Doing Justice

Finding Hope in 2018

Posted by | Creation Care, Doing Justice, Stewardship | No Comments
*This post first appeared on the DoJustice blog. It’s written by Cindy Verbeek, a new member of DMC’s Board of Directors!

As we sat in the fireside room at A Rocha’s property, Sir Ghillean Prance, a small group of volunteers and I (a stay-at-home mom) we felt a sense of awe that this man, who had been knighted by the queen for his work as a botanist, was so down to earth and hope-filled. One thing he said has stuck with me. When asked what gave him hope over his long career –he knew about and was working towards combating climate change already 20 years ago – his answer was: “Christ’s resurrection and human ingenuity”.

When asked what gave him hope over his long career Sir Ghillean’s answer was: “Christ’s resurrection and human ingenuity”.

At the time I understood the part about Christ’s resurrection. I was, after all, working for a Christian conservation organization and learning about how Christ’s act on the cross was intended for the redemption and restoration of ALL things (Colossians 1:19-20).

Let’s face it, the world is broken. Some believe it is beyond repair – we’ve hit the tipping point. Others believe it doesn’t matter – we’re here for a good time not a long time, as the song goes. Still others believe that it is inevitable, and we should just start praying for everything to end – it’s all going to burn up anyway. My heart breaks daily for the people and creatures on this planet as more and more studies pour out proving what biblical writers recognized thousands of years ago: the earth is groaning, waiting for God’s children to get it right (Romans 8:18-25). And yet, I refuse to lose hope. Why? Because the Gospel message is all about hope. Hope that Jesus meant what he said: he came that we may have life and have it more abundantly. Jesus gives us hope.

I wasn’t so sure, however, about the human ingenuity part of Sir Ghillean’s comment. I felt like if I wanted to reduce my impact on creation, I would have to crawl into a hole and eat locusts and honey, living a life of depravity and want. Stop eating meat, stop washing your hair, stop buying disposable shavers, stop stop stop. I could reduce my meat consumption, sure, but dreadlocks and hairy pits? That was just too far. I had three kids and a household to take care of all while struggling with bouts of depression and anxiety and I made more compromises than I liked to admit. Weighed down by guilt daily at my failure to live out my call as a good steward of the earth there were days when I wondered why I even cared. Nobody else seemed to. But as Mother Theresa said – it’s not about what others think anyway, when it comes right down to it, it’s between you and God.

Now, 20 years later, I am seeing creativity and delight in people’s reaction to the earth and a real movement in both society and faith groups that gives me hope. Everything from solar roads to collapsible straws you can keep on your key chain make me hopeful that Sir Ghillean was right: human ingenuity can help us walk alongside the Creator of the Universe in His restoration of a broken creation. I still make compromises for many reasons: mental health, efficiency, and yes, sometimes laziness. But here are several things that I have done that I am really proud of (knowing that I still have a long way to go) as well as some stories that inspire me to keep pushing into the question of what I can do next to care even better for creation.

Now, 20 years later, I am seeing creativity and delight in people’s reaction to the earth and a real movement in both society and faith groups that gives me hope.

How does your garden grow?

Gardening is, in my opinion, the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to creation care. Every church should have a community garden and everyone with access to land or even outdoor living space should grow what they can. Gardening reduces the amount of pollution spewed into the atmosphere by trucking our food thousands of kilometres to our local stores. Small hand-cultivated gardens reduce the amount of pesticides and herbicides needed to grow our food. Eating food from the garden is the cheapest way to get healthy organic foods. Harvesting food from a garden promotes sharing and community (especially during zucchini season!). And recent studies even show that there are anti-depressants in the soil so gardening is good for your mental health, not to mention other benefits of time spent outside like exercise and vitamin D from the sun.

No-poo, no plastic

This year I stopped washing my hair with shampoo. Inspired by YouTube videos showing the “No-poo” method I decided to try it for myself. It started as a New Year’s resolution and flowed into plastic-less Lent, a challenge I joined on Facebook for Lent. I ended up using shampoo bars instead to get rid of the plastic bottle.

Some other plastics I have left behind are:

  • plastic bags
  • straws (I bring my own metal straw)
  • one-time use utensils (I bought wooden utensils for those times I need disposable and one set of reusable plastic utensils to bring with me)
  • deodorant containers (I make my own)
  • cling wrap (I use reusable silicon covers)
  • toothbrushes (I have purchased bamboo toothbrushes for when my plastic one is finished)

I have learned that although I cannot do everything I can do something.

Do Justly now

Sometimes I get overwhelmed with the enormity of the brokenness and how little I can do. I have a saying on my wall (author unknown) that says,

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

I have learned that although I cannot do everything I can do something. That is why I am working in my backyard to raise Coho salmon and engage the local community in conservation in the watershed. To see what we are up to visit the A Rocha website. I am encouraged knowing there are other people doing something in their backyard and trust that together we can bring restoration. Together we are making a difference.

[Image: David Clode on Unsplash]

Manitoba Church on Mission to Bless its Community

Posted by | Doing Justice, Engaging Community, Uncategorized | No Comments

Mission statements are wonderful, aren’t they? They tell us exactly what an organization is all about. It proclaims to the entire world, ‘This is why we exist!’ It gives us a clear picture of what motivates a certain group of people to do what they do.

For instance, here’s one:

“To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”

Can you guess whose mission statement that is? Nike! It’s spot on, right?

Or this one…

“To refresh the world…To inspire moments of optimism and happiness…To create value and make a difference.”

Hmmm, that one’s a bit tougher. Could it be a church or faith organization? Nope! It’s Coca Cola. But again, makes sense, eh?

At First CRC in Brandon, MB, their mission reads like this:

“To foster Christian growth, develop our spiritual gifts, and engage our local and global community through acts of love, mercy, and justice all for the glory of God.”

Wow, that’s pretty clear, isn’t it? Isn’t this what being a Christ-follower is all about? Isn’t this what church is all about? Loving God (fostering Christian growth and developing their spiritual gifts) and loving others (engaging their local and global community through acts of love, mercy, and justice all for the glory of God). It’s simple, comprehensive, and theologically sound.

Now while a mission statement clearly communicates what an organization is trying to accomplish, and even why they are trying to accomplish it, sometimes the HOW is where things get a bit messy and a bit more difficult.

For First CRC, they’ve been discovering that one practical way for them to fulfill their mission is to partner with a community ministry where one of their members is already serving! They call this new initiative “Opportunity to Bless”, or OTB for short. OTB was a ministry Pastor Doug VandeKamp (a former DMD no less!) heard about at a Brandon Ministerial Association meeting back in April. Pastor Vern Kratz of Calvary Temple shared that his church’s OTB ministry had been one of the biggest catalysts for moving that church from being inward-focused to becoming outward-oriented and that caught the attention of Pastor Doug.

Shortly after that initial conversation between the two pastors, OTB began at First CRC. Here is a quick look at how the OTB ministry works at First CRC:

  • The church compiles a list of agencies where their own church members are involved. Anything from the local MCC Thrift Store to the Crisis Pregnancy Centre to Youth for Christ. Once the OTB partner is confirmed, the church approaches a different agency each month to ask what some of their practical needs currently are (e.g. diapers, baby food, etc.). Prior to the next month starting, a presentation is given in church to challenge the congregation to bring in the needed items and place them in a designated collection area;
  • Knowing there may not be a ministry every month with a local CRC connection, the church’s council, who fully endorses this new ministry, can also be asked for their input on other ministries/opportunities in their community. Another option is to pair up with Calvary Temple (which started the OTB ministry) and support whatever their monthly cause is or to check with a neighbouring church to see what local agencies its members support and lend them a hand. The ultimate goal is to provide the congregation at First CRC an opportunity to bless a local agency;
  • On the final Sunday of the month, a member of the organization’s leadership is invited to come and share how the OTB items will bless their organization and to retrieve the items collected over the month.

The OTB ministry had been one of the biggest catalysts for moving that church from being inward-focused to becoming outward-oriented.

The above logo was designed by Emily Campbell Baker, a member of First CRC in Brandon, MB. Here’s her explanation for her design: “The logo is simple, yet fun – hence the playful typeface used for OTB – because blessing others brings joy! A somewhat hand-rendered quality gives the logo a home-grown, hand-crafted touch – not perfect, crisp, or clean by any means. This is appropriate because even though humans aren’t perfect, the church is still blessing others through their actions and the things they do and say.
“Lastly, the top of the “T” from “OTB” overlaps with the crook of the heart, which creates an abstract cross that sprouts from the middle and wraps around into the heart shape. It is a reflection back to Jesus, who is the ultimate blessing, blesser, and the reason behind it all.”

Besides OTB being a natural and practical fulfillment of their church’s mission to ”engage [their] local community through acts of love, mercy and justice,” the leadership is discovering there are so many benefits for their church and its members, and of course for their community. First and foremost, Pastor Doug hopes this will be a constant reminder to his church’s members that God is always at work in their community and that they can be a part of His work in a variety of ways! One of the best aspects of this ministry is that everyone can be a part of this exciting new venture! No matter a person’s age, background, or abilities, each member can be involved by buying and dropping off donations, offering prayer support, by spreading the word, and more. And since First CRC is a small congregation with only one (1) deacon currently (normally they have 2-3), a ministry that engages their entire church, with little-to-no volunteer recruitment needed, also makes a lot of sense.

One of the first recipients of the OTB ministry was the MCC Thrift Store in Brandon. Shelly, the manager, had never been to a Christian Reformed Church before and knew little about the denomination, but one of her volunteers at the store is a member at First CRC. With a special birthday coming up, the church wanted to honour this particular member by donating to one of her favourite charities. This member suggested the MCC Thrift Store so the church got in touch with Shelly. Since most thrift stores see an abundance of donations come in each day, Shelly wondered if the church could help their thrift store bless one of their partners! Several times throughout the year Brandon Correctional Centre, the local jail, calls upon the thrift store to see if they can donate clothing for someone who is set to be released. Often times the men being released have nothing to their names but the outfit they arrived in so a few more pieces of clothing can offer them a sense of dignity and a good start. Shelly asked the church is they could collect Men’s Plus Size clothing (something they typically never have enough of at the store). When Shelly was asked to come to First CRC the last Sunday of the month, she thanked the congregation for their kindness and support and took home three stuffed Rubbermaid totes of men’s clothing. She was struck by how a church she knew nothing of would want to help her so that she could help others in the community that depended on her agency. It reminded her of how no matter what church we attend or what faith-based agency we work for, we are all part of GOD’S CHURCH. And ultimately, Shelly remarked, it’s about what GOD is doing in us and through us: “The more we see what God is doing in the community, the more we can marvel at Him.”

“The more we see what God is doing in the community, the more we can marvel at Him.”

While this new ministry continues to unfold, “part of the delight,” remarks Pastor Doug, “will be discovering God’s blessings along the way as this ministry gets up and running.” As members of the church continue to learn about what it means to live on mission through the OTB ministry, he hopes more and more will be inspired to invite a friend, neighbour, or coworker to help out.

What a beautiful way to help the light of God’s love shine as the church works together, on mission!

(A big thanks to Pastor Doug for sharing this story with Erin Knight, and also to Shelly for her contributions.)

What About Your Church?

  • What is your church’s mission? How does your diaconate live that out?
  • What new ministry has your church recently begun? How is it going? What are you learning?
  • Do you think an OTB ministry would work at your church? Why or why not?
  • Does your diaconate have some ideas but you need help flushing them out? We have Diaconal Ministry Developers (DMDs) and our Regional Ministry Developers here to help you out!

Paying it Forward: A Refugee’s Story

Posted by | Doing Justice, Uncategorized | No Comments

Fred received the honor of cutting the ribbon, along with John and his mother, and Royce & Pietie Boskers

Here at DMC, one of the great privileges we have is hearing YOUR stories of how God is at work in your church and community. Below is a story that was shared by Mr. Fred Abma, a Deacon at Bethel CRC in North Edmonton, at the recent Day of Encouragement held in Edmonton.

John Lendein is a friend of mine. He came from a tiny village in Liberia, Africa, called Bettesu. This was home for John and his parents before the rebellion war. During that time, John’s mother, Hawa, was very instrumental in bringing the Christian faith to her village. Of course this came with many detrimental consequences: she was even thrown in prison for her faith. Fortunately for John, he was sponsored by his uncle and was able to leave the war-torn country. He came to Canada by himself in 2003 and started attending Bethel CRC. Tragically, John’s father had been killed by Rebels in the Rebellion War, but John’s wife and children and his mother were able to flee to a Refugee Camp in Ghana.
After letting some members of Bethel know his story, plans were set into motion to sponsor John’s mother, wife and family as refugees to Canada. In 2005 John was reunited with his family and they were all able to come to Edmonton.
But the story doesn’t end there; for John this was just the beginning! As a boy, John had to walk a couple of hours to attend school. He had a dream to build a school in his own village of Bettesu and by sharing that with some of the members at Bethel CRC, that dream started to become a reality. Funds were raised for not only the school, but a church building also! The school was built to educate 100 children and the members of Bethel also sponsored individual children to help them purchase uniforms and books. Two years later the school was expanded to accommodate 260 students! A proper latrine was built and a well is currently being worked on for clean water. ALL of the work was done by the local people of that village.

In total, Bethel CRC raised $150,000 for Bettesu with the intention that one day, the village will be able to support the school itself. In order to do this, the village has started various micro-projects. These projects include planting palm trees for the production of palm oil and rice fields.
Two years ago, I (Fred) had the privilege to go to Bettesu with John and his mother, Hawa, to officially open the school and the church and be a part of the community for a time. It was an experience of a lifetime. It was great to see God’s Spirit working through us in a different part of the world.

What an incredible story! This gives us a wonderful picture of a family finding refuge here in Canada but still wanting to bring hope and a future BACK to their village where they came from.

As the story states, there were no other agencies helping this village out with this extensive building project; just the people from this little village and other nearby villagers – from making the bricks on site to painting it. All of the materials used were from their own village or brought from the nearest city; a real trek to get it to Bettesu. This was truly an amazing community effort.

To many, Bethel is known as the “helping church”. They are a very active church located in a lower income area and their Deacons are very involved with benevolence. This story demonstrates beautifully how churches can help people help themselves. Providing assistance in a way that creates sustainable solutions is how churches and diaconates can move beyond good intentions to providing lasting change! (Find out more here.)

John is back in Canada along with his mother, wife and 4 children and still attends Bethel CRC. He was also a delegate to Synod last year! Praise God as He continues to work in us and through us, giving us the desire and the power to do what pleases Him! (Phil. 2:13)

SO WHAT ABOUT YOU?

Does your diaconate have a story they’d like to share? Where is God at work in your church and community? Email Erin today.

Churches invited to be part of the Restorative Justice Process

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Restorative justice, in its simplest form, is the attempt to make things as right as possible between victims, offenders, and the wider community when some harm or crime happens.  But what does that look like for those of us who work mostly with offenders, the folks who’ve hurt others or caused some sort of harm to others?

Most of my work is with men and women who’ve done federal prison time, and are transitioning into the Edmonton area.  They are trying to write new chapters for their lives, to walk new paths, to live in ways that are not defined by their pasts.  What does it for them to “make things as right as possible”?

Part of the answer, I think, is for faith communities and churches to create safe, welcoming spaces for folks leaving prison.

Every other Saturday, I facilitate a men’s group that usually consists of about a dozen men who’ve done time, and a dozen volunteers who want to support their reintegration. The group provides the space for our friends to explore a new identity, a new story for themselves – one that is not defined by crime, past abuse, or poor decisions.  Rather, through discussions, outings, and – most importantly – eating together, the men who attend can start to heal, seeing themselves as people with a new future.  They can start to ask what it might mean to make things right with the people they’ve hurt.  And when they mess up or take a few steps back, our group is there to pick them up again.

Churches and faith communities are just the sort of places capable of providing this sort of community.  It can be as simple as connecting with a local prison chaplain, reintegration chaplain, or community support program and asking where to begin.

Another important way to empower offenders to “make things right” with the wider community is to give opportunities for them to give back.  Are there jobs that we can offer to former inmates as they make a new start, so that they can provide for loved ones, support themselves, be part of a healthy workplace, and contribute to the wider community?  Are there volunteer opportunities that churches or their partners can offer, so that they can be givers and not just service-recipients?

Finally, churches and faith communities can make space for former inmates in their pews (or folding chairs or coffee shop benches).  Many former inmates long for a sense of belonging.  Churches can offer just that by the simple act of inviting them to church on Sundays, for coffee afterwards, or for lunch at the nearby diner when church is over.  Those simple invitations can be an echo of Jesus’ invitation to “all those who are weary and heavy-burdened,” and can be an opportunity to journey with someone who – like all of us – needs a fellow pilgrim to join them on their way to making things right with those they’ve hurt.

-written by Jonathan Nicolai-deKoning (Rev), Reintegration Chaplain, Open Door Program (The Mustard Seed, Edmonton, AB)

The Open Door Program (participants and staff pictured above) is an Operation Manna partner.

 

Willoughby CRC Hosts Play for Restorative Justice Week

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About 60 people gathered at Willoughby CRC (Langley, B.C.) on Nov 19 to see a dramatic presentation of “Forgiven/Forgotten” that set the tone for Restorative Justice Week.  The event was facilitated by Willoughby’s Just-Faith Forum, sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee and Trinity Western University’s school of the Arts, Media and Culture.

After the CRC in Canada (with its various partners) completed a 2-year study on the intersection of justice and faith in the Canadian CRC context, a one act play toured the country and brought the results of the study to life. Churches across Canada, like Willoughby CRC, responded in various ways to the tour.  Willoughby formed a JustFaith committee and, this Fall, helped to facilitate the production of the Forgiven/Forgotten play.

In this play, the talented cast of four with the traveling theatre company, Theatre of the Beat, engaged the crowd with a dramatization of what ordinary people experience when someone incarcerated returns “home” from prison.   The complete human drama of returning to society is usually unspoken and disregarded in our society, but it gripped us intimately that evening as it became real on the stage.

Through the actors’ dramatization, it became clear that sending someone to prison doesn’t do justice to the needs of the human beings involved; rather, it harms. The script is outlined: “Torn between compassion and their fear of the unknown, a church is thrown into turmoil upon hearing that an offender will be serving his parole in their community.”  It is precisely the human dimension of justice that is neglected by the formal criminal justice system.  Crime in our society is regarded as a legal offence against the state by having broken its laws; how people, even victims, are harmed, and who should meet their needs is not central to our present justice system. Restorative justice provides a different way.

The ripple effect of an incarceration and the impending parole disturbs the well-being of a human community.  The actors poignantly represented a variety of human reactions and unspoken fears. The wife of the prisoner struggles to keep her needs and situation secret as she desires church fellowship. Her desire to hide the fact that her husband is coming home from prison is made complex by her desire for normalcy in her young son’s life.  Church members, upon learning that the unknown prisoner husband will be coming to their community, anxiously confront their fears. The pastor wrestles with his theology as the gospel becomes personal.  Restorative justice calls for meaningful human response, the affirmation of each person’s worth, and for inclusion.

This play gets beyond the rhetoric of headlines and explicates the community drama behind the scenes of the prison and release experience.  It clearly shows the importance of restorative justice.  Although it is not necessarily without some pain as personal feelings and biases are faced, it is a ministry that brings reconciliation and needed community support for the prisoner and his/her family.

-written by Henry Smidstra, organizer of the Forgiven/Forgotten play (italicized paragraph added for context)

For more on restorative justice, click here.

Will you be there?

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Diaconal Ministries Canada and Christian Reformed Home Missions invite you to join us at the Day of Encouragement this Saturday in Ancaster, Ontario. There will be times of sharing and connecting, great worship, and plenty of opportunities to be equipped in all different areas of ministry in your church and community.

Our theme for this year is Mess is More: Finding Mission in Mayhem.

Life can be messy. It doesn’t take long to think of times in our lives which have been filled with disappointment and pain. And when our church is intentional about engaging with its neighbours, we seem to encounter situations that can be overwhelming, daunting and sometimes even discouraging. And yet, these situations are also full of opportunity.

Jesus left the perfection of Heaven and chose to live in the messiness of earth. He entered into it, felt the pain of it, and was full of compassion and mercy for a hurting world. As followers of Christ. we are called to respond with the same love and compassion -and empathy. Those who are hurting around us are people who share in the same brokenness of a fallen world as we do. This is the common ground on which relationships may be built. This is the place to begin mission in that mayhem.

The Day of Encouragement is meant for you to come and be encouraged and equipped to do just that. Wherever you serve in the church and community, this day is for you.

So come and join the many people who will gather together in Jesus’ name! Come learn and share, and be inspired to follow when you hear Jesus calling you to walk with Him into, and in spite of, the messiness around you.

We pray that the Day of Encouragement will bless you richly! See you there!

Click here to go to the website to register and learn more.

Doing Justice to Short-Term Mission Trips

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Short-term mission trips are a hot topic in the Christian Reformed Church right now, and in the broader Western church in general. Millions of North Americans travel to both far off and nearby places every year with the intention of sharing the good news of Christ to those living in poverty, or places where the gospel is not well known.

These trips, otherwise short-formed to “STMs,” usually involve travelling to a different country for a brief period of time—anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of months. Most groups are composed of volunteers within a church congregation. These volunteers sacrifice time, money, and resources to travel, serve, and share the gospel. It sounds great, right? What could be possibly be wrong with that?

Short-term missions frequently do very little to address injustice.

This past weekend I spent three days in Ridgetown, Ontario, at a festival called “Cahoots!” It’s organized by the Student Christian Movement and the Beansprout Collective, and is in its third year.

The idea behind Cahoots! is to gather anyone who is interested in the intersection of faith, justice and activism. All are welcome: LGBTQ+, refugees, people of colour, privileged white folks, clergy, queer persons, and anyone on the margins of the church or of society.

By no means was this a “Reformed” event, and it pushed me far out of the comfort zone I sat in for nearly 20 years at a fairly traditional CRC. However, I definitely found the presence of the Spirit among the wonderful, ramshackle group that gathered. And, interestingly enough, I found myself a minority. The amount of straight, white men there was minimal. Perhaps I was given an extremely small taste of what life on the margins is like for many people.

Part of my participation at the festival was leading a workshop with my good friend, Justin, on STMs, entitled “Doing Justice to Short Term Experiences.” Justin has spent large parts of his life involved in short-term missions in Canada, the Philippines, Guatemala, and this coming autumn, South Africa. Justin brought a lot of knowledge of cross-cultural experiences, while I brought a keen understanding of Biblical justice, and my own STM experience in Northern Ireland, to the workshop.

During the lead-up and the debriefing of the workshop, I spent much time reflecting on what I had been reading, and what I heard during and after the workshop. I was left with four ideas about short-term experiences that I would like to highlight:

  1. It’s not about you. It’s about the people and place you’re visiting. Churches usually send out short-term missionaries with the intent of hearing from the volunteers when they are back in North America, rather than hearing from people in the receiving place. This attitude can allow for neo-colonialism, paternalism, and privilege to rear their ugly heads, creating what is now commonly known as “White Saviour Complex.”
  2. It’s not a vacation. Cross-cultural experiences are complicated, and we need to learn how to take postures of listening and humility—not which posture is best for our next “selfie.”
  3. Language matters. The commonly accepted term for missions in the CRC comes from the Latin missio, from mittere, which literally means “to send.” The notion of sending Christians out to evangelize is a popular and attractive one to many Western Christians today. However, as we embrace this sending, it sometimes speaks to the faint (and often unnoticed) colonial repercussions of concepts like the Doctrine of Discovery. This is not to deny the importance of mission, but our sending can come at the expense of transformed relationships, and be tinged with paternalism.
  4. Robust preparation is crucial. In order to communicate and learn well across cultural boundaries, education about the country, city, or village being visited is of paramount importance. What is the theological background of the receiving location? Who are the leaders in the community? Are the people being sent empowering and inviting the community they’re visiting to participate in our process?

Ultimately, a cultural and structural change within our churches needs to happen. There must be a fundamental shift in the way we talk about, practice, and listen to stories of short-term missions. Rather than calling them “missions,” we may be better off to call them “learning trips” or “cross-cultural experiences.” We need to begin asking if these trips are creating any lasting or transformative change in those being sent, or those receiving.

If the goal of Biblical justice is to return to the shalom we experienced when God created us, then the motives and end goals of short-term mission trips need to reflect this.

Want to talk more about short-term missions and your church? Contact DMC’s Justice Mobilizer, Dan Galenkamp, and dgalenkamp@crcna.org.

A Step Towards Reconciliation

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“When you hear about all the assimilation policies one after the other, you sit back and think ‘whoa,’” says Shannon Perez. Shannon has experienced and led the Blanket Exercise, an interactive workshop developed by KAIROS that walks participants through the history of Canada from the perspective of Indigenous peoples, dozens of times. As a Sayisi Dene woman, Shannon knows firsthand that even those who know and have lived parts of the history, like herself, can learn much from the experience of “stepping into the moccasins” of Indigenous peoples and hearing the whole sweep of history at once.

Shannon has spent much of her time in the last year training Blanket Exercise facilitators across both Canada and the United States, and she knows there is much more work yet to be done, despite all the progress that has been made. “There are still people who don’t know about residential schools,” she says.

Many who have gone through the Blanket Exercise are now looking for more opportunities to learn, so the Christian Reformed Church has responded with a 7-part small group series called Living the 8th Fire, based around the CBC’s 8th Fire documentary series, a hugely successful series that launched its narrator, Wab Kinew, into national fame. “When we sit in circle after a Blanket Exercise, one of the most common questions is: so now what?” says Mike Hogeterp, Director of the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue. “We usually respond with encouragement to learn more and build relationships. In a sense Wab Kinew’s invitation to ‘get to know the neighbours’ in this excellent video series is a way to begin some of that learning and living in relationship with Indigenous neighbours. We know that the journey of reconciliation is a challenge, a blessing and a deeply spiritual journey. The 8th Fire videos and this curriculum draw us into this journey in a friendly and moving way.”

The curriculum provides more time and space to explore topics that people heard about through the Blanket Exercise, says Shannon. If the Blanket Exercise is about getting your feet wet, the Living the 8th Fire series is about diving deeper.

Shannon led the series for a mixed group of Indigenous and settler people last year at her church, Good News Fellowship in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her pastor, Kasey Vander Veen, participated. One of the sessions uses the CBC 8th Fire episode “It’s Time” and includes a quick summary of 500 years of history, narrated by Wab Kinew. “It really makes you realize—there’s a lot to be done. Where do we even start?” Kasey, whose background before becoming a pastor was in counselling, says that he learned that settler people need to be much more sensitive to the trauma that Indigenous people carry as a result of colonization. “We say sometimes, ‘just get on with it’, but would you say that to someone who experienced the Holocaust? We don’t understand trauma, especially intergenerational trauma like Indigenous people are experiencing.”

Kasey also emphasized that having these conversations with both Indigenous and settler people in the room is invaluable. “When you have these discussions with Indigenous peoples rather than about them, you get a lot more sensitized to what’s going on. It totally changes the experience.”

Shannon, who played a key role in fine-tuning the curriculum, agrees. She highlights that the course is designed not only to teach about reconciliation, but to be an example of reconciliation in action. “Because we’re talking about Aboriginal culture, we wanted to include Aboriginal culture in the design.” The course uses Aboriginal prayers and sharing circles frequently. When the course was held at Good News Fellowship, an Aboriginal elder participated and often led the group in Aboriginal ceremonies. “We’re honouring Aboriginal culture and helping people to get more comfortable with it,” says Shannon. After watching each video, the group would have a sharing circle, which for Shannon was one of the most memorable parts of the experience. “Even people who had already seen the videos were affected by them again,” said Kasey.

The course is designed so that the facilitator doesn’t have to be an expert in the subject, with a consistent structure for each of the seven sessions. Each session, the group opens with prayer, follows a warm-up activity from the curriculum, watches an 8th Fire video, shares in circle, and closes with prayer.

Kasey says the 8th Fire and other opportunities he’s had to learn about the relationship between Indigenous and settler Canadians has helped corrected some of his own assumptions and helped him to understand where my Indigenous neighbours are coming from—like the First Nations people that he meets at the park down the road or the Metis woman who lives on the same apartment floor as he does.

“It’s time that we talk. The 8th Fire is about us all coming to the fire together. These things happened…now what? What does reconciliation mean? The Apology for residential schools happened…now what?” he says.

Kasey says we have to take these first steps of reconciliation, even if the challenges at hand seem overwhelming and we don’t know exactly where they will take us. “Then you see some little kid on the Internet whose heart is touched by something in the news and ends up raising a bunch of money. They just took a step and didn’t know where God would take it. We just have to take those first steps.”

Does the prospect of reconciliation overwhelm you? Invigorate you? Leave you with a desire to learn more? Whoever you are, Living the 8th Fire may be a good next step.

If you would like to learn more about running the 8th Fire series at your church, visit this page on the Canadian Aboriginal Ministry Committee’s toolkit or contact Shannon Perez (Justice and Reconciliation Mobilizer for the Christian Reformed Church) at camc@crcna.org.

written by Danielle Rowaan, Justice Communications Team Coordinator for several justice ministries of the Christian Reformed Church 

A Part of the Body

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I was born and raised in the Christian Reformed Church. My parents were missionaries in the Navajo Nation. As a passionate believer, I witnessed to my playmates and started begging to take communion when I was seven because I had asked Jesus into my heart. I expected that God would one day call me to serve. When I was sixteen, two women at Rehoboth Mission were discovered to be lovers and were expelled. A year earlier, I’d had a romantic relationship with my best friend, which confirmed something I’d sensed for a long time about who I was. I was terrified, thinking that I, too, might be expelled from the church that had cradled me and nurtured my spiritual growth, the church I loved.

Within two months of what happened to those two women, I became what would today be a statistic. I tried for the first time to kill myself. Studies show that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers.

In Canada, 33% of LGBTQ youth have attempted suicide in comparison to 7% of youth in general. About 25% of transgender youth report suicide attempts in the USA, and 28% in Canada (Taylor et al. 2011). In 1964, we were so invisible that such statistics, if they were compiled at all, were probably highly inaccurate.

Sadly, the statistics on LGBTQ depression and suicide among churchgoing youth are even higher than in the general population. The place where we should feel the safest and most supported as we struggle to understand God’s will for us as believers is most often a place fraught with danger and judgment. I struggled with my sexuality, scripture, and my place in faith communities for the next nine years, attempting suicide a second time. In 1973, when the CRC position on homosexuality was published, I left my church.

For the next forty years I tried to reconcile who God had made me to be with how most Christians saw me and how they interpreted what the Bible had to say about me. I learned from other spiritual traditions, where I was welcome. I also served the LGBTQ community in a peer-support and advocacy organization I cofounded and as a professional counselor.

In a recent discussion, a member of the CRC suggested that the church was right to deny LGBTQ people full membership. She compared the organization I’d served to the church, saying that our group would have rightly kept out people that held anti-gay positions. At first I thought that wasn’t a bad analogy. Then I said to myself, “No! The Church is not just an organization. The Church is The Body of Christ. The Church is not allowed to say to one part of the Body, ‘We have no need of you.’”

Anna Redsand’s memoir, To Drink from the Silver Cup: From Faith Through Exile and Beyond will be released in July. Anna lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, where she is a part of The Body of Christ in a Presbyterian church. She cares deeply about what happens in her first church home.

For more information:

Eisenberg, Marla E., and Michael D. Resnick. 2006. “Suicidality Among Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth: The Role of Protective Factors.” Journal of Adolescent Health 39: 662–668.

Kim, Y., & Leventhal, B. (2008). Bullying and suicide: A review. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 20(2), 133–154 Saewyc, Elizabeth M. 2007. “Contested Conclusions: Claims That Can (and Cannot) Be Made from the Current Research on Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Teen Suicide Attempts.” Journal of LGBT Health Research 3 (1): 79–87.

Sanchez, J., Diaz, R., Huebner, D., Russell, S., and Caitlin Ryan. 2010. “Family Acceptance in Adolscence and the Health of LGBT Young Adults”. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing 23 (4): 205-213.

Taylor, C., Peter, T., McMinn, T. L., Elliott, T., Beldom, S., Ferry, A., Gross, Z., et al. (2011). Every class in every school: The first national climate survey on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian schools. Final Report. Toronto, ON: Egale Canada Human Rights Trust.