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There is no word for apology

June 30, 2015
Keith Simmonds

This blog post was published by Victoria's Times Colonist online column, "Spiritually Speaking". 

Stan McKay is a wise and respected elder. A minister and former moderator of the United Church of Canada, he is rooted in the traditions of the Swampy Cree of Fisher River, Manitoba. I was fortunate to have him as a teacher during my formation in ministry and hold his teachings close to my heart.

Especially on days like these.

Days when I shudder under the enormous implications of being a white male protestant who has mined, milled and smelted much of the beauty of the earth. Who has been deeply engaged in the adversarial systems of political discourse that thinly veil our struggles to be the direct beneficiaries of the ongoing exploitation of planet and people.

Days when I can hear the world groaning, the bombs falling, the sky choking, the oceans dying, the hatred spreading, the consumption hacking its way ever deeper into the lungs of our planet.

Days when the sheer numbers of the dispossessed overwhelm me. So many thousands and hundreds of thousands, not only deliberately ignored, but disappeared, missing, murdered, left to struggle in poverty, die in disease or drown in addiction. Worked to death in factories to make goods I will consume briefly and cast aside.

Stan would cut through the miasma of despair after a particularly difficult session at North End Stella Mission Church in the heart of Winnipeg’s North End. Time spent with elders who’d come out of the Residential Schools our churches had run with memories and nightmares. Sticks, stones, and starvation. Slaps, kicks, and hunger. Verbal, physical and sexual abuse. I cannot tell you the horrors inflicted on five year olds by Christian men and women. Inflicted upon their weak and helpless bodies.

Stan would sit with us in testimony and aftermath. Kind eyes and fierce spirit. One day he told us:

“My people don’t have a word for apology. There is only what you do. If you cause harm you make it right, and you don’t do it again.” He’d shake his head at the thought of ongoing violations, punctuated by occasional apologies.

“I am going to tell you a story,” he’d say, “it is a true story, and some of it may have actually happened.” He’d smile then, eyes twinkling, mouth turned up in a grin, waiting for the release of our laughter.

In 2012, I attended our churches General Council Meeting in Ottawa and heard Stan speak again. With unassuming eloquence he urged us to change our story. To remake ourselves in a new and significant image. To signal our intent, to change our ways, to be true to ourselves and our church community which contains, against all logic, common sense and reason, indigenous people from across the land. From coast, to coast, to coast.

Stan had helped unearth the overlooked history of our church. Had found the stories of the indigenous people who were with us at the beginning, participating in our formation, joining in the Union that saw Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and the Prairie Uniting Churches come together as one United Church in 1925.

He told us of the indigenous congregations that were part of that Union. Those that were there then, and are here now. He urged us to include their story in our story. To uphold their adoption of Christianity and to uphold the validity of the Spirituality they shared with Christians. Spiritual paths to the heart of love that are as real, true, and beloved of the Creator as any other.

He called upon us to change the visual symbol of our church. The crest that holds the symbols of our founding denominations should uphold and celebrate the Spiritual paths of the founding indigenous people. Stan and a small group of theologians and scholars consulted the indigenous congregations and proposed that we change the four quadrants of our crest to represent the colours of the four directions. Red, Yellow, Black and White. The Latin phrase “Ut Omnes Unum Sint” – That all might be one (John 17:21) found below the crest as the aim of our Union would carry up one side of the fish-shaped oval. On the other, in the language of the first Methodist Congregations among the indigenous people, the Mohawk, we would place the words: “Akwe Nia’ Tetewa:Neren – All my relations.

“If we do this,” he said, “our church will finally be rooted in Turtle Island.”

We did.

We have so much more to do.