‘REACHING’ ABORIGINALS IS A TWO-WAY STREET
WHEN I heard a major Canadian evangelical denomination had characterized aboriginal people as “least reached” by Christianity, several things came to mind.
The first was information from the 2011 National Household Survey, which found more than 63 per cent of aboriginal Canadians identify with a Christian denomination.
According to the survey, most aboriginals who say they are Christians are Roman Catholics, followed by Anglicans, United Church, Pentecostals, Baptists, Lutherans and Presbyterians.
That doesn’t sound like “least reached” to me, unless the denomination in question considers itself to be the only true expression of Christianity — which may, in fact, be the case.
The second was a comment made to me last year by Kyle Mason, founder and executive director of the North End Family Centre, about the terrible legacy of the residential school system.
Back then, when I asked Mason — who is aboriginal and a credentialed Christian minister — what he would say to churches that want to reach aboriginal people, he replied: “We have been reached by Christianity. It’s not that we haven’t heard. We have heard, and we have been damaged.”
To me, that also sounds like aboriginal people have been reached, but not in a good way.
The third thing that came to mind was a presentation I heard in June by John Ralston Saul at Canadian Mennonite University.
During a conversation with the author, he spoke about how aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians had reached out to each other in the earliest days of European exploration of this country — how Europeans had reached out for help to learn how to live in this land and survive, and how aboriginal people had reached out to give it.
He went on to suggest we could learn lessons from that encounter by once again reaching across the divides that separate aboriginal and non-aboriginal people, discovering in the process what it means to be a Canadian today.
That idea intrigued me. I wondered what that reaching might look like, especially for non-aboriginal people of faith.
For an answer to that question, I turned to Terry LeBlanc, a Mi’kmaq Christian who directs the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies.
For Leblanc, there is much those of us who aren’t aboriginal could learn from our aboriginal neighbours about things such as the environment, the economy and politics.
I asked him for an example, especially for me as a Christian. He spoke about the environment — an important issue today.
If Christians want to learn from aboriginal people, he said, they could begin by “changing the starting point” of their theology from the third chapter of Genesis which is about the fall, to Genesis’s first chapter, which is about the creation of the world — a creation, he reminded me, that “God called good.”
“The starting point determines the destination,” he said, adding that by starting with the fall Christians have come to see the world as a place that is evil and needs to be escaped.
This, he said, has placed us on “a trajectory toward the degradation of the environment.”
An aboriginal view of creation, on the other hand, starts with the idea of the Earth as good, not as a place that is evil and that we need to escape.
It is, he said, “something that God loves. Creation is good, not evil.”
Christians could also benefit from how aboriginal people see all of creation as connected, and how it has a spiritual nature, he added.
God desires for all of creation to “live in a right relationship with each other and with God” — not just humans, he said, adding that this doesn’t mean that creation is to be worshipped.
“The Earth bears God’s image,” he stated. “It was created by God, it has God’s spirit in it, but it is not God. Not everything is God, but God is in everything.”
Leblanc cautions Christians who want to reach aboriginal people. They need to move away from the concept that “mission is a oneway street. The evangelist should also be open to being evangelized.”
Christians, he said, “need also to be learners, not just teachers,” and have “a deeper humility about the message” they carry.
Pondering all these things, I find myself wondering who, exactly, is really leastreached. It may not be those who some people think.