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Wrongs to Rights

I am 54 years old this year. But for nearly 50 years I have been fascinated by the story of the people who lived in the Prairies before my great grandfather Peter Noteboom arrived on the first wagon train of Dutch settlers in Sioux County, Iowa. I remember ordering Scholastic books about Geronimo, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull. I was a walker, frequently sent out along the railway tracks with a bag lunch from my mother to sit in the tall grass and float twig boats along the stream. I wondered what the names of the plants were in the language of the people who lived there before, what the Plains might have looked like, what communities lived there. Later in life I learned that 300 years ago more people lived in this county than live in the area today—there was an extensive city complete with mounds and artifacts. It is still mostly a forgotten fragment of protected land but there are some who have not forgotten—on a recent trip there my son and I noticed the placement of quartz on a remarkable boulder. Someone still remembers and visits there for ceremony.

Indigenous peoples no longer live in the land my ancestors settled. From my birthplace we’d need to drive to former refugee camps in Canada to visit their descendants on reserves 1,300 kilometres away. One day I hope to visit them there.

Today I live in the fourth largest city in North America, Toronto. A 5-minute bike ride away in its most celebrated public park are the historic remains of mounds along Lake Ontario. We learned this after yellow tape went up blocking my son’s favorite bike trails and jumps. Local Indigenous people were making efforts to protect their ancestors’ resting place. In this multicultural city we are blessed by the presence of Indigenous people and leaders in all sectors of society: in our church communities, in the Federal government, and in the universities, to name just a few examples.

Across the country Indigenous peoples are on a journey of recovery from the residential school system. In Canada this was an education system run by Christian churches designed to remove children from their homes, families, and towns to remove them from their traditional livelihoods, lifeways, languages, and cultures and assimilate them into mainstream white culture. The stories of survivors who tell of widespread horrific physical and sexual abuse by church people have left me deeply ashamed, disappointed, confused, angry, and just downright sad. Canada, and the church in Canada, is complicit in acts of cultural genocide (the term used by Chief Justice of Canada Beverly McLachlin). Despite all this, Indigenous peoples are on a great journey of transition from internalized violence and marginalization to revitalization and growth.

And now in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada the Christian Reformed Churches in Canada have affirmed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a framework for reconciliation (March 2016). Help! What does it mean to move from sadness, empathetic guilt, and a sense of personal and civic responsibility toward reconciliation? The Apostle Paul calls followers of Christ to be ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:11-21). How can descendants of settlers and members of Christian churches (both visible and invisible; or, if you prefer, both institutional and organic) dare step forward in faith to a conversation with Indigenous peoples about reconciliation?

Fortunately, this is possible together. Nearly 50 authors have contributed to a new, challenging collection of reflections on how churches can engage in this framework of reconciliation (Wrongs to Rights). If you are somehow troubled by that history, curious about how Indigenous Christians think about this history and future, or believe it is your personal, Christian, or civic responsibility to work for reconciliation with the peoples who lived in the land before European settlers arrived, you will find in this volume thoughtful, committed contributions from church people on Indigenous rights, the role of the state and the church, what the scriptures say, relationships with the land and the church, and living into our responsibilities together. Some of my favorite authors in this collection are Jennifer Preston (Quaker), Walter Brueggemann (Presbyterian), Will Braun (Mennonite), and Shannon Perez (Christian Reformed Canadian Ministries Justice and Reconciliation Mobilizer).

If you are looking for an easy solution, you won’t find it here.

If you are devoted to a single, approved theological approach, then you won’t find it here.

If you are afraid of recrimination, denial, or an unwillingness to face hard histories, then you won’t find them here.

But, if you and your church community are open to considering a thoughtful, challenging, and faithful series of essays on reconciliation written by Indigenous and non-Indigenous Christians that is aimed at moving from wrongs to rights, then don’t miss this resource and this chance to dive in deep, preferably together with your friends and small group members.

I am grateful to the publisher, Mennonite Church Canada, and to Steve Heinrichs, the editor, for Wrongs to Rights.

To order Wrongs to Rights, visit this page. The image accompanying this piece shows a small part of the Witness Blanket, an artistic piece made from pieces of old residential school buildings.

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