Image: Tsiigehtchic from the Mackenzie River
In our first reading today, we find St. Paul preaching the message of the Gospel in a foreign land and introducing Jesus to people who are hearing about him for the first time. It is an opportunity to talk about evangelization, the gift that it offers and the pitfalls of which we need to be aware.
The historical relationship between the Church and Indigenous people in Canada should color the lens 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 which, as baptized people, we are called to do.
Serious harm has been done to indigenous cultures 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 and attempted to integrate the native population into the dominant culture.
When I hear the preaching of St. Paul in today’s first reading I cannot 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. At one point in history, the Church in Canada came to the Indigenous people not as the humble servants that Jesus called us to be but rather as partners of the government as together, they established the Indian Residential School System. St. Paul, on the other hand, 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 or group has power over another it is very difficult to have an equal and honest dialogue. Paul could only state his case and hope for the best.
The second difference is that of Inculturation. The Church in Canada during the time of the residential schools 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 steppingstone 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 cannot 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 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 do not mean to malign all those who worked hard to spread the Gospel at great personal sacrifice. Yet, if we are not willing to examine our efforts in a critical manner, we will be condemned to repeat the same mistakes again.
It is important to do so 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 another person’s story and experience and not insisting on our own narrative, and by letting the person who comes to us discover how God is calling them and not be too quick to step in the way of what God is trying to do in their lives with our own ideas and interpretations.
The Gospel today reminds us to “Trust the Spirit who will guide you to all truth.” Let us turn to the Spirit and ask for the help we need as a nation longing for Truth and Reconciliation.