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Brutal and Beautiful Truth

Our colleague Shannon Perez has a habit of asking zinger questions. As five of us colleagues sat in a Skype circle debriefing our experience of the Vancouver Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) she asked us:

Equipped with the testimonies of the survivors, what in your life will you turn way from, and what will you turn towards God? How will you back this repentance up with action?

See what I mean by zinger? Shannon’s point is actually pretty simple – we can’t come away from the experience of a TRC and its brutal and beautiful truths unchanged.   

At the beginning of the Vancouver National Event, TRC Lead Commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” This remark was meant as an encouragement and a reality check for survivors as they prepared to tell their stories. I’m not a survivor or an Indigenous person so raw indignation is not my place. But in the sacred times of hearing survivor testimony I certainly heard anger expressed for very good reasons. In Vancouver I was especially struck by the many survivors who mentioned that they were known by a number rather than a name. This petty practice was one subtle step in the dehumanizing of students of the schools that were designed to “kill the Indian in the child.” As a student of history I know that dehumanization is a forerunner to the brutality of genocide. Hearing survivors refer to their numbers again and again made me profoundly sad. I’ve heard the stories of abuse and cultural oppression many times before, but for some reason the numbers troubled me as a brutal truth in Vancouver, almost to the point of despair.

Survivors and their families are beautiful and courageous children of Creator God. They are living breathing people with names. They are loved and respected. 

I’ve had the privilege of working with one of these survivors:  Jillian Harris. Jillian and I sat together on the KAIROS Dignity and Rights Circle for a year or two. Jillian is a survivor of St. Mary’s Indian Residential School (Mission B.C.), a former Chief of Penelakut First Nation, a leader in the KAIROS Women of Courage movement and a keen student of theology. Jill’s insights as a story teller were always a profound testimony to me as we addressed human rights issues at KAIROS tables. I had never heard her survivor story until her public testimony at the TRC National Event in Vancouver. Jill’s truth-telling included details of brutal dehumanization and brokenness at St. Mary’s, and its cascading effects in her home community. She spoke of her long-term feelings of inferiority as “a little girl who was afraid of the world” and her journey to wholeness with the support of mentors and other women of courage. Jillian closed her testimony with a powerful address to the person who abused her at St. Mary’s:

“I’m sure you must be suffering as much as me.…I’ve carried this pain for a very long time now. But this is the day that I cut off my bondage to you.…I hope that you would also free yourself and ask for forgiveness from the Creator.”

Jillian’s invitation to freedom and forgiveness that day was a moment of truth and beauty that moved me beyond words. Her grace and resilience that day demonstrated her identity as a gift of the Creator to the world. Jillian's beautiful truth is a hope-filled counterpoint to the brutal truths of children known as numbers.

So now to return to Shannon’s question:  Equipped with the testimonies of the survivors, what in your life will you turn way from, and what will you turn towards God? How will you back this repentance up with action?

The contrast between despair over numbers and the profound grace and hope in Jillian’s testimony are the start of my answer. The work of reconciliation is emotionally charged and complicated so the temptations to despair, defensiveness, and retreat are real. But because of the beautiful truths expressed by Jillian and many others these temptations are not an option. In listening to some of my Indigenous mentors and friends in the last few years I’ve come to understand the phrase that the travellers on the road to Emmaus uttered—were not our hearts burning within us? In the journey of reconciliation that I’ve been called to I can say that I have experienced the burning truth of Christ. The presence of the Creator’s truth and beauty in these neighbours require me to turn away from despair and toward deepening relationships of trust and friendship.

This call to relationships is something I’m comfortable with at the level of national organizations and pubic life. I count Indigenous Church leaders and public policy experts as my friends and have learned and grown because of them. These people are neighbours, friends, and colleagues, but are often at a safe distance. Relationships with Indigenous people are not a part of my daily, comfortable, suburban life. I regularly say that being present in relationship with our Indigenous neighbours is the key to reconciliation. I think it’s time I figure out how to do this right here at home in Algonquin Territory. I need to know the names and stories of my neighbours right here.

[Photo: Flickr user Larimda ME]

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