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A Ministry of Presence

Throughout history people have gathered together to create. From Moses recruiting Bezalel, Oholiab and other gifted craftspeople to furnish the Tabernacle in Exodus 36, to Paul and the other tent-makers forming communities to practice their trade in the New Testament times, to barn-raising and quilting groups, to Indigenous peoples creating body adornments and dance regalia together, to knitting clubs and paint nights: people in every culture and throughout time have come together to express themselves and their culture through creative arts. Some of these art forms can be practiced on their own, some require a group of people working together. But even the ones that can be done by individuals, take on a different meaning when done in community. 

At the Christian Reformed Church’s Canadian National Gathering last May, a group of us had an opportunity to learn about the practice of beading among Turtle Island’s Indigenous people. Dr. Kenneth L. Wallace Jr., an African American Choctaw Pawnee, shared stories and experiences from his own journey of how beading has become a ministry of presence in his life. It is a beautiful story about how beading has brought healing and transformation to Dr. Kenny and to so many others. So often, we want to do something to make things better, we are trained to think that we hold the solution and if we would just act, problems would be solved. But there are many hurts and troubles that are completely out of our control. Words and physical actions cannot heal the hurt of generations of wrongs. Sometimes we need to act and  sometimes we need to say the right words, but often there are no words or actions. It is then that simply being present with others becomes a profound ministry. At times that can mean sitting in silence with another, other times it might mean doing something together - like knitting, cooking, beading - simple activities that remind us of life, of beauty, of good things. This is a ministry of presence.  

Beading has been practiced by Indigenous people for centuries. In the past, bead work not only adorned clothing and ceremonial items but was also a source of connection with other tribes. Beads and beaded items were traded and gifted. These days it is easy to find beads of all colours, shapes and sizes, but in the past beads were created out of bones, stones, shells, pearls and even porcupine quills. It took hours of work just to make the beads. Patterns and styles of beads and the finished projects told stories, symbolized treaties and connected people together. 

At times that can mean sitting in silence with another, other times it might mean doing something together - like knitting, cooking, beading - simple activities that remind us of life, of beauty, of good things.

Beading today can do similar things. For many Indigenous people, learning how to bead connects them with their history, reminding them of their rich heritage and culture. Dr. Kenny shared with us that he has found places of community, especially in Indigenous Friendship Centers, and that in those places, through beading with others, he has learned that beading is an important ministry of presence. In one of these centers, Dr. Kenny told us of a woman who welcomes people to their beading groups with a “What do you want to bead today? You should try this one - it’s easy!” 

For me, this workshop helped teach me about the history of this land I call home. It connected me with people I have never met and allowed me to have a little glimpse of the beauty and richness of a culture that has been marginalized. Through this workshop I had the opportunity to create something I can wear, (see picture), connect with a different culture, build community with those in the workshop, and be part of something bigger. Dr. Kenny encouraged all of us to add to a creation in progress - we were all invited to sew a few beads onto a piece of cloth - a group project that would reflect all of us who were in the room at the time. 

In our post-pandemic world, it is easy to become isolated, each of us working on our own things in our own spaces. But we need each other. We need community. We need to find ways of connecting with those who come from different places. Art done together does more than just create a beautiful object, it also creates connection and community. It is a ministry of presence. Reconciliation can only come when we find ways to connect. My own path of reconciliation will need to include more experiences of connection through participation in community creative projects. 

Photo provided by the author.  

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