I signed up eagerly for The Walk for Reconciliation (Sept. 22), but I debated for weeks about how I should dress for the event, and not because of the weather, or some finicky sense of fashion.
I am an Anglican priest, and my dilemma had to do with whether I should wear the clerical collar, my uniform, as it were, identifying me as a priest, an official of the Church. By and large I am not ashamed of the outfit, but in this context I hesitated, and with good reason. I decided against, and here’s why:
As I have read about and experienced First Nations people, heard their stories, and learned more about the Indian Residential Schools, I have gradually “owned” the sorry legacy that churches and governments perpetrated upon an innocent component of our population.
There is absolutely no doubt that the system itself was wrongly conceived and created the ideal conditions for large-scale abuse to happen almost entirely without consequence. As I heard the stories of survivors this past week, stories only being told for the first time in many cases, I could not hold back the tears, so it was hard to imagine the depths of anguish those survivors had experienced, and continue to experience, as they move toward healing.
Their stories spoke of isolation, humiliation, fear, deprivation, sexual abuse, physical beatings, bullying, malnutrition, even starvation. Don’t try to tell me there were good points to the system, or that people did the best they could for First Nations people – I’m not buying it any more. And don’t tell me it had anything to do with Christ. It was an attempt at cultural genocide, a sad chapter in our history, and there was much more evil in it than good. On Sunday, keynote speaker Dr Bernice King, daughter of the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, drew comparisons between our treatment of aboriginal people and the treatment of African Americans in the United States.
“We didn’t start the fire . . .” I could argue that I had nothing to do with it personally, and that I’m not that kind of priest, but Native people typically have a strong sense of the connection with their ancestors, and so, even though I do not have a single relative who had anything to do with the residential schools, my “ancestors” in the faith most definitely did. I could argue that some churches were better or worse than others, but ultimately they all – we all — failed.
I tried to convince myself that by wearing the clerical outfit, there might be a certain element of rehabilitating the image – perhaps people might see that clergy are not all monsters – that there are really only a few “bad apples” – that most of us are sympathetic. But I realized that with that argument, you might as well try to suggest that wearing a German SS uniform would be a way of rehabilitating the horrific image burned into the memories of many Jewish Holocaust survivors.
During the TRC events last week, we saw a powerful NFB film, We Were Children. At one point, the film depicted the young Glen Anaquod (a survivor of a Roman Catholic residential school in Saskatchewan) and several of his friends standing up to a priest who was about to administer them a beating. When the abusive priest was taken down, the people in the huge theatre cheered.
I was reminded of a scene in the movie Falling Down, in which Michael Douglas plays a man who has become disoriented and deluded and a threat to his ex-wife. Michael Douglas’ character is eventually cornered and confronted by a cop (played by Robert Duvall) and Douglas’s character says with some incredulity, “You mean I’m the bad guy?”
I have not typically viewed myself as “the bad guy.” I decided to be ordained, and serve as a priest, because I wanted to use whatever gifts I had to inspire and encourage people, especially the ones stepped on and abused by the powerful. As I see it, the Gospel always confronts the arrogant and the oppressive. It was very hard to realize, and accept, that for many First Nations people, seeing someone in clericals is the equivalent of a Jewish person seeing someone walking around in an SS uniform.
People wearing the uniform of Christian priests did terrible things to innocent children. So my thought was, let’s put the focus on rehabilitating the survivors first, and worry about rehabilitating the image of clergy later. The TRC process, including the Walk, is not about me anyway; it is about them.
I left Friday’s TRC events almost in a self-hating mood, not just for being Christian, but for being Caucasian. It wasn’t, after all, any specific faith that caused the problem, but an oblivious arrogance, and an unexamined sense of superiority inherent in our culture, and it could easily happen again, because I don’t think we have changed much since that era. Will we ever learn to let go of our entitled and overbearing ways?
I left feeling we are still in denial over the Holocaust carried out in our country, but that perhaps we are now starting to deal with the truth. Some like to say that we’ve given Native people everything. As I see things now I would say we gave them some things, but we took everything from them. One of the things we gave First Nations people was a message, a way of life, a set of ideals, rooted in the person of Jesus, and then we failed to honour or live according to that way of life ourselves.
I may have had nothing to do with it personally, but WE in a larger sense did, and WE continue to reap the benefits while aboriginal people continue to suffer as outsiders in their own land.
What saved me – what redeemed the event for me — was the attitudes of First Nations people themselves, many of them survivors. I was deeply impressed and humbled by the gracious reception that we as white people received. I went not sure what to expect, anticipating some possible hostility, and there was none. I didn’t end up hating myself because of the redeeming grace I witnessed in the sessions and in the most ordinary encounters. I was impressed by the healing that has happened, and the way that, despite the tragedy, First Nations people have resisted and survived the terrible ordeal that the residential school system imposed.
I have no wish to dismiss or disrespect those who made the choice to walk wearing their clerical collars; I trust that each of us gave the matter some thought. Perhaps especially because I am a male cleric, I simply felt it was inappropriate for me to risk provoking any painful or fearful memories in people who had been merely children when their language, freedom, self-worth and innocence were taken away.
The Rev. R.H. Grant Rodgers