By Peter Fehr
Reshaping My Thinking About the Pain of Indigenous People
He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore (Micah 4:3; Isaiah 2:4).
The prophets Micah and Isaiah share a vision. Isaiah’s vision was for Judah and Jerusalem; Micah’s was for the last days, where nations cultivated relationships and not strife. It was a God-given vision for his people. For two decades or so this vision has been part of my journey. It is a vision that reshaped my thinking. At times the reshaping was a slow process; in other times it was jolting and painful.
Testimonies of great grief and pain
At Truth and Reconciliation Commission meetings I attended in Edmonton, one of the exercises was to witness a sharing circle. As I sat in on this event, I was struck by how much grace was extended to us as participants shared their very real, painful and vulnerable stories.
From the perimeter of the room, I listened to testimonies that bore great grief and pain. A woman small in stature began to share. Her voice matched her stature—small, soft-spoken. She had a way of immediately drawing me in. It was easy to be with her as she picked berries as a child or wildly rode horses through the meadows with her sisters. I felt the anguish her family went through as they tried to comply with the law to sent their children to an approved school.
Here, her story took a dramatic turn. She fell to the floor, broke down and began to wail. “Why was it so bad to live with her family, why was being First Nation evil? Why, Duncan Campbell Scott, would you allow evil people to come and do unimaginable things to children with no consequences? Why, Duncan Campbell Scott, would you make laws that tore families apart?” For five minutes she lay on the floor wailing and asking why.
The sword in my thinking and attitude
An ugly sword was revealed inside of me as I sat in that room: “I wasn’t part of the residential school, the sixties scoop. I had no part in it. I am not at fault here.”
That sword in my thinking and attitude seemed so unbelievably cruel as I sat in the presence of her pain and vulnerability. How could I ever wield such a sword as she lay there exposed? That feeling became overwhelming and the sword began to be reshaped.
The thinking changed from, “I was not part of the problem,” to “How can I be part of the solution?”’ “What is my part in finding healing and redemption in our ugly and painful past?” occupied my thinking.
‘I didn’t keep my promise’
As a friend and I were doing follow-up after a summer of camp, we were invited in for tea and bannock at a grandparent’s house. We sat at their table, and the grandmother shared the difficulty she was going through with relationships in her family.
She went on to tell of when she was nine years old and a red suburban pulled up to their three-generation cabin. Two police officers and a man dressed in black talked with her parents and grandparents. When both her parents and grandparents started crying, she, along with her two younger brothers, ran to see what was the matter. She was especially affected at how distraught her grandmother became. They were told the children had to leave their home and go to school, otherwise their parents would go to jail.
She remembers her grandmother taking her by the shoulders and telling her, as the oldest, she had to take care of her brothers. She promised she would not let anything bad happen to her brothers. But the moment they arrived at school they were separated and she never saw her brothers during the school years.
Her home was shattered and she saw things in her home during the summer months she never knew existed before they were taken away. She continued to tell of how she battled past addictions and abuse in her adult life, got her degree in counselling and helped others in her community through their struggles for 35 years. She had recently retired at age 59.
A short while ago her brother had stopped in and shared what he had gone through in school. She became quiet at this point in the story with her head down. We sat quietly for a long moment, until she lifted her head, tears streaming down her face and whispered, “I didn’t keep my promise to my grandmother.”
A sword is a sword
I was once again jolted and deeply ashamed at the sword I held in my mind: “Get over it.” Perhaps a personal story of my family history and how we moved through hardship could appear to be helpful and encouraging advice. However, a sword is a sword and a spear is a spear no matter how I would like to decorate it. The only way my thinking could be used to cultivate was to have it completely reshaped.
Solutions and easy answers seem so right, but only from a distance. The moment I placed my feet underneath their kitchen table, the quick answers were a little less forthcoming. At best the platitudes were useless, more likely they were harmful and destructive.
Kevin Wiebe, in his book Faithful in Small Things, talks about serving the needy. “We are talking about human beings,” he says. “They have faces, names and stories.” He goes on to say that as Christians we believe everyone is an image bearer of God. That should affect us profoundly as we seek to serve the needy. The same is true in relating with Indigenous people. “Those people” has to be replaced with names, faces and truly listening, without quick answers, as life is shared.
Radically change or walk away
“Who is my neighbour?” was the question asked by an expert of the law in order to justify his thinking and life. Jesus went on to tell such a powerful story (Luke 10:25–37) it could illicit only one of two responses—radically change or walk away.
The exchange ends by Jesus telling him to go and show mercy. We don’t know how the lawyer responded. It is difficult to change the things we are so comfortable with and feel justified to hold on to.
How do we become the neighbour Jesus asked the expert of the law to be, in light of the church’s history with the Indigenous people in Canada? There are many out there doing just that, becoming a neighbour. There are others that are fearful of becoming part of another story that history will reveal as destructive and evil, so they hold back. Others still, respond like the lawyer, seeking to justify their thinking and life that is comfortable.
Asking how to become a neighbour is a conversation we need to continue to have in our homes and churches. These conversations are crucial to have in order for us to engage in the vision God has for his kingdom: turning swords into plowshares, cultivating true relationships.
A young boy waiting outside, wanting to say thank you to someone kind and patient.
Inside he heard voices, a young teacher exasperated, “I can’t even get him to read,”
An older voice, one who had given up hope, hardened, replied “Don’t stress about it, he’s just another Indian boy.”
Turning away, the words penetrated, stung, hurt were there should be no hurt: “I am just another Indian boy.”
Going shopping, walking in stores, the eyes following him, some were stares.
Perceived, reality it didn’t matter; he couldn’t help but hear a silent voice calling.
A voice louder than all else seemed to shout—“Look, there goes just another Indian boy.”
Bad decisions, wrong choices, a place of being rejected and alone.
Having his fate in someone else hands, his future will soon be decided.
Court in recess, judge needs a break; he gets up to stretch his legs.
He passes his lawyer and hears, “Who is after the break?”
The young assistant, without looking up, “I’m not sure, just another Indian boy.”
He walks into the hall sullen and angry, “What do people expect; I’m just another Indian boy.”
Having a great time, just hanging out with his friends;
in a split second, it all came to an end.
“Who is that” the question is asked of the stretcher in the corner.
The answer comes “I’m not sure, just another Indian boy.”
Standing before the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, the Righteous Judge, he bends his knees.
Being pulled up by the Master, “Welcome, now come with me” he is told.
Wait a minute, I am just an… the thought remains incomplete.
This singing from heavenly hosts is celebrating your homecoming.
Confused, he wonders, don’t they know I am just…
“Follow me” he hears. Walk into the hall and sit at the table are his instructions.
“You are no longer last.”
A banquet that words can’t describe, he sits in total awe.
Gathering up his courage, he walks to his Master at the head of the table.
He starts, “Don’t you know that I am just…”
“Stop,” the Master cries. “Stop!” Eyes burning with compassion the Master speaks, “The father of lies is defeated; he has no place here.”
“I formed you. I look at you, I see my image. I heard your cries. I know your struggle. You are covered with my blood, you are my child, you are my workmanship, what I have I give to you. What you were about to say; there is no ‘just’ anybody. Those words will not be spoken in my presence.”
“Child, welcome home! You belong”!
Peter Fehr shared this short narrative poem in 2005 at the memorial of a young man who was staying with them when he died in a vehicle accident.
Peter Fehr and his wife Martha, along with their three teenage children, live in Rocky Lane, Alberta. They have been involved in various roles in both La Crete Christian Fellowship and High Level Christian Fellowship, and have served with local mission organizations. They are members of High Level Christian Fellowship. Peter serves on the EMC committee dialoguing about ministry to Indigenous people in Canada.