Acknowledging treaty and territory

This week’s guest writer is Steve Plenert, peace program coordinator for MCC Manitoba.

“I just think it’s annoying.”  That’s how my conversation with someone from church ended one Sunday after worship. The person had just pointed out that on the cover of our new church directory we had included “Treaty 1 Territory” as part of the address of our church building.

Hundreds of people particpated in a mass blanket exercise on the steps of Parliament Hill, lead by members of Kairos. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.

Hundreds of people participate in a mass blanket exercise on the steps of Parliament Hill. The blanket exercise teaches Canadian history from the perspective of indigenous peoples. MCC photo by Alison Ralph.

“That’s a political statement” he went on, clearly irate. I tried to make some statements to defuse the tension, but clearly the high dudgeon he was experiencing was more important to him at the moment than having a conversation about issues relating to colonial history and indigenous-settler relationships.But it got me thinking. I thought about it during lunch (hotdogs), clean-up, and even while I was golfing that evening. I thought about two questions: First, is church a place where people are supposed to get annoyed? And second, so soon after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s closing, what are appropriate ways of acknowledging this troubled/troubling era of Canadian history?

Although I didn’t initiate the “address change” on the directory, I actually think that’s a pretty good symbolic way of identifying with Indigenous people.  The history of Mennonites with Indigenous people here in Manitoba slants pretty heavily in favour of the Mennonites. When you look at measures like education, economic class, cultural stability, representation in society, we Mennos stack up very high on the positive side of the ledger.  As with all settler peoples here in Canada some of this, at the very least, comes at the expense of Indigenous people.  So, if we acknowledge that the land was generously shared with us and sometimes confiscated on our behalf, putting “Treaty 1 Territory” on our bulletins and directory doesn’t feel inappropriate to me at all.

RS50971_IMG_3107-scr

Walk for Reconciliation, Ottawa, May 31, 2015. MCC photo by Alison Ralph.

Our congregation also hosts community people on Sunday mornings before the worship service. People come for coffee, breakfast and conversation. Many of them are Indigenous. This has been going on for years now and some good relationships have been established.  Quite a few of those folks now consider our congregation “their church” – whatever that means to them. I think that’s pretty cool. In an era of “truth and reconciliation” relationship-building and hospitality, perhaps this is what is called for.  It’s not everything, but it’s something.  Maybe having “their” address as part of “our” address can help us see each other as part of one body. That would be good.

But is church supposed to be a place to go to get annoyed?  Probably. At least some of the time. Because if we’re not annoyed with each other occasionally, we’re probably not being honest with each other. There’s always the question as to whose annoyance takes priority, mind you. Is it more important that one person feel annoyed over an experiment with identifying with Indigenous people or do we prioritize the annoyance of never saying anything about this topic?

Maybe you wonder about my use of the word “annoyance.”  It’s particularly appropriate, I think, because I am in the privileged position of being able to choose my annoyances.  Settler privilege and priority have a rich history in the church. Mennonite settler types, such as myself, are in the places of power. That means we get to pick how words get used.  Perhaps we use some of that privilege to add a line to the church directory in the hopes of seeing one of the troubled pages of Canadian history getting written with a more inclusive story.

The adage says that the gospel should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  In my view, this is a fairly minor “affliction” – if an annoyance for some – that can hopefully contribute to  more respectful and authentic relationships with Indigenous people in Canada.

The people behind the headlines — opening our hearts to refugees

We see it on the news almost every day – headlines of migration from around the world. We can become easily overwhelmed by the magnitude of the numbers; the millions of people on the move, in refugee camps, uprooted from their homes. But what about the people behind these headlines – their stories? In light of the growing global crisis of forced migration, it is critical to keep telling the stories and opening our hearts to the human side of migration.

June 20 is World Refugee Day, and all across the country this week people are marching, standing with refugees who have come to Canada and expressing solidarity with those around the world who are seeking refuge. We think of those risking their lives in precarious boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea or the Bay of Bengal; those making the dangerous journey through Central America and Mexico; the hundreds of thousands who have fled or are still fleeing violence in Burundi and Rwanda, Syria and Lebanon, and now living in refugee camps all over the world. All of these people long for peace and a better life for their children.

MCC's partner organization Iraqi al-Amal Association distributed material resources to internally-displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. These materials -- including blankets, infant care kits, hygiene kits, and relief kits -- were donated by MCC constituents in the United States and Canada and provide much-needed assistance to individuals and families currently staying in Kirkuk and Erbil cities. Iraqi al-Amal Association supplemented the MCC-donated materials with other materials purchased in Iraq, providing a well-rounded distribution to meet the immediate needs of the recipients. (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

MCC’s partner organization Iraqi al-Amal Association distributed material resources to internally-displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.  (MCC Photo by Salar Ahmed)

A recent report by Amnesty International lines up with what the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has already said: with more than 50 million people around the world who have been forcefully displaced, either in their own country or beyond their borders, this is the worst forced migration crisis our world has seen since World War II.

Earlier this month Stephen Cornish, Director of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders Canada, challenged Canadians to recognize our shared humanity with those fleeing or living in refugee camps. We must also recognize our responsibility for opening our doors and our hearts with those those needing safety and protection.

In thinking about the concept of shared humanity, one passage of scripture stands out. A lesson from the very beginning, Genesis 1: all people are made in the image of God – the call and challenge for us all to look at others from God’s viewpoint. We support and respect each other, mourn together, but also are joyful together.

This also reminds me of a recent personal encounter with migration.

Last month Ottawa Mennonite Church (OMC) hosted the “People on the Move” exhibit, which is an MCC resource created with the help of partners around the world to tell stories of migration. It tells personal stories of refugees, people who have been displaced, or people who have had to move, seeking new opportunities. Along with the display, OMC invited many of their sponsored refugee families, as well as members of the congregation who have been involved in the sponsorship process to share their stories.

Among the panelists were people from Somalia, Iraq, Colombia, Syria and Canada, along with people in the audience who had come from Sudan, DR Congo and other parts of the world. It was a wonderful and impactful time of sharing and showing support for one another. There are so many highlights to share, but I will focus on two.

The Abukhousa family — Palestinians from Iraq — arrived as refugees in Altona, Manitoba in 2010. They were sponsored by an Altona group called Build a Village. (MCC Photo by Joanie Peters)

Laila (not her real name) is a young mother who arrived from Iraq last year with her husband and daughters. She spoke only a few words, but had a powerful message.  As a Muslim family, Laila and her husband were so joyful that a church community wanted to sponsor them, walk alongside them in this difficult time of transition, and build relationships, despite cultural, language and religious divides. The friendship between Laila’s family and several families from OMC was clearly evident. I don’t recall Laila’s exact words, but will paraphrase to the best of my ability, “We are people, just like you, who desire peace. We have hopes and dreams for our family.”

Angelica (also not her real name) and her family arrived from Colombia as refugees fleeing violence when she was just 12 years old in 2003. She shared about the difficult transition: the loss of her home, the challenges of a new language and culture, the end of a future in Colombia. But she also shared about the joys of community and support in Ottawa. One memory stuck out for Angelica on the day she arrived in Canada, a memory that is still vivid and still brings tears to her eyes. When she and her family descended the escalator at the Ottawa airport, a crowd of people awaited them, excited to meet them, greeting them with open arms. These were people who had never met her, yet their love and support was clear. Angelica has since become involved with other arriving refugee families, particularly another family from Colombia, because she wants to show them the same love and support which she received.

This year let us stand in solidarity with refugees here and around the world. Let us open our hearts to them. Let us seek to recognize our common humanity.

By Rebekah (Bekah) Sears, policy analyst for the Ottawa Office.

The closing of the TRC: in seven parts

This week’s guest writer is Eileen Klassen Hamm, program director for MCC Saskatchewan. The photos were taken by Alison Ralph of MCC Canada during KAIROS’ Time for Reconciliation gathering and the closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, May 28 to June 3, 2015.

More than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.

More than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.    	At the start of the walk, organizers arranged for several notable people to speak, encouraging walkers for reconciliation.RS50673_IMG_2515-scrMore than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.RS50971_IMG_3107-scrJustice Murray Sinclair addresses walkers and those gathered at Marion Dewar Plaza in Ottawa. More than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.

More than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.    	At the start of the walk, organizers arranged for several notable people to speak, encouraging walkers for reconciliation.I
I am a woman born blind
socialized into a colonial story
with church collusion
was it my sin
or my parents’
but now my eyes
have been washed
with the mud of survivors’ stories
and I am beginning
to see

II
in front of me
sit rows and rows
of survivors
I receive the words
of the commissioners
filtered
through these now old bodies
which carry within them
child bodies
taken
from circles of love
humiliated
abused
buried in unmarked graves
a massive test
for something so small as words
to ring true
Hundreds of people particpated in a mass blanket exercise on the steps of Parliament Hill, lead by members of Kairos. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.through the bodies of children
listening for
acknowledgement
recognition
dignity
love

III
a horrific moral wound
intergenerational trauma
cultural genocide
listen
no matter how uncomfortable
an important lesson
awaits

IV
the commissioners
are midwives of a new day
delivering us out of the dark
toward love and respect
with art and dance
drum and song
reminding us
to be human
together

V
ninety-four calls to action
no stones left unturned
let justice roll down like waters
righteousness like a deep river

VI
we are kin
made so by treaties
and the creator
do not turn yourselves
from your own kin
walk in a good way
toward reconciliation
through reparation and restitution
langRS51161_IMG_3873-scruages and cultures
lands and resources
do justice
love kindness
walk humbly
be gentle
with the children
and grandchildren
and great grandchildren

VII
back home
along the south saskatchewan river
where my grandmother
coaxed vegetables and roses
from the sandy soil
providing feasts for our bodies and souls
what will I do with my reclaimed sight
the test of our love
will always be
the tender hearts
of all the children

For further reading:

TRC Findings http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=890
Response of the Churches to the TRC http://www.anglican.ca/news/response-of-the-churches-to-the-truth-and-reconciliation-commission-of-canada/3004539/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+acc-news+%28Anglican+Church+of+Canada+News+Stories%29
John 9, Amos 5, Isaiah 58, Micah 6

D-Day and remembering the witness of conscientious objectors

This week’s guest writer is Ron Janzen, executive director of MCC Manitoba.

One of my clearest recollections of my “Opa” (paternal grandfather) is a story he told me about war. It was gruesome, shocking stuff for a young boy. Opa wanted to make an impact.  He wanted to make sure I understood the horrors of war and would remember them.  Since that was over 45 years ago, I think I can say it worked.

The story was about Opa’s service in the Sanitaetsdienst (hospital or “sanitary” service) in Russia during the final months of World War I. He was one of more than 6,000 Mennonites who, as conscientious objectors, transported wounded soldiers from the war front to hospitals. This was a few years before he would join thousands of other Mennonites fleeing communist Russia to immigrate to Canada. The actual story is his story to tell and it was my privilege to hear it.

Fifty-two individuals, most of them Mennonite conscientious objectors, posing in front of train 206.  Photo credit, Mennonite Heritage, Centre, 365-1.0.   Mennonite Archives Image Database.

Fifty-two individuals, most of them Mennonite conscientious objectors, posing in front of train 206.
Photo credit, Mennonite Heritage, Centre, 365-1.0.
Mennonite Archives Image Database.

Part of the story was also a careful articulation about how Opa came to be in the Sanitätsdienst. It was my first Anabaptist lesson on peace, non-resistance and the concept of alternative service. As I listened to Opa, I had a realization of being part of the tradition of a peace church movement that stretched back centuries and defined “my people.”

Opa was a large serious man whom I often found more intimidating than warm and cuddly. But in the telling of his story, he engaged me like an equal even though I was a young child. This was unusual for him. I felt respect and a desire on his part that I appreciate his experience and the deeply held values that formed it.

Opa was not highly educated and I did not receive from him a theological or biblical framework. However, he did succeed in explaining the significance of the peace position to his personal faith, the church, and the larger Mennonite community. He was also emphatic about explaining the sacrifice that individuals must be ready to make to uphold this position — including alternative service, imprisonment, and even emigration to countries accepting of individual and communal rights to conscientious objection.

During 2014, nation states rallied the public to honor military sacrifices and achievements in conjunction with the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Normandy (D-Day) on June 6, 1944.  As we approach the 71st D-Day anniversary, I’m reminded of Maria Al-Kouhri.  I met her while visiting MCC partners in Beirut, Lebanon last November.

Maria is from Damascus and is currently living out the realities of the Syrian civil war, now entering its fifth year of conflict. She  attended a Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) at Eastern Mennonite University through an MCC sponsorship.  As a result of that experience and training, she is now courageously engaging young adults in her community in the work of dialogue and peacebuilding. She related to me how the SPI experience opened her mind and heart to the possibilities of building bridges across great divides.  She said to me, “War can create great people, but I think that peacebuilding creates even greater people.”  In our Canadian context, where we continually hear a message about the need for a violent and deadly response to the radical extremism of ISIS, I found Maria’s witness particularly courageous.

Peacebuilding has indeed offered many great testimonies over the centuries.  For us in the Anabaptist community, the witness of conscientious objectors and alternative service workers is a testimony we need to recall and honour (remembering that military conscription is also a present day reality for some of our brethren in other parts of the world).

COs in WW2

In World War II in Canada, many conscientious objectors were assigned to build roads. Photo credit: http://www.alternativeservice.ca.

As we come upon another D-Day celebration, it is appropriate for us to reflect also on the sacrifice and courage of those who chose to express their objection to active combat through alternative service. These individuals took the difficult path of standing against the societal value of redemptive violence. In the context of World War I and Nazi fascism, theirs was an unpopular, isolating, misunderstood and dangerous position to take. Yet several thousand individuals, many of them from Mennonite/Anabaptist churches, registered for alternative service.  Many were socially ridiculed, maligned, and called before tribunals to be interrogated about their conscientious objection beliefs.

There are powerful stories and testimonies from these experiences that need to be recalled and passed on.  As Canada marks another D-Day, let us recall the “even greater people” of peace from our Anabaptist community and tell the stories of their nonviolent witness. Perhaps this is a way we can sow the seeds for future generations of peacemakers and so inspire hope for an end to inter-generational cycles of violence and war.