A recent visit to the United Church of Canada, and the United Church of Christ, in America, offered experiences that stretched my mind and hospitality that expanded my waistline. The former is always valuable, however little I need the latter.
These two UCCs have a great deal in common with us: roots, polity, worship and so much more. We share a rate of numerical decline, too, though obvious differences of scale mean they remain considerably larger than we are. There is, of course, a lot that separates us: the cultures have similarities, but they are not the same; the geographical size makes modes of sharing ministry distinctly different; and the place of the UCCs in their nations’ life seems to be of a higher profile than ours in England, Scotland and Wales.
They face many of the same socio-political issues as us: polarised politics, ecology, gender justice, a stark divide between richer and poorer. To talk and observe their prophetic words and pastoral deeds on these and many other matters constantly prodded me to re-examine what it is the Church can be in the communities where I live and work.
An issue of a different order, however, is what in Canada are First Nations people – those who originally were on that land. Lumbered with the images and ideas of films I had watched as a boy, I was on a sharp learning curve. I barely even knew how much I had to unlearn and be re-educated about. The day I listened to First Nations people recount the experience of their forebears, and their own experience, too, was sobering.
To give a specific example, I learned about the residential schools. Indeed, we visited the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario (pictured above), which is being renovated into a museum for ensuring the story is not lost.
Though named the Mohawk Institute, it was known by its students, and still is by its survivors, as the Mushole, because every meal was an unappealing sort of porridge they called ‘mush’. The schools were described to me as part of the colonial leaders’ policy of ‘assimilation’, whereby local people would become indistinguishable from settlers who had arrived from Europe. Education was believed to be a valid way to replace young people’s native language, appearance and culture. Although it was put to me as a policy of liberals, and that some students valued the schools because they learned trades, recent research has shown how frequently the residential schools imposed physical discipline, sexual abuse and cultural repression. They have become symbolic of the way in which First Nations people historically and today have been treated unjustly. The church’s role in the schools is now accepted, and the United Church of Canada is in the process of discerning how to achieve reconciliation, and what reparation is required. Writing this on the very day that news casts carry the story of how China is deliberately separating Muslim children from their families, faith and language is indeed salutary.
In discovering this history, I was not aware that I was also going to learn so much about grace. I was taken to the Nations Uniting organisation, an outreach ministry of the United Church of Canada at Ohswegen, Ontario, which seeks to foster understanding of the traditional people. Mindful of historic and continuing injustice towards First Nations people, it seeks to build bridges rather than create conflict. One of the abiding injustices of which I was told was how 18th century agreements allocated to them reservations on which to live, and yet to this day the agreements are not adhered to.
In one case they have just 4.9% of the land that the 1784 agreement ‘gave’ to them. One might have expected to hear of how the land was ‘stolen’ from them by settlers. But that was not their message to me. Instead, I heard of how the land does not belong to the First Nations people either. It is Creator’s. They don’t want it back. They want to share it. To share the land which we all have to care for as stewards.
As belatedly we address the causes and impacts of climate change, perhaps it is the First Nations people who have the connection to the land, which models for us how to share it, not just with other people but with all things to which it is home. Could it be that the assimilation we all need is that which enables us to take our proper place in the created order, sharing, preserving and handing on the world God has loaned us, to treat with that wisdom and grace that are supremely revealed in Jesus Christ?
It was a rich and deeply challenging day; one of those when you go to sleep a slightly different person from how you woke up. That it ended with an utterly unexpected visit to the Niagara Falls, dressed in their characteristic rainbow, was both awesome – something to tick off from my bucket list – and theologically reassuring.
Nigel Uden, July 2019