A Change of Heart

It is now a week since my last day of walking the Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights, and the meaning of this journey is still sinking in. I was invited to write for KAIROS’ Spirited Reflections weekly blog, and found myself summarizing the experience as follows:

The most common question we were asked, by our church hosts, by reporters, and others, was simply, “why?” Walking 600 km is not something normal in our society. If I’m truly honest, part of my answer is that the pilgrimage was exciting. We had the opportunity to walk alongside and learn from Indigenous leaders including Romeo Saganash, Leah Gazan, Myeengun Henry, James Bartleman, and Sylvia McAdam. We were welcomed by Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation, whose Chief Doreen Davis sat with us for hours sharing heart-stopping stories of her community’s successful resistance to uranium mining and military tests on their land. We arrived in Ottawa to the sound of church bells and applause, and marched through the streets near Parliament. We were photographed, filmed, and interviewed.

Yet I also vividly remember the physicality of the pilgrimage: aching feet, legs, and back, taped-up toes. Murmured prayers and meditations repeated over and over in pace with my steps. The almost imperceptible daily shifts from enthusiasm to exhaustion to a second rush of adrenaline. The delicious relief of stretches and of back rubs from friends, and the joy of singing together in harmony.

All this was also an essential part of our journey. The walking was humbling, painful, joyful. I was reminded that we were walking in the footsteps of hundreds of Indigenous youth and water walkers, who for decades have been walking for justice. I learned that I could not rely only on my own strength to keep going, but that I needed 87-year-old Henry Neufeldt’s steady pace, 11-month-old Junia Boos’ radiant smiles, and 11-year-old Abbey Heinrichs’ courageous words. I learned that justice is slow and hard.

On a number of different occasions, the concept of decolonization came up in discussion. I’m still not certain that I can define it; I probably shouldn’t try. A few days before the end of the pilgrimage, some of my thoughts crystallized in a simple poem:

A Change of Heart

My parents raised me well

To seek justice

To act kindly

To see the world with compassion

And yet

I did not learn the meaning of humility

To say

I’ve hurt you

I’m sorry

My parents raised me well

To walk lightly on the earth

To leave no trace

To love the beauty of creation

And yet

I did not learn that the four-legged are my relatives

And the waters my sacred responsibility

My parents raised me well

To love knowledge

To listen, to question, to search

And yet

I did not learn to say

I don’t know

I was wrong

I am still learning

So I say these things now:

In my ignorance

Of my responsibilities

I have done harm

I am sorry

Thank you

For inviting me to learn from you

What it means to walk together

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Trudeau, Walk the Talk on UNDRIP

Dear Mr. Virani, Mr. Trudeau,

I’ve just finished my fourth day walking with the Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights, a walk from Kitchener to Ottawa to educate and engage with churches on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We are responding to Call to Action 48 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, which calls on churches to engage in ongoing public dialogue and actions to support the Declaration. We are a group of Christians from various denominations and provinces across Canada, ranging in age from 10 months to 87 years. Tonight we are staying in the Actinolite Community Hall, on our way to arrive in Ottawa on May 13.

We are walking in support of implementation of the Declaration, and also in support of Romeo Saganash’s Bill C-262 as a legislative framework for implementation. I have been heartened by the Liberal government’s affirmation of the Declaration and the initial work by the Working Group of Ministers to review Canadian laws through the lens of the Declaration. I hope that the government will take the further step of supporting Bill C-262. Robert Falcon-Ouelette’s Bill C-332, which the Liberal government is supporting, is much less likely than Bill C-262 to come up for a vote, and is essentially a weakened version of Mr. Saganash’s bill. Bill C-262’s 20-year timeline for annual reporting is crucial to ensure that efforts to implement the Declaration continue beyond the current government. It also acknowledges the long-term nature of reconciliation. Representatives of Canada’s government at the UN have spoken proudly of Romeo Saganash’s involvement in developing the Declaration, and it would be only right to stand behind him when it comes to implementing it.

May I ask if you will support Bill C-262? I would also like to invite you to our Walk the Talk rally in Ottawa on Saturday, May 13th at 2 pm. Will you be able to meet us there?

Best regards,

Esther

Walking the Talk

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. – Jer. 31: 33

Today I walked 27 kilometers from Norwood to Marmora, Ontario, on the shoulder of Highway 7. Yesterday, 30 kilometers from Peterborough to Norwood – much further than I’ve ever walked in my life. I feel it in my body: aching feet, legs, and back, a sunburned face. The roughly thirty people walking with me, from an 87-year-old man to a young woman with a ten-month-old baby, are in the same boat; we rub each other’s backs, pass around blister-treatment supplies. And yet, right now they are in the room above me singing hymns spontaneously. Our bodies are marvelous creations.

And as we walk, we are learning justice at a level deeper than intellect. Many of us are murmuring, in pace with our steps, the words of the articles from the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that we are memorizing, one or two each. I have chosen Article 28:

  1. Indigenous peoples have the right to redress, by means that can include restitution or, when this is not possible, just, fair and equitable compensation, for the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used, and which have been confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged without their free, prior and informed consent.
  2. Unless freely agreed upon by the peoples concerned, compensation shall take the form of lands, territories and resources of equal quality, size and legal status or of monetary compensation or other appropriate redress.

As we walk along the highway, past trees, fields, rivers, houses, strip malls and equipment sheds, as well as reams of windblown garbage, I am reminded that what we have done to this land cannot be undone. We can pick up the trash, plant trees, free rivers from concrete embankments, but there are scars that will not disappear. We cannot undo colonization. We can sometimes return what has been taken, but more often, we are working for a justice that is beyond our vision, that we will only discover in conversation, over generations. May the Creator open our hearts to listen, and to take action when we are told what is needed to begin to make things right.

Some actions that our neighbours and co-workers have asked us to take:

  • Read the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was identified in 16 of the 94 Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action as a framework for reconciliation. It’s only 15 pages! http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf
  • Ask our MPs to support Bill C-262, a private member’s bill by Romeo Saganash that would legally bind Canada to implement the Declaration (the NDP caucus has pledged to support the bill). KAIROS has published this action resource: https://www.kairoscanada.org/product/let-justice-roll-implement-united-nations-declaration-rights-indigenous-peoples
  • Come to the Walk the Talk rally on Parliament Hill on Saturday, May 13, at 2 pm. Our pilgrimage has been drawing rapidly increasing media attention over the last few days, and the rally is shaping up to be a critical moment to push the Liberal government to commit unequivocally to implementing the Declaration.

Wishing you well, friends, in all our journeys, and I hope to meet soon!

Why I’m walking the Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights

I’ve been hanging around Christian Peacemaker Teams’ Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Team for several years now, and gradually coming to a deeper understanding of what it means to walk with Indigenous communities. I’ve had the opportunity to hear from the elders and youth of Grassy Narrows First Nation about their decades-long struggle for a clean river. I’ve seen Haudenosaunee families take a stand for their traditional hunting rights in the face of racist opposition at Short Hills Provincial Park. I’ve gained a deep respect for Indigenous communities’ work to protect land and waters and to restore right relationships, and I’ve come to understand that all of us have a responsibility to participate in this work.

For me, the next step is to join Christian Peacemaker Teams and others on the Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights, a walk from Kitchener-Waterloo to Ottawa from April 23 to May 14. I will be walking from Peterborough to Ottawa from May 3 – 14. The pilgrimage will be stopping at churches and community centres along the way to foster conversations about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and its role as a framework for reconciliation. We will also be calling on the Canadian government to fulfill its promise to implement UNDRIP.

I am inviting my friends to join me in this commitment! There are many things we can do to help make right our relationships with Indigenous peoples in Canada at this time. To name a few:

  • Learn about UNDRIP and talk to your family, friends, or faith community. KAIROS and the Canadian Friends Service Committee have excellent resources.
  • Write to your Member of Parliament, as well as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, to ask them to support Bill C-262, a private member’s bill presented by NDP MP Romeo Saganash that would legally bind the Government of Canada to implement UNDRIP.
  • Help to support the pilgrimage financially by donating at pfir.ca (please add a note that you are supporting my participation!).

You can also join me on the walk! The pilgrimage will be passing through Toronto on April 27, and I will be guiding the walk for the day. We will also be gathering in the evening at Toronto Chinese Mennonite Church, 1038 Woodbine Ave.; all are welcome to come to a potluck dinner at 5:30 pm and a teach-in at 7 pm.

I am embarking on this pilgrimage with the intention of taking some time to reflect on my responsibilities as a settler in Canada. It seems right to do this while walking – moving at a natural pace, engaging my body as well as my mind. It seems even more right to do this in community, learning how to be together on a slow and sometimes challenging journey. I am hoping to spend much of this time unplugged. But on my return, I am hoping to share my reflections with my communities here, particularly my faith communities. So please reach out if you’d like to talk, or if you’d like me to come talk with your community. Mine is only one voice, and perhaps not the one that most needs to be heard, but I would like to walk together.

Unlearning White Jesus

On five days’ notice, I was recently asked to speak at a dinner for leaders of student faith groups at the university. The topic: religion and racialized identity. Or, as it applies to me, white privilege and Christian privilege. Two student leaders with years of experience writing and speaking on the intersection of religion and race were already on the program; but the organizers had gotten the feedback that it was important for a white speaker to address white privilege. And I was it. I agreed because I knew it was work I needed to do. And when I spoke, one person after another came to thank me for saying what I did; for challenging privilege in a way that might be perceived as too threatening if the speaker were a person of colour. This is a responsibility I can’t hide from anymore.

Because this is my blog and nobody can tell me to stop talking, I’m including several paragraphs that I had to cut from the final version.

I’ve been asked to speak about being a white Christian, which is a first for me. White privilege is something that’s called to my attention pretty much on a daily basis; Christian privilege is something that’s named much less frequently. Yet at these kinds of interfaith events, I’m very aware that most people know more about Christianity than I know about other faiths. I occasionally worship with members of the Baha’i community; when I first began to join their gatherings, I was rather embarrassed to discover that many Baha’is could articulately compare Baha’i and Christian beliefs about monotheism and the afterlife, when I didn’t even know the names of their prophets. We supposedly live in a secular society – but anyone who has studied literature or history in a Eurocentric educational system has had to learn about the influence of Christianity. And of course, our school and work holidays, even our weekends, are centred around Christian religious holidays.

All this is because Christianity is deeply intertwined with European culture, and European colonialism. I often have to remind myself how weird this is. I would imagine most of us have seen pictures of a smiling white Jesus with blue eyes, long, fair hair, and perfect teeth. And I would imagine most of us have some idea of how inaccurate that portrayal is. Jesus was Middle-Eastern, born into a working class Jewish family, and was executed by the Roman forces occupying Palestine at that time. It’s a pretty strange history that led to Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire three centuries later. It’s a vivid illustration of the twisted logic of imperialism that the poor, brown, nonviolent Jesus of history was made over into a white cosmic ruler who justified the conquest, colonization, and enslavement of racialized peoples across the world.

This certainly isn’t what I learned about Christian history in Sunday school. As it happens, I learned very little about the history of Christianity in Sunday school. I learned Bible stories. Every so often I find myself compelled to dig up the children’s Bibles that my parents chose for me. No blue-eyed, regally robed Jesus in these books, he’s a plainly dressed, brown-haired, brown-eyed man, nearly always surrounded by a crowd of men, women and children. But his skin is a few shades lighter than seems probable, and the dazzling smile remains. Jesus is warm and fuzzy and kind.

The first time I actually read the gospel of Mark, one of the accounts of Jesus’ life, all the way through, at the age of 19, I was a little disconcerted.  Jesus was angrier than I had thought. He got into arguments with religious scholars, chastised his disciples for their cluelessness, and killed an innocent fig tree for no sensible reason. He talked about his death a lot. He also challenged cultural norms in some pretty amazing ways: he treated women and children with respect; he chose both fishermen and tax agents as his disciples; he taught that leaders should serve others. I found myself taking inventory of what I actually knew about Jesus: He was a Middle Eastern Jew from a small town. He healed people. He was a good storyteller. He was homeless for at least part of his life, relying on the hospitality of strangers. He was labelled as crazy by his own family. He had a knack for antagonizing powerful people. He lived under occupation, and was ultimately killed by the occupiers of his country.

I hadn’t exactly realized before then that the central figure of my faith was a racialized, eccentric homeless man. From a young age, my parents had taught me that being Christian meant helping marginalized people and seeking justice. We served meals at a drop-in centre downtown, we wrote letters to politicians about social policy, we went to demonstrations. But it took me a long time to understand that that wasn’t just something we did to show that we were kind, compassionate, good Christians; that in fact, I can’t understand my own faith tradition without listening deeply to experiences that are different from mine.

As a teenager, I struggled to understand the Hebrew scriptures that form the largest part of the Bible. They tell the stories of a people that was enslaved, occupied, and exiled repeatedly by more powerful nations. Their voices lament oppression, plead for retribution, and sing for joy when they are finally freed. Their religious laws demand a level of economic equality that has probably never been lived out. It’s sometimes uncomfortable for me to hear their calls for a radical, even harsh, justice – and it should be. I’m not the protagonist in these stories. I’m called to listen, and to be changed by what I hear.

I’m learning that the most insidious aspect of privilege is that it keeps us unaware of our blind spots – that it prevents us from realizing what we don’t know. I’ve come to understand that my faith tradition is based on the stories of a racialized and occupied people. And clearly, my own perspective can only shed so much light on these stories. Sometimes, hearing another perspective offers small, unexpected insights. For instance, I’m able to understand certain images of fire in scripture in a new way after being told by a Haudenosaunee fire-keeper to think carefully about what we put in a sacred fire; that the fire is not for destroying things, but for offering gifts. Seeing my roommate struggle through Ramadan in summer, I remember that when Jesus talked about fasting, he didn’t mean giving up chocolate for the Lent season, or doing a 30-hour famine for charity with my youth group. Sometimes, a shift in perspective goes right to the core of my faith: I’ve never been able to imagine the crucifixion more vividly than by hearing the spoken-word poet Crystal Valentine declare that Jesus “died in the blackest way possible – with his hands up.”[1] I’m still figuring out the full implications of following a homeless, racialized, executed Jesus. I do know that it means showing up with those who are struggling against racism, religious prejudice, poverty, and all other oppressions; to offer support as I can, to share what I have, but not to save anyone but myself.

[1] ▶ 2:10

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPEdcr_XePk

Advent IV

A little poem for the last few days of Advent waiting.

Only God could have designed so perfectly

The shimmering snow that dusts the trees,

Guarding against the winter’s chill,

Storing up the cool rush

Of spring’s flourishing.

 

Only God could, smiling patiently,

Prepare such a feast

For the frozen soul’s

Awakening.

Advent III

One of my earliest poems, about learning to wait.

All is still.

All is quiet.

The city is a patchwork:

Brown houses, grey sidewalks,

Dark trees etched against a bright sky,

Snow scattered across the ground.

Pigeons huddle on wires,

People in houses.

The only noise is the hushing of forced air.

All is still.

And I no longer know

Whether the stillness is peace

Or emptiness.

All is still.

Advent 2 Reflection

While I’m at it, here’s the “sermon” I preached on Sunday. (I have a habit of volunteering to preach, and speaking for two or three minutes and then making everyone meditate.)

Reflection – Advent 2 (Dec. 4, 2016)

Isaiah 11:1–10; Psalm 72:1–7, 18–19; Romans 15:4–13; Matthew 3:1–12

We have some beautiful texts today looking to the coming of a peaceable kingdom. Isaiah and the Psalmist imagine a king utterly unlike any the world has seen – one who lifts up the poor and oppressed, who defends the needy, who is known for justice and righteousness. Who is as constant as the sun and moon, as nurturing as the rains. As the metaphors become more supernatural, we see that this is not simply a hope for a wise king who will bring peace and prosperity, but for a fundamental reordering of creation. A new creation in which the vulnerable need not fear, and predators cease taking life. This is not just a nationalist dream of a great leader, but a hope for the renewal of the whole world and all nations. It isn’t easy to know how to understand this vision in our own time, but it is a powerful vision nonetheless – a catalyst to imagine the complete transformation of structures of power and violence.

Yet sensitized as we are to hints of violence and condemnation, I know we’re all wondering what to make of John the Baptist’s words to the Pharisees. Images of fire in scripture are often about transformation rather than destruction, and John’s reference to a baptism of Spirit and fire is often read as a prophecy of Pentecost. Yet in this case the tone of condemnation seems unambiguous, as John foretells the cutting down and burning of trees that do not bear fruit, and speaks of winnowing away chaff from grain.

It is easy to read this passage through the lens of a theology of heaven and hell, of the salvation of the righteous and punishment of oppressors and hypocrites. Yet our popular images of heaven and hell owe more to Greek mythologies and later Christian theologies than to any belief system that John the Baptist would have known. Judean theologies of the time had begun to posit the idea of a resurrection of the dead to face judgement, but to this day Judaism has no theology of a hell of eternal punishment.

No, the core of John’s message is what he says first: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The Kingdom of God has come near – replacing God’s name with the word “heaven” was a pious habit of the time to respect the sanctity of God’s name. The gospel writer identifies John as the one crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” What John preaches is a return from exile. He brings people out into the wilderness to the river Jordan, the traditional boundary of Israel, submerges them in its waters, and turns them back towards their homeland, as if to say, “This is still the promised land. God’s kingdom is still coming here.”

The symbolism of the river Jordan suggests a return from exile, yet the act of baptism itself is a symbol of death and resurrection. To a people who did not learn to swim, submersion in a bath or pool suggested cleansing and purification, but submersion in a river usually meant drowning. To be baptized was to face death and rise from the waters as a new person, free of past sins. With this in mind, I’m wary of interpreting John’s words to the Pharisees as condemnation to destruction. His words do suggest that repentance can burn – that the humbling of those accustomed to power and respect is often experienced as a loss of self, a symbolic death. Yet all of us have both grain and chaff within ourselves. And though John denounces the Pharisees as vipers, Isaiah’s vision of a peaceable kingdom includes the homes of adders and asps that no longer cause harm.

So, let’s imagine what the peaceable kingdom, the reign of God on this earth, might look like.

Lectio Divina – Isaiah 11:1–10

Guide for Lectio Divina: http://www.emptybell.org/articles/pray.html

Advent II

So much for publishing a poem every Sunday of Advent… I’ll try to get back on track.

This was written some years ago under the influence of a very interesting essay collection from the Institute for Christian Studies titled, ‘God is Dead’ and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself.

Unfaith

God, we so easily get drunk from the fruits of prosperity;

Forget that though we tend the vines,

You are the soil.

 

God, we make you into one of us –

A warrior, wizard, king –

Because being children of the earth

Is not good enough.

 

God, tear down our idols,

Show us we are dust,

But yours nonetheless.

 

Take away our pride,

Restore our dignity.

Take away our money,

Give us wealth.

Take away our knowledge,

Give us wisdom.

Take away our lusts

And give us love.

 

For until we have nothing,

We will have nothing.

When we lose our faith,

We will know you.

Advent I

It was only really when I started going to an Anglican church that I started to understand Advent… and realized how direly I need this season every year. As a kid in church, Advent meant Christmas pageant rehearsals and carol practices – our minister talked about making room in our hearts for Christ, but I didn’t really know what that meant. Joining a community where Advent brought prophetic readings and minor key hymns of longing, it suddenly made sense. Waiting for God was already a viscerally real experience for me. Advent gave me a space to mourn the brokenness of our world, and kindle quiet hope for God’s eruption into our lives.

I’ve chosen four poems I’ve written over the years that trace something of an Advent journey. Here’s the first.

God I’m tired

Of straining my eyes and my heart

Looking for you.

I’m tired

Of chasing you through moments

Of great hope and deep despair.

I’m tired of stretching my imagination

To see you in the sky, the sea, the stars,

In a child’s motions, a mother’s love,

A stranger’s compassion.

I’m tired of you being

Just out of reach –

Or so far away I think you’re a delusion.

I’m tired of glimpses,

Of moments, of almosts –

 

I want to touch you,

To feel your embrace,

To melt into your warmth.

I want to know you,

Your thoughts,

Your suffering love,

Your joys and sorrows,

Your peace and your longing.

I want to lose myself –

My little hopes and fears,

My clumsy loves and despairs –

I want to lose myself

In the sea of your being.

 

I want my ifs and whys

To fall silent in your presence.

I want my sceptic mind

To come to rest in your all-knowing.

I want the pain to stop,

The broken to be whole,

The doubts to turn to peace,

The multitude to be one.

I want no longer to be myself,

But simply

To be.