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Ashamed, but hopeful in Christ


Janet Plenert witnessed this baptism into the faith while on an Indigenous Peoples Tour – an adjunct event of Mennonite World Conference in Paraguay.

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September 4, 2009
- Janet Plenert

Winnipeg, Man. — Usually I take pride in being a Christian. I am profoundly moved by stories of God bringing about deep and complete transformation of people across the nations and throughout history. I am in awe of how God’s people, the church, have been God’s agent in so very many ways.

But occasionally, I hang my head in utter shame and even horror at what the church has done, and I plead with God to never again allow us, the church today, to make some of the world changing mistakes we have made in the past.

The Aboriginal Learning Tour following the Mennonite World Conference Assembly in Paraguay was such an experience. It was an incredibly unique, diverse and intergenerational group. Métis, Ojibway, Cheyenne, Cree, Shawnee, and Lakota from North America joined different tribal groups from Guatemala, Panama, and Peru. This group – communicating bilingually in English and Spanish, was hosted by the Enlhet, Nivacle, and Guarani indigenous Mennonites in Paraguay, and Toba Qom and Mocoví Christians from Argentina.

As the conversations deepened between cultures, common themes emerged. This is where I found myself both impressed by the consistently gracious spirit of all the groups, and increasingly sickened by the role of the church in committing what some have come to call cultural genocide. The church has had a huge role, both as accomplice and as perpetrator, of the systematic degradation, devaluation, and near obliteration of indigenous cultures, traditions, and sense of peoplehood of Aboriginal peoples in all of the Americas.

It was clear that every single group represented, from each of the seven countries, continues to experience the effects of this attempted obliteration of their cultures. While not every group has experienced a residential school type policy, each actively struggles with their sense of peoplehood, of being the victims of broad sweeping repression, overt oppression, specific laws that marginalize them, as well as resulting current effects of all forms of abuse at the hands of colonizers, governments, and yes, the church.

In Canada, government funded, church run residential schools were a key strategy to, in the words of Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs (1923 – 1932), Duncan Campbell Scott. Scott began working in the civil service in 1879. Scott summed up over a century of past and future policy when in 1920 he advocated getting rid “of the Indian problem,” expanding that “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian Question and no Indian Department.”

In all, 150,000 Aboriginal Canadian children were forcibly removed from their homes, families and communities and required to attend residential schools in order to educate them in English, instil ‘Christian’ values, and systematically remove their culture, values, traditions and languages from them. In effect, significant, sustained effort was made to force Aboriginal people to be less than they are as children created in the image of God.

Yet as I sat with Aboriginal brothers and sisters, listening to their conversations, I was in awe at the hope they showed, and the grace and forgiveness they embodied. In spite of the church, here we were at a global church event. In spite of the degrading treatment and abuse administered at the hands of the church, we all joined hands to pray and sing praises to God. In spite of the fact that they all are struggling to pass on their language and music, they welcomed and accepted us as non-Aboriginal brothers and sisters in their midst.

In the closing session, several people stated that this encounter made them realize that they can be proud to be Metis, or Toba, or Quechua. One South American brother challenged the others to claim a healthy attitude in Christ, looking to Christ as our creator, accepting that we are made in the image of God and thus being proud and strong in Christ, rather than feeling poor, victimized, and without opportunity.

I hung my head in shame at what the church has done, and the pain it has inflicted. And then I raised my head, as if Christ himself were lifting my chin. And I looked into the eyes of my Peruvian Aboriginal brother. And as we ate a meal together, and shared bread, and he offered to fill my glass, I too felt the hope that I saw demonstrated in the participants of this tour. Lord, forgive us, for we know not what we do. May your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Mennonite Church Canada Witness, together with Mennonite Mission Network of MC USA organized this one of a kind Learning Tour which included attending Mennonite World Conference Assembly, and a week of visiting Indigenous groups in the Paraguayan Chaco and Argentinean Chaco for a week following Assembly.