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Where are the Mennonites?

   

June 8, 2012
-Deborah Froese

Winnipeg, MAN. — “The stories are horrific. You can’t listen to them without a sick feeling of disbelief rising in your stomach. It’s easy to tell yourself that because you were not personally involved, you have no blame for what happened. But the feeling of guilt persists.”

Willard Metzger, Executive Secretary of Mennonite Church Canada, describes his experience at The Meeting Place-Truth and Reconciliation Conference in Toronto, May 31-June 2, an event hosted by Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre and supported by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The conference gave Indian Residential School survivors an opportunity to share their stories.

In a subsequent blog post, Metzger described statements from a brother and sister that cut him to the core. They were taken from a comfortable family life to a residential school where they were beaten for as much as waving at each other. She was sexually assaulted by a male teacher.

Metzger used the sister’s own words to describe what happened next.

“Eventually I started feeling something grow in my stomach. So once again one night at 11:00 p.m., they came and took me to the hospital and removed the baby.” Metzger recalls the haunting statement that followed. “They told me the baby was dead, but I think she is alive. Sometimes I hear her cry.”

Equally disturbing was her brother’s story about another boy. The child was ill, yet a teacher forced him to eat. When he vomited into his soup bowl and onto the floor, the teacher forced him to clean up the mess.

Before she left, she demanded that he eat everything in his bowl. But the other boys came to his rescue. They passed the bowl among themselves, and spoonful by spoonful, they emptied it.

“What a contrast of brutal cruelty and gentle tenderness,” Metzger wrote. “I begged God for forgiveness. I felt ashamed of those who misrepresent God’s love.”

If the images of what Metzger heard were disturbing, he admits that he was just as unsettled by the fact that Mennonites are not one of the churches officially participating in the commission.

“Mennonite Church Canada may not have been directly involved with residential schools,” he says, “but Mennonites, as a wider people group, were. In the end, is there a difference?”

Steve Heinrichs, Director of Mennonite Church Canada Native Ministry, also attended the conference. He says that near its conclusion, a Chinese-Canadian honorary witness held up a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Ontario Aboriginal Neighbours map outlining Mennonite Schools and the communities impacted by them.

“He told the crowd that there was more work to be done,” Heinrichs says. “I understood the sub-text of that comment to be asking where the Mennonites are in all of this. We see the Anglicans and Presbyterians here in an official capacity, but where are the Mennonites?”

In addition to Metzger and Heinrichs, representatives of MCC Aboriginal Neighbours and the MCC Indigenous Work Program attended the conference.

Mennonite Church Canada delegates to Assembly 2010 in Calgary struggled with the idea of belonging to a system that would support Indian Residential Schools, and most were just learning about Mennonite connections to a handful of them. Although the national church and its predecessor agencies were not directly involved, members of some related congregations volunteered or supported those schools.

Mennonite Pioneer Mission, a predecessor to Mennonite Church Canada Native Ministry, operated day schools in two northern Manitoba communities. Some of their former students have kinder things to say about their experiences, but a National Day School Class Action Suit is pursuing the same recognition for individual day school students that their residential school peers have received through the TRC.

Ultimately, delegates to Assembly 2010 voted in favour of a resolution recognizing national church complicity “in the failing of the Christian Church and its role in the tragic physical, emotional, mental, and sexual abuse, denial of culture, language, and peoplehood of Aboriginal peoples in Canada.”

Clearly, they felt the need to respond.

Heinrichs says that during the Toronto conference, Indigenous elders and leaders repeatedly invited allies from the broader community. “They said ‘We need you. Ongoing colonialism and paternalism will not change unless we have more allies on the journey of decolonization, more who will risk—beyond rhetoric and apologies—to seek justice with and for Indigenous peoples and lands.’”

So how will Mennonites respond now?

Metzger is aware that more discussion is needed within the church before any decisions are made. “Justice Murray Sinclair put it well,” he says. “In the end it is not what we are to blame for but what we are responsible for.”