too. In the Bible, we read time and time again of God giving people a new name: Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, Paul to Saul. A new name can signify a new calling, a new identity, an affirmation of purpose and meaning.
When Mark and Cheryl Buchanan came and spoke here, I knew that God was beginning to answer my 15-year-old prayer to be a part of his reconciling work. I cried as I saw what I thought was impossible: drumming and praying in the Musqueam language from this very stage. And I thanked Cheryl after the talk, but I confessed that I still wasn't sure what my role was, that I have always felt like an outsider—an imposter—in both First Nations circles and Caucasian circles.
Cheryl paused. And then she said something like this: "I don't really know you, so please forgive me for being so forward. I sense God wanting to tell you that your name is not 'imposter.' That's a false name you've been carrying for too long, and it's getting in the way of his good work. God wants to give you a new name. Your name is Bridge."
The next day, I was speaking to my spiritual director, talking about something that I thought was unrelated—about different people who were not seeing eye-to-eye and how difficult it was for me to be in the middle. My spiritual director, like Cheryl the night before, paused and then said: "I am not sure if this means something to you, but I think God is calling you to be a bridge. He's made you to be a bridge."
Then a few weeks ago, I met with a professor at one of the theological schools here in Vancouver, and as I shared some of my story, he exclaimed: "Well, it seems clear that God is calling you to be a bridge! What an opportunity!"
At this point, my only thought was, Okay, God. I get it. You're not just asking me to be a bridge, but you're naming me—you're telling me something about who you made me to be. So what does this actually mean?
A physical bridge is something that crosses the wide gulf that can separate people from one another. But the gulf is not always geographic. Like the geographic separation between the townsite and the reserve that existed in that small town I lived in as a kid, there is often a larger relational and spiritual gap: a gap that can only be crossed through a relational or spiritual bridge.
As I ponder this new name, I am coming to realize that this is not just about my own personal calling. As God's people, as his church, we are all called to bridge the gap between God and the world. We are all called to bridge the gap between those in conflict. We are all called to bridge the gap between nations. And I believe that we are all called now, at this particular point in Canada's story, to walk the painful bridge between what was and what will be, moving toward a future where we will all be reconciled under one Creator God.
As I pray and ponder the new name that God has given me—the bridge—I invite all of you to pray and ponder as well. What does it look like for us to be the bridge? Will you join me in God's reconciliation work in the world?
I used to live in Kits Point. Back when our city was first being established as Vancouver in 1886, what is now known as Kits Point was inhabited by Indigenous peoples who fished off its shores and farmed the land in that community. A group of colonial settlers decided they wanted to have the land, so they arranged for a barge to dock at the point, and they forced the Indigenous peoples onto the barge with their tents and then pushed the barge into the Burrard Inlet, which floated to the North Shore.
Not long after that incident, the Vancouver fire broke out, which literally burned down the city in 15 minutes. As the raging fire burned, colonists ran for their lives into the ocean. The First Nations people from the North Shore saw the flames and the smoke rising from Vancouver. They got into their canoes, paddled to Vancouver, and began rescuing them one by one. In some cases, they were rescuing the same people who had forced them off the land.
According to the father of Squamish Elder Audrey Rivers, who was a boy on one of the canoes, the native people were singing as they were rescuing the people out of the water and placing them in their canoes. As they were paddling them to safety, some of the European mothers were covering the ears of their young children, saying, "The Indians are cursing you"—when in fact, they were singing "Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy" in their native tongues.
As we talk about being a bridge, we not only want to walk toward Indigenous people to help them—as we do that, we will find we are more fully able to reflect the multifaceted beauty of the body of Christ. And as we move toward our Indigenous sisters and brothers and engage them, we will be blessed and may even find that God uses them to save us in some way.
Ken Shigematsu is pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, BC and the author of the award-winning, bestseller God in My Everything