The Clumsy Efforts of Reconciliation in One White Life. Part 1. / by Robyn Rapske

About this Series:

Senator Murray Sinclair said “Getting to the truth was hard. Getting to reconciliation is going to be harder” Full talk here

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I, like much of Canada through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, have been told a lot of the truths, being exposed to the realities that were hidden from my eyes for so long, but that is just the beginning. Reconciliation is harder. Reconciliation is messy, it’s confusing, it’s difficult, and it’s ongoing. I will be stubborn, uncomfortable, stressed about it. Others will also deal with it that way. Different people will have different perspectives on how it looks. It happens in relationships, within workplaces, within our choices of industry, through our decisions of language. It’s going to be revealed through so many levels. It will take a lot of time, effort, bravery, and humility.

But it is possible, and it is important. My faith is that God has a way.

Sarah Bessey speaks about the similarity of reconciliation in Canada, to God reconciling his church back to himself through Jesus Christ. She says:

"Christ’s death and resurrection is the story of the greatest reconciliation, the end of our separation from God….could we truly be that ambassador of reconciliation without reconciliation between one another?”
Sarah Bessey, 2018, Read more here 

Our individual and corporate reconciliation with Jesus was made possible through his resurrection, but it is also ongoing, confusing at times, within relationships, and full of mistakes.

Reconciliation in Canada between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous people might just look similar.

I believe, SO STRONGLY, that God, our Creator, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, cares about this reconciliation within his children. I believe that, if I ask him how to be part of reconciliation, he will answer that prayer and guide me. I also believe that all Canadians can be part of it.

So I’ll be writing about my mistakes, my learning, and my next steps here, if you’d like to walk along with me.

Disclaimer: This series is an honest reflection on reconciliation as I’ve learned so far in my life. Just as the efforts I write about have been clumsy and sometimes ill-advised, this blog itself may reflect that clumsiness. I apologize to anyone who sees glaring evidence of my colonial brain still in action. I’ll keep trying, and feel free to kindly discuss with me my mistakes.

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Part 1

In 2010 I was graduating from university. It was coinciding with a time that I was trying to become a Christian again after a hiatus from the belief system. I was single, living at my parents, debt-free (phew!), and jobless with absolutely no plans.

It was then that I had some offers of going to two southern African countries with acquaintances--one to visit some missionaries for a month, and one to join some counter human-trafficking initiatives for the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. At the time, I barely knew either of the people who offered to have me along on their adventures, but I had asked God to do something with my life, and I figured I’d go along with these opportunities he was dropping in my lap.

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I got to know a lot about the history of South Africa while I travelled, through books, museums, and paying attention to their culture. I received a horrible shock when I realized that South Africa’s oppressive institutional segregation and discrimination we had learned about in school, the system of Apartheid, had been inspired by, and modelled after, Canada’s Indian Act. And also that we still have the Indian Act in place, despite some alterations. It’s still called that today

It was the first time I felt real shock over the realities of Indigenous people in Canada. I choose here to use the word “Indigenous” to encompass Inuit, Métis, and First Nations people of Canada. Each Indigenous person has a preferred way of identification, but for the purposes of this post, I choose this term because, as Cheryl Bear-Barnetson describes, this term relates to the concept of naturally originating in a specific place, and belonging to that specific place. She says that the term implies Indigenous people were here first, are rooted in the land, and have a sense of belonging within the lands they stewarded for thousands of years. (Bear-Barnetson, p. 26)*

I grew up learning about the history of Indigenous people through my white curriculum. We treated Indigenous culture and history like an old thing worth interest but not worth any serious interaction with in modern context.

After my trip, I applied for a Social Work program at University of Victoria, where I learned even more about the awful past and present things that Indigenous people deal with. I started to have conversations with people about the state of things, feeling so upset that most of circle of friends and family weren’t doing something to change it all. I got pretty riled up at a relative regarding residential schools one Christmas Eve, which I didn't handle well at all. It was a time of directionless passion to make the world better for Indigenous people.

I attended a Truth and Reconciliation event at my church during that time, which involved a documentary screening and a representative of the Mennonite Central Committee and his Indigenous wife answering some very uncomfortable questions by our congregants. I couldn’t believe the bravery of the Indigenous woman facing some pretty judgemental ignorance from some people.

That night, after the event, I drove to my car to a parking lot I knew wouldn’t be visited, and wept.

There are lots of reasons to weep, but I was actually weeping for my own selfish reasons.

I wept because I felt so unable to help the situation and so badly wanted to do more. I wanted to support Indigenous people, but knew no way of doing that well. If I charged in to situations I wasn’t invited to, proclaiming ideas of my own, I was just continuing colonization in a modern context. I knew very few Indigenous people, and even if I knew more, I wouldn’t know how to ask what I should do to support them well. I also made a pretty poor ally when trying to convince my fellow white people to care about the issues as much as me.

In my car, alone in the parking lot, I literally begged God to let me do something more to help the situation.

It’s been almost 8 years since I visited South Africa, and I’m so glad to say he is slowly and faithfully answering that cry in the parking lot. I haven’t ended up educating groups of white people on the changes needed for Indigenous people in Canada. I didn’t end up creating programs that support Indigenous people. I didn’t even attend a lot of events benefiting Indigenous movements. Each step for the journey so far has been small and cautious, but as gradual as it’s been, I feel like I’ve moved forwards. My current stop on the journey of reconciliation is being somewhere that God has combined my passion to help, together with what I’m actually good at.

Right now I get to do an incredible job in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, sitting with women of all races and ethnicities, including Indigenous, offering support in their crises. We provide necessary things like food, hygiene items, clothing and gift cards. But the most important part, and my favourite part, is what we call ‘holding space’ for women. We are available to talk in a safe place, with a non-counselling setting, showing care for their stories. I get to act out Jesus’s love to women in a way that fits perfectly with my skills. I can set aside time to listen to, affirm, pray with, and encourage Indigenous women who have ended up in poverty, addiction or sex-work as a result of the painful history of colonization. I feel incredibly honoured to be there. I wanted so deeply to do anything to help.

One of the things that I’ve realized about God, is that our cultural tendencies don’t confine him. Paradoxically, he is both free from them, and yet working deeply within them. He cares about, and gave us the ability to have cultures, and yet continues to be bigger and better than them.

“God is not colorblind, our Creator invented color, distinctiveness, and diversity”
Cheryl Bear-Barnetson, pg. 24*

I am from a very individualistic culture, which means that my personal journey of vocation (above) is very important to me. And yet, what is required for reconciliation is a path that doesn’t just acknowledge, but gets changed by, the more collectivist culture of Indigenous people. I know that generalizations are never fully correct, plenty of Indigenous people, especially in modern context, are like all of us, a unique blend of a variety of influences. Also many white people are much more collectivist in nature than myself. But what I mean to say is that somehow God sees us in each of our individual desires and hopes, and also sees the greater troubles of Canada’s cultural divides, and in his wisdom can reconcile these all towards healing and goodness. 

I believe that, somehow, God is both working out the story of myself growing into my vocation as an individual, and at the same time also building my story as a white ally being changed by the efforts towards reconciliation. 

 

*Bear-Barnetson, C. (2013) "Introduction to First Nations Ministry" Cleveland, Tennessee. More info here.