Image: Greenhouse Statue
The historical relationship between the Church and Indigenous people in Canada should color the lenses of anyone who is working in ministry today, especially as we look at healthy ways to evangelize and to bring hope through the message of the Gospel.
Serious harm has been done to aboriginal culture across our country, in part, by missionaries who came as partners of a system of colonization which took children away from their families and stripped them of their traditional dress, language and spirituality to “civilize” and integrate the native population.
When I hear the preaching of St. Paul in today’s first reading I can’t help but look through those colored lenses and ask myself what are the differences between St. Paul’s attempt to convert the Greeks from their native spirituality to Christianity and what the missionaries across Canada did to the native peoples of this land? What can we learn from those differences that will make us better at sharing the Good News?
The first big difference is power. The Church in Canada came to the Indigenous people not as the humble servants that Jesus called us to be but rather as agents of the government. St. Paul came without any power, in fact he was on the run trying to avoid persecution. The Areopagus where he spoke was an important center for the Greeks, Paul was on their turf at their invitation. Whenever one person has a degree of power over another it is very difficult to have an honest dialogue about Spiritual matters. Paul could only state his case and hope for the best.
The second difference is that of Inculturation. The Church in Canada made a point of stripping away the culture of the Indigenous people seeing it as an obstacle to their conversion and integration into the larger society. St. Paul took the opposite approach by using the religious practice of the people as a stepping stone to helping them understand what belief in Jesus could add to their spirituality.
Finally, there is the matter of choice. Faith must be freely chosen, it can’t be legislated or coerced. The policy of the Indian Residential School system made attendance mandatory for the children of aboriginal families and those who resisted were rounded up by police officers. St. Paul, on the other hand, let his message land on free ears. Some people mocked him and made his life difficult but other, intrigued, asked to hear more.
It is easy to look back and point out the mistakes of others and I don’t mean to malign all those who worked hard to spread the Gospel at great personal sacrifice. At the same time if we are not willing to examine our efforts in a critical manner we will be condemned to repeat the same mistakes again.
This is important still because the work of evangelization continues and we want to participate in that work in a healthy and life-giving way. We can do so by; being a mentor who shares, not an expert who coerces, by honoring the other’s story and experience and not insist on our own narrative, and by letting the person who comes to you discover how God is calling them and not be quick to claim them as a convert for your own sense of gratification. “Trust the Spirit who will guide you to all truth.”