“Partnership not proselytization”

At the conclusion of the Edmonton National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair spoke these works, “If you thought truth was hard, wait till we get to reconciliation!”

The head of the TRC repeated those words at a recent event sponsored by Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church Manitoba called “Building bridges: Next steps for the church in the reconciliation journey.” He also said other important things to the audience of several hundred.

Sinclair event 2

Photo credit Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair.

Sinclair began by insisting that reconciliation is a process and a journey; it is not a destination. Moreover, the journey is an ongoing one, requiring fresh commitment each and every day.

Within the context of the Indian Residential School System, Sinclair insisted that the objective of reconciliation is respect – the establishment of self-respect for Aboriginal people, and mutual respect between Aboriginal people and all others. Initially, victims need to be healed. What has been lost must be found, what has been damaged must be fixed, what has been taken away must be returned.

But then he spoke directly and forthrightly about what was required of Christians and the churches. “Apologies are not enough,” he said. Apologies are important and necessary, but they must be accompanied by changed behaviour.

A key to changed behaviour, for Sinclair, is that Christians and their churches must demonstrate respect for traditional Aboriginal spirituality. Christians and their churches must acknowledge the validity of traditional Aboriginal spirituality alongside the Christian story. They must no longer insist that Christianity is the only way for all people.

Can you do this, he asked? Can you show genuine respect for our spirituality and the way we worship? Can you engage with us as partners, rather than seeking to proselytize us?

drummingTo be clear, Sinclair did not denigrate the Christian faith. Nor did he suggest that indigenous people who identify as Christian should turn away from that faith – he acknowledged his grandmother’s deeply-held Catholicism. He did imply, however, that as long as Christians and their churches do not accept traditional Aboriginal spirituality as equally valid to the Christian faith, there will be no true reconciliation in this land.

For some Mennonites, these questions are not new ones. But for others, they will be.

Judging from the lengthy standing ovation at the conclusion of Sinclair’s speech, I sensed most people at the event wanted to say YES to Sinclair’s invitation. But I also wondered if we really know what he means. He did not elaborate, but I believe he meant more than acknowledging that the Creator is present and at work as much in the ceremonies, smudges and sweats, in the drumming and the dancing, as within a Mennonite worship service. We need to listen and learn much more.

Even before that – even before we can presume to pursue reconciliation – we as Christians in the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ tradition still have much truth-telling to do. We need to name our part in the system of residential and day schools that separated young aboriginal children from their families, language, culture and community.[i] We need to own and take responsibility for our part in the history of colonization that continues in the present. We need to do our part to make things right.

The journey of reconciliation will no doubt be long and likely painful, and it will require renewed commitment each day. We do not know where it will lead. But it promises restoration, healing, life, peace — and authentic partnership — for those who commit to it. How can we not join in?

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office.


[i] The recent “Statement of Reconciliation” offered by Anabaptist leaders in Edmonton did not specifically mention Mennonite involvement in the schools, though certain efforts are being made to address this involvement. See, for example, the work of MCC Ontario.

Addendum:  The intent of this blog is to encourage Mennonites — and also MCC — to listen to and learn from Aboriginal people about their spirituality, and to enter into this listening and learning with a spirit of humility and respect. Respectful listening and learning is a prerequisite for any reconciliation.




Last month I had an opportunity to speak with a variety of MCC’s supporters in Ontario. Included in my itinerary were presentations to the Mennonite Centre Heritage Club in Toronto, classes at Redeemer University College in Ancaster and Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, and a gathering of church conference leaders in Kitchener. This was a full two days!

Toronto Mennonite Centre Heritage ClubAs I “took the Ottawa Office on the road,” I wasn’t surprised to find that many people are disappointed by, disgusted with, or disconnected from federal politics in Canada.

What caught me off guard was how often I was asked to reflect on what it’s like to work in this kind of environment. How do I avoid becoming jaded or cynical when trying to respond to the partisan talking points that are served up as political arguments? What motivates me to carry on when positive change is slow in coming and minuscule when it finally arrives?

An obvious response is to point to the inspiration provided by MCC’s partners, and the importance of speaking to the ways they are impacted for good or ill by the policies of the Canadian government. I hope this was clear in the stories I shared from places like Syria and Laos.

I wonder, however, if I missed the point of these questions. Upon reflection, it seems to me that some people are not only interested in knowing why or how MCC pursues advocacy, but in knowing more about the nature of the actual experience of advocacy. I have become accustomed to painting a picture of what advocacy looks like; I haven’t often reflected on what it feels like.

ImprovisationOne metaphor for the work of advocacy that helps communicate what it often feels like to me is improvisational theatre—perhaps an uncomfortably easy connection to make, given the nature of contemporary politics! In any case, it’s a metaphor that I first discovered in the writing of Samuel Wells, a Christian ethicist and priest in the Church of England. In short, I have found that advocacy is not about acting out or performing a script that has already been written, as much as it is, to use the words of Wells, “faithfully improvising on the Christian tradition.”

Thus my faith convictions and experiences of walking with partners in the pursuit of justice and peace are best thought of as a “training school” that teaches me how I can face the unknown, rather than providing predetermined answers to every possible question. Every day can feel like a new adventure—the forces of good and evil are not always as obvious as they first seem, and neither are the answers to the questions that really matter in policy debates.

Wells fills out this metaphor with a helpful technical discussion of how improvisation works in drama, stressing the importance of being committed to accepting rather than blocking anything offered by a fellow actor. Every word, gesture, or action must be treated as an invitation to respond if the drama is to move forward. In a similar way, Christians must make choices in the drama of life, and, Wells argues, must never block the offers of the world.

Empty stageThis does not mean, of course, that everything the world offers should be accepted in a straightforward fashion. Instead, Wells insists that we should “overaccept” all offers by refusing to see the future as a clash of givens. We have more options than simply saying “yes” or “no,” more options than simply accepting or blocking an offer; we can also receive what is being offered in an active way, retaining the initiative to transform it.

Seen in the light of Easter, the challenges and demands that Christians encounter are “gifts rather than givens.”

I admit that this isn’t always how I view the challenges and demands that cross my desk in the Ottawa Office. Often I wish I could have the lead, playing a more proactive rather than a reactive role. And I must hasten to add that, as any skilled actor will attest, good improvisation requires preparation—exhaustive preparation, in fact. Advocacy does not feel like I am flying by the seat of my pants!

Nonetheless, I think this approach helps explain why advocacy actually doesn’t seem like aggressive work to me, even when I find myself embroiled in a contentious political drama. And it helps explain why having no hope is simply not an option.

In my experience advocacy feels less like the ‘cut and thrust’ of Question Period, or the ‘push or be pushed’ world of high-priced lobbyists, and more like being squeezed and released as energy is absorbed and redirected. The risk with overaccepting is that I turn into something like a rubber ball, bouncing around aimlessly and without effect. On good days though, it can feel as though I am in the midst of a scene that is unfolding in a way that no one expected when the curtain was first raised.

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director


For crying out loud: Easter week reflections on advocacy

This week’s guest blog is written by Doug Klassen, pastor of Foothills Mennonite Church in Calgary, Alberta. His reflection is based on a sermon he preached on Palm Sunday (April 13, 2014), on Luke 19:28-40.

I was recently asked to participate in an interview as part of an Advocacy Research Project being conducted by MCC. So the whole question of advocacy has been looming in the back of my mind. It also hit me as I began working with the Palm Sunday and Good Friday scripture texts.

In the Palm Sunday story, Jesus is on his way into the city and his reputation is preceding him. By him the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the demonized are delivered, the dead are raised, the powerful are chastised, and the outcasts are welcomed and commended for their faith.

A church in the Old City of Jerusalem.  MCC photo

A church in the Old City of Jerusalem. MCC photo

As he enters the Kidron Valley, people welcome him like they would a king. They tear down palm branches and lay their cloaks on the ground. “Hosanna, Hosanna,” they shout. “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”

For us, “hosanna” has become a praise word. But in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day, it was a political word. Directly translated, “hosanna” means, “Save us!” or “Save now!” People believed that if Jesus could heal the sick and raise the dead, surely he could kick the Roman occupiers out of Palestine and restore Israel to her fortunes. So they were singing and crying out Psalm 118 at the top of their lungs.

The Pharisees, who had a love/hate relationship with Rome, became nervous because, if the crowd really got going, they could spark a crackdown. So they say to Jesus, “Tell your disciples to be quiet.” Jesus replies, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the very stones will cry out.”

Jesus was actually repeating the words of Habbakuk, a prophet in the Southern Kingdom around 600 BC. Habbakuk saw corruption, injustice, oppression and evil-doing all around him and demanded that God act. God responded:

Crosses hang on the Mexican side of the border wall in Nogales, Mexico, commemorating the 4,000 people who have lost their lives attempting to cross the desert in search of a better life in the United States.  Copyright:Tim Hoover/MCC

Crosses hang on the Mexican side of the border wall in Nogales, Mexico, commemorating the 4,000 people who have lost their lives attempting to cross the desert in search of a better life in the United States. Copyright: Tim Hoover/MCC

“Woe to anyone who builds his house by unjust gain, Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by injustice! The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork.”

There may be few stones crying out in the world today, but we do know that there are millions of people in our world today who are crying out loud, “Hosanna, hosanna! Save us now!”

Thousands face the threat of flooding in refugee camps in South Sudan, and 5000 people are running the gauntlet to flee Syria every day. Human trafficking and slavery abound. The gap between rich and poor – even in our own country – widens.

How do we advocate for people who are crying out today?

It is my feeling that all church-based advocacy work has to be anchored or founded in God’s story of redemption. Our starting point is the cross of Jesus Christ and God’s action in raising him from the dead. A new day has dawned. The peace of heaven has come to earth and everything is turning. And one day heaven and earth will be remade and wed into one.

So, practically speaking, how do we advocate? What do we do?  I think the place for us to start is in prayer. Where there is no prayer, there is no power.

Participants in an MCC-sponsored peace club in Lusasa, Zambia end their meeting with prayer. Copyright:Matthew Zylstra Sawatzky

Participants in an MCC-sponsored peace club in Lusaka, Zambia end their meeting with prayer. Copyright: Matthew Zylstra Sawatzky

We pray for people, we pray the words of the Bible, we pray the words of Habakkuk when we see what is going on around us. We pray and pray and pray and pray.  The starting point for advocacy must be a massive church-wide call to prayer and intercession. From the hours in prayer and Bible study we get our perspective and power for the task ahead.

Second, we must place ourselves where Jesus placed himself. Jesus chose to live with the poor. He addressed his gospel by preference to the poor. And he lashed out at the rich and the powerful. Jesus came to proclaim the kingdom of justice and liberation, to be established in favour of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized of history.

So if we want to do advocacy work with any kind of integrity, before we speak a word, we need to be in relationship with those with whom Jesus shared his life. That gives advocacy integrity because we can speak from experience.

Third, we move is in the direction of the cross. We don’t come to advocacy with any effort to exercise power over someone. We move from power to powerlessness, in the peace-loving footsteps of Jesus, and with a vision of the Kingdom of God before us.

There are no easy solutions to the world’s problems. But the role of the church is not to be silent. We do know what the future holds and who holds the future. So whenever we speak out for others – and join our cry with theirs – let us be sure to declare the hope we have for the world.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the one who is bringing peace to the earth from heaven itself.

Are we nearing the end of START?

Word on the street is that it’s “business as usual” for another six months.

While we’ve long been hearing rumours that some sort of change is “imminent,” the fate of the Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force—also known as START—is still unclear. The latest news making its way through the Ottawa-grapevine is that it has received yet another temporary funding extension while it continues to undergo yet another review.

Intending to serve as a “one-stop shop” within the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development (DFATD), START was launched in 2005 as an inter-agency mechanism for coordinating Canada’s whole-of-government response in fragile and conflict-affected states. Established under the leadership of Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, START became the lead focal point for analyzing, planning, and coordinating effective conflict prevention, disaster response, civilian protection, peace operations, and stabilization interventions in places impacted by complex crises.


Courtesy of START/DFATD website (South Sudan)

Originally designated a relatively modest budget of $500 million over five years through the Global Peace and Security Fund (GPSF)—a funding pot created to finance the secretariat and its programs—START has significantly exceeded this initial target. By March of 2013, it was reported to have received more than $1 billion since its inception.

What, concretely, are the kinds of things this task-force is tasked with carrying out?

Focusing on seven priority countries/regions (a list that has remained relatively stable over the years), the initiative has supported such things as justice and security sector reform in Haiti, the conflict minerals certification scheme in Africa’s Great Lakes Region, disarmament and reintegration processes for ex-combatants in Colombia, constitutional development in South Sudan, and National Police force training in Afghanistan.

Very multifaceted and, some would say, innovative work. Given that the 21st century security environment is characterized by complex and interconnected causes of violence (state failures, civil wars, and slow- and rapid-onset disasters), interdisciplinary approaches like START that draw on a range of tools and actors are important.

It should be noted, of course, that any “whole-of-government” approach (however laudable in intent) is not without its complications. After all, development, defence, and diplomacy often have related-yet-distinct goals. Problems arising from blurred lines between political and military efforts in complex environments like Afghanistan, for example, have highlighted potential areas of tension when the line between “coordination” and “integration” isn’t mindfully managed.  MCC has been critical of “whole of government” approaches because of the way they militarize development efforts, distort development priorities (from seeking to meet the needs of local people to serving the strategic interests of military forces), and increase danger and insecurity for all aid and development workers.


Courtesy of START/DFATD website (Afghanistan)

Apart from the practical challenges of working across departments, START also isn’t immune from being shaped by larger political agendas. Lead by the assumption that the fragility of other states poses a threat to Canada’s own security, determinations about what countries to focus on, programs to implement, and length of engagement are governed by a set of interest-based considerations. As such, responses risk being filtered through the lens of Canada’s own foreign policy agenda rather than by the most effective peacebuilding strategies.

START has been shaped in subtler ways as well. When launched in 2005, the initiative was rooted in the human security agenda that was a signature of past Liberal governments. This agenda, however, has all but been abandoned in recent years, as overt references to “human security” (and other peace-related terms) have been removed from websites, division names, and programs, replaced by terms such as “freedom,” “human rights,” “rule of law,” and “democracy.” Such linguistic changes capture a larger shift in Canada’s official foreign and defence policy towards a different kind of security paradigm.

All caveats aside, START, and the Global Peace and Security Fund (GPSF) that makes its work possible, seems effectively to fill an institutional gap for Canada’s response to complex environments.

For the last year or so, however, the fate of this program has been (to outsiders, at least) fuzzy at best, with conflicting information coming down the pipeline in fits and starts.

Last spring, we heard that START was in the midst of being re-branded—the launch of a “new-and-improved” (more likely just newly-named) initiative just a rubber-stamp from Cabinet away. Twice last year, Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird promised the Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development that the GPSF was not being cut (as many feared), but that a “new initiative” was “coming in short order.”

By all accounts, it seems the time-allotment for “short order” has come and gone, and we are still waiting with baited breath for some definitive news. Beyond the six-month extension, the program’s future still remains unclear.

At the end of six months, will we see the end of START, and the start of something new?

Let’s hope if this is just a re-branding exercise, they don’t change too much of the substance.

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Senior Policy Analyst



Let us not fail . . .

The writer of this week’s blog is Pam Peters-Pries, Associate Director of Program for MCC Canada.

From 1984-1986, I attended Rosthern Junior College (RJC), a private Mennonite residential school in Rosthern, SK. I’ve often referred to my experience there as “two years of summer camp.” Grades 11 and 12 were filled with teachers and classes I loved, faith exploration, sports, music, great friends and much fun.

From 1994-1996, Shaun attended St. Michael’s Residential School, a Catholic-run Indian residential school in Duck Lake, SK – just 21 kilometers north of Rosthern. He shared devastatingly about the chaotic and abusive household in which he grew up with parents who were both residential school survivors. They died young and tragically, leaving Shaun a ward of the province, bouncing between foster homes until he landed at St. Michael’s.

Shaun graduated from St. Michael’s in 1996 – the year it closed. Of all the stories I heard at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) National Gathering in Edmonton last week, his story left me the most shaken. While I was having the time of my life at RJC, the tragedy that is Indian residential schools was continuing just up the road. How could this be? How could I not have known – about St. Michael’s specifically, or about the history and impact of residential schools more generally? How could all of my public and private school teachers, good people whom I trusted and respected, fail to have taught me about this? What should I do with this realization of my own privilege, my lack of knowledge about and engagement with the reality and legacy of Indian residential schools, a devastating legacy that Indigenous people in this country have had no choice but to endure or to confront?

Mennonites Tim Dyck (fourth from L) and Hildebrand (5th from L) present a quilt to Commissioners and Survivor Representatives at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Edmonton National Event, March 2014.

Anabaptist leaders Tim Dyck (fourth from L) and Hilda Hildebrand (5th from L) present a quilt and a statement of reconciliation to Commissioners and Survivor Representatives at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Edmonton National Event, March 2014. Photo credit Eileen Klassen Hamm

While Shaun said his own experience at residential school was generally positive, he also named himself an inter-generational survivor. The unresolved trauma suffered by former residential schools students – taken from their families and culture for the expressed purpose of “killing the Indian in the child,” and often subjected to multiple forms of abuse – has been passed on from generation to generation. It is this legacy that the TRC was created to address. Through truth-telling, residential school survivors may begin or continue their journeys of healing. By bearing witness to their truth, the myths we settlers have constructed about what counts as history, how we “earned” our privilege, and why Indigenous people suffer the marginalization they do, can be deconstructed. And then we may join the long journey of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and between all of us and this tragic past.

This will not be easy. As Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the TRC, said, “If you think truth is hard, just wait until we try reconciliation!” But this legacy must be addressed. We all must choose to bring its truth to light, to learn its hard, hard lessons, and to walk together toward reconciliation. I am deeply grateful to the courageous residential school survivors, the Commissioners of the TRC, and the many others who are calling us relentlessly to this important work. As the formal work of the TRC comes to a close in the next year, let us not fail to continue on the path to truth and reconciliation.

To read a statement of reconciliation by Anabaptist church leaders to the Edmonton National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, click here.