“If We Pray, Dad Will Come For Us”
I’ve written a fair amount here about Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the work being done to address our nation’s history of Indian Residential Schools. Most of this writing took place in or around a trip I took to Montreal last spring to attend one of the seven national events taking place across the country (see here, here, and here). Today, however, the TRC came much closer to home. For the past two days, the TRC has been holding hearings right here in Lethbridge, AB. So, this morning I trudged off to the local hotel armed with my notebook and a stiff cup of coffee, and prepared to hear more difficult stories.
I’m not going to attempt a polished, perfectly coherent post here (I have less than an hour until I have to pick the kids up after school) but I wanted to at least give a sense of what the day sounded and felt like, for those who might have wanted to attend but didn’t have the opportunity. The stories are too important not to hear, and I want to be sure that I do whatever I can to make them available to even a minimally broader audience. There are so many stories to pick from, but I just want to talk about two.
The first took place during the coffee break. I was looking at some of the pictures of the residential schools that operated here in southern AB. A voice came from over my shoulder… “It looks kinda like a prison, doesn’t it? It felt like one, too.” An older woman proceeded to share her experience with me. She spoke about watching 8-10 year old children being beaten with fists and meter sticks for mispronouncing English words or speaking Blackfoot. She talked about how angry this made her, but about how her older sister had told her that the best strategy for surviving these schools was to just say nothing. “This was hard for me,” she said, “because I was a pretty inquisitive kid… And I knew more than they thought I did. These nuns would talk about the glories of European culture, but my grandpa served in the war, and he told me that Paris wasn’t that impressive… Said it smelled like shit and it was dirty. I knew that a lot what those people said was BS. And when I watched them telling all those little kids how stupid they were? I wanted to just say, ‘f*#k you!!’ I had a good family so I didn’t believe what they said about me, but some of those kids? They just internalized all those terrible words.”
How does one recover from consistently hearing such awful untruths about themselves?
The second came during the main session, from a woman who was probably in her 30s or 40s. Her mom had experienced the residential schools, and the pain of this experience had reverberated down into the lives of her children. She spoke of her mom’s alcoholism, of how she didn’t know how to be a parent, about what it was like have to be a mother to her younger siblings at age 10 because mom was out drinking.
Through eyes full of tears, she talked about being left in the car at the Fort Macleod hotel with her siblings while her mom was inside drinking, trying to dull the pain of long years of abuse, confusion, anger, and regret. She talked about a kind old man at the ice cream shop around the corner who would check on them sometimes. He would give them water, she said. Sometimes even ice cream. She talked about coming home from school one day, hoping that someone would be there to greet her this time, about finding an empty house and a locked door. She talked about sitting alone on her front step, talking to her dog, wishing her mom had been home… About walking down the road to try to reach the neighbours and being picked up by a police officer. She talked about being placed in foster care, about being groped by the boys in her foster “home.” She talked about the rage that built up towards her mother, about hating her parents for leaving her and her sisters alone.
The pattern continued. Her mom would go on a drinking binge, and the kids would be placed in foster care. She talked about one of these experiences, about finding herself in yet another unfamiliar house full of strangers. She talked about huddling under a blanket with her younger sister, trying to comfort her, about crying together and praying to God that her dad would come rescue them. “Dad says that if we pray, God will help us. If we pray, dad will come for us.” “Do you promise?” her little sister asked. “Yes, I promise.” So they prayed. And when they had finished there was a knock on the door. It was a police officer. The girls needed to come with him. Their father was waiting for them.
This image became the most lasting one of the day for me: these two little girls, hiding under the blanket in a foster home, pleading with the God in whose name their parents’ lives had been so profoundly damaged that one of their alcoholic parents would remember them and come take them home. The perverse injustice of it made we want to weep. How does one reconcile these things? How does one make sense of God answering this prayer and yet apparently not intervening to put a stop to the monstrous actions that created this situation in the first place? There are no answers.
I cannot parse or penetrate the mysteries of divine providence. But I absolutely believe that God did see and hear those little girls crying and praying under that blanket and that he did answer their prayer. That’s how (and where) God works.
The image above is of the Sacred Heart Residential School on the Peigan Reserve, just under an hour west of Lethbridge.