The Truth and Reconciliation Commission finished their work in Canada in 2015. After listening to stories across Canada, they listed 94 Calls to Action. I attended a few of the sessions of the TRC and was always astounded at the suffering that children (and their parents) had endured in many of the residential schools. But each time I was equally astounded at how kindly and graciously anyone who wished to sit and listen was welcomed. There was no pressure to respond with any action nor any words, except to listen. In fact, more than once, I had the impression that the indigenous people present, the hosts, were going out of their way to make sure we, the rest of us, were not feeling too badly about what we were witnessing.
Call to Action #58 asked the Pope to come to Canada to apologize for the role of the Catholic Church in the operation of the Residential Schools, but also in the whole idea behind the schools, which was to destroy a culture, a language, a spirituality. The scheme came out of the Canadian Government, but the church carried much of it out for them. Clever! Two weeks ago the Pope came to Canada and offered that apology. I kept thinking that though our Federal Government has apologized and poured out a lot of money, maybe our PM should have been apologizing alongside the Pope. At times during the week the Pope was here, I had the impression our government, along with the media, was a bit too contented to let the Church take the heat by itself.
Our media had been prepping us for this for some time, asking indigenous leaders and others if they thought the apology would be enough. Would it cover what needed to be said? What expectations did people have? Could it ever be enough? I began to feel sorry for those who found themselves in front of the mics because while the media, I suppose, was just doing their job, they kind of pestered and poked so that an interview could become a story, a headline, all by itself.
I also felt a little sorry for the Pope because it was pretty clear he was not going to quite get this right. He represents a very powerful body, known and active around the world, but he’s 84 and in a wheel chair. I’m sure this was a difficult week for him, physically and emotionally, and yet we created a kind of critical culture around his visit so that, however sincere and well prepared his apologies were, they were going to be second guessed and parsed for intentions and meanings. Wisely, I think, the Pope didn’t over explain himself even as we entitled ourselves a little, I think, to expect more than whatever it would be that he offered.
Perhaps I need to also feel sorry for the media, because they have a job to do, and we complain about them freely. In anticipation of the Pope’s visit, I sometimes thought the media became too much part of the story themselves. They became the monitors, the adjudicators. Could it have been otherwise? Maybe not, and were it not for the conversations they did start, however annoying at times, many of us would not know much of anything about the Doctrine of Discovery, nor even about the 150 plus years that Canada operated residential schools all over this country, nor perhaps about the 60s scoop and the generational impact and legacy of it all. The questions need to be asked, the answers tested, perhaps over and over for a long time to come.
And now, it seems that we have moved on. It’s three weeks past and we hear little about the Pope’s visit. So I wonder a little about this. I wonder how an indigenous person feels now. Call to Action #58 is done. Sort of, at least, and for a month we all gave it some attention. We talked about reconciliation and how important #58 is in the journey to reconciliation. I’m sure the Catholic Church isn’t done with their follow up work, nor, I hope, is the Canadian government. Nor, I hope the many protestant evangelical churches who whether overtly or otherwise, also participated in the work of diminishing the culture, the spirituality and religious experience of indigenous populations. Ours is, we are quite convinced of it, the righter way, and theirs is not.
Maybe it’s easy for the rest of us to check off number 58. It’s a start, a first step, many have said, so, let’s check that one. But I’m thinking the indigenous person, who. after 200 or 300 years of being marginalized, made invisible and stereotyped, and who deserves many apologies and acknowledgements … may now wonder what reconciliation is. Was this really, again, perhaps more our idea than theirs? Or at least, did we, with all our conversation and debate around it … frame it for ourselves more than we should have?
Reconciliation, it seems to me, is rarely, if ever, a one-off. Our obsession with counting, checking things as done or soon-to-be done … is not helpful to that word because it’s not check-off-able. Reconciliation has something to do with relationally living side by side, working side by side, using the same sidewalks, attending the same daycares and schools, sharing food, sitting, maybe, in the same pews at church or other worship places …; it’s living together and sharing space. And it’s not putting each other on reservations! When we did that we made sure any kind of reconciliation would be pretty difficult if not impossible for a very long time.
Orlando worked with MCC for 19 years. He pushes the sharing space and working together a step further. Orlando was always forgiving and gentle, but he often reminded us that just because we hired him and a few from other backgrounds here and there, didn’t mean we were actually on equal terms. We weren’t, and it often shows, even in experienced peace and justice organizations like MCC. Just because we hire a person who is not white, and we check off that box, doesn’t mean we allow them to operate inside ‘our’ organization like the people they were born to be. Nope. We expect them, once inside our space, to be grateful, and to become quite a bit like we are … cause otherwise, we get nervous. They know that nervousness and they often bend themselves inside out to accommodate ‘our ways’. It’s not fair, and if I were them, it would fester and eat at me. Or maybe I would learn to just keep my head down and when to be quiet. At the least, reconciliation must mean to try to give people of different backgrounds and cultures the freedom to be who they are, inside what we might think of as ‘our’ space. And sometimes I think it also means to give up the space and the truth and the power we think of as ‘ours’ and to let it become truly ours. Some churches are trying to let this happen.