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Three Girls (And an Orangey-Brown Dress)

Among the gleanings of my morning tour through Facebook land was the discovery that Tuesday, September 30 has been designated “Orange Shirt Day” by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) here in Canada. Intrigued, I did a bit of snooping around and found the following explanation for the origin of the idea in an article at NationTalk:

Orange Shirt Day is an outcome of the St. Joseph Mission Residential School Commemoration Project and Reunion events that took place in Williams Lake, BC in May 2013.  It stems from a story told by former residential school student, Phyllis Webstad, who had her new orange shirt, bought by her grandmother, taken from her as a six-year old girl.  She spoke powerfully of how it seemed to her that nobody cared and, in this personal way, it speaks to the many harms experienced by children in the residential schools.

I have no orange shirt, alas, but the initiative has me thinking of a few recent experiences, and about three girls.

Last week, I was sitting in the parking lot somewhere waiting for my wife to finish up in the store when I saw an aboriginal girl walk out the front door. She was probably ten or eleven years old, beautiful face, long, jet black hair. And she was wearing an orangey-brown, floral print dress. Beside her, was an old-colony Mennonite woman, similarly attired with the addition of a head covering. Her mother, perhaps? Some other caregiver? I stared at this beautiful aboriginal girl for a long time. The sight of brown skin and black hair in an old-colony Mennonite dress was incongruous and jarring, to say the least. And, I’m not proud to say, it made me a little angry. I was only too quick to leap to a whole bunch of (self-righteous) assumptions about how this poor girl was being repressed in an authoritarian and rigid religious context, about how her aboriginal culture was undoubtedly being ruthlessly stifled, etc., etc. This was all reinforced (in my self-righteous mind) when I saw the girl get into the back seat of the van while the front passenger seat beside the older woman remained oppressively vacant.  I was only too eager to begin spinning an elaborate tale of injustice and indoctrination…

Until my wife reminded me that, of course I knew (and know) precisely nothing about this girl, the woman she was with, or their family situation. Nothing. Not one thing.  For all I knew, the front seat had to remain empty because they were picking someone up on the way home.  For all I knew, this little girl had an idyllic life of love, joy, and unconditional acceptance.  For all I knew, she wouldn’t trade her life for the world.   For all I knew, they were on their way to a pow wow.  And yet, I was quick to leap to all kinds of unsavoury conclusions.  Shame on me.

And, even more uncomfortably, I began to think about my own daughter. She doesn’t wear old colony Mennonite dresses, but jeans and t-shirts and yoga pants and oversized hoodies (along with all the other accoutrements of teenage girlhood) are just as far removed from anything resembling “traditional” Ojibway culture as a long, orangey-brown floral print dress. Yes, we have encouraged our kids to embrace their aboriginal heritage, yes, we have tried to make opportunities for learning available, yes, we have tried to instill a pride in their biological background in them… But the big picture remains: we are raising our aboriginal kids in a religious and cultural context that is some distance from all of these things.

Strangely, hypocrisy doesn’t become easier to recognize, even with long years of practice….

A few days ago, I was speaking at a young adults event and I struck up a conversation with a twenty-something year old Cree woman. She was soft-spoken and a bit shy, but after I told her a bit about our family’s story she began to open up. She talked about how she has experienced more racism here in the Lethbridge area than she had in the larger center where she grew up, about how she still often felt like an outsider. She talked about how she was a committed follower of Jesus but that she was also determined to incorporate aspects of Cree culture and spirituality into her Christian beliefs and practice. She explained the process of smudging to me. She talked to me about which kinds of grasses were appropriate for these ceremonies, where to find them. She spoke about attending a small church out on a local reserve but not always feeling welcome due to her commitment to bridge these two worlds, native and Christian. She said, sometimes people call her “apple”—red on the outside, white on the inside.

So, on this first “Orange Shirt Day,” I am thinking about three girls: the young girl in the orangey-brown Mennonite dress, my daughter, and the young Cree woman I met a few days ago. All three, I suspect, are coming or will have to come to terms with the things that have been taken from them (directly or indirectly) because of the colour of their skin and our nation’s screwed up racist history of residential schools and ongoing colonial attitudes. All three will negotiate their identities in a complex cultural context that they did not and likely would not choose.

But I am also hoping that each of these three girls, in their own way and related to their own contexts and stories, will encounter people and spaces and opportunities to receive better things—things like the gift of reclaiming aspects of their identities that were or continue to be downplayed and minimized. Things like the opportunity to share gifts and wisdom that have long been ignored with others.  And, perhaps most importantly, things like the welcome and embrace that their people have so often been denied.

20 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sharon #

    Great insight Ryan, thank you. This in some ways fits in with our son’s First Nations assignment he has just been working on.

    September 30, 2014
  2. Paul Johnston #

    I have to be honest, my first response to events like, “Orange Shirt Day” is to rebuke them. They do not feel of the Holy Spirit to me. In the Spirit, we are made “new creations”. We are here, we are now. We are loved deeply and truly and in turn called to be lovers deep and true. We are forgiven, now and forever. We are to forgive, now and forever.

    We are to cry out to God through the Holy Spirit to reconcile these lingering wounds. Only through Christ can love and forgiveness be “now and forever” for the families of man.

    Why do some seek reconciliation through a different form of human government a century later? You were not the one wounded? This present government was not the one wounding? Why do you work to inspire guilt? I did not wound you. I do not wound you. The people who did the wounding are no more my ancestors then they are yours. If you do not understand this then you treat me with a racist spirit similar to the one suffered by aboriginal peoples.

    October 1, 2014
    • fearfully anonymous #

      I agree with your common sense logic, Paul Johnson

      October 1, 2014
    • First, the point of the post wasn’t really to comment upon the merits of the day itself. I was more interested in reflecting on a few experiences that the designation of this day brought to my mind.

      Second, though, I wonder about your need to “rebuke” such things because they are not “of the Holy Spirit.” Just because something does not, in your mind, have explicitly Christian origins or motivations, does that mean it can’t do anything good or worthwhile? Is it possible that partial healing or reconciliation might be among some of the fruits of initiatives like this? Would an initiative like this rule out also “crying out to God through the Holy Spirit to reconcile these lingering wounds?” I see no reason to so quickly dismiss an initiative like this, even if it’s not perfect.

      Finally, I think it’s very easy—too easy!—for non-aboriginal people to comment upon the experiences of aboriginals and the initiatives that these might lead to. I don’t know what it’s like to experience the things that many of our aboriginal neighbours have experienced and continue to experience, directly or indirectly, as a result of injustices perpetrated by the government of Canada and the church (which should have known better). In my view, Christians, especially, need to become better listeners. We have misrepresented Jesus in too many ways to this specific group of people to presume to now tell them how they should or shouldn’t seek reconciliation and how far their wounds have a right to be felt.

      October 1, 2014
    • Little Birds in the Woods #

      “Who am I to judge?”

      The victims are why reconciliation is needed with those in the present.

      October 13, 2014
  3. mmartha #

    Essays are wonderfully explorative and speculative and interpretative in their scope.

    her new orange shirt
    like the welcome and embrace
    to bridge these two worlds
    (fr above text)

    October 1, 2014
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Conversations meander where they will. My “meander” is consistent with the themes of your story. 🙂

    Can anything that seeks the good accomplish it’s goal when it explicitly separates itself from Christ? No it can’t. Do not be separated from Christ, no matter how emotionally compelling the story. Lot’s wife felt compelled to turn her gaze towards the people and the wounds of the past and died to the healing that was offered her in the present. Addicts who relive the wounds of the past become users again. Cultures that relive the wounds of the past continue to wound into the present…..FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US….forgive and be born into your future as a new creation in Christ. No one need suffer the wounds of the past unless, like Lot’s wife, they persist in fixing their gaze upon it.

    Like her then, they will die to the healing being offered them by their Lord and Savior.

    October 2, 2014
    • The Spirit is transcendent….”neither Greek nor Jew, man or woman”…Our relationship with the Spirit must be real and true for our insights to be real and true. Our gender, culture or locality are irrelevant.

      October 2, 2014
    • Can anything that seeks the good accomplish it’s goal when it explicitly separates itself from Christ? No it can’t.

      Are you suggesting that literally nothing that is good can be accomplished without being explicitly connected to Christ? You seem to see goodness as an all or nothing thing. I think it comes in grades or layers (physical, emotional, relational, spiritual, eternal…). To suggest that some good is accomplished does not mean that there are further and deeper and even more important and necessary layers yet to pursue. Everyone has to start somewhere.

      Do not be separated from Christ, no matter how emotionally compelling the story.

      Interesting assumption you seem to be making here—that involving myself in an “emotionally compelling story” is somehow separating myself from Christ. What if it is Christ himself who compels me to try to understand and invest myself in the stories of my neighbour? What if it is precisely love of God and neighbour (which Jesus seemed to speak favourably about on occasion) that motivates me (and many others)?

      October 2, 2014
      • Paul Johnston #

        Faulty hermeneutics here, my friend. 😉 The sentences you isolate are dependent on one another for meaning. The point being made here is that agencies that purposefully separate themselves from Christ cannot accomplish what is good and true, as goodness and truth are only found in and through, Jesus Christ. Those who divorce themselves from Christ often use emotionally compelling stories to substantiate this choice. Be wary.

        While on earth, did Jesus offer “layered grades of healing” to those who had complete faith in him? Is God’s power limited in some way? Or are the incremental stages of goodness you reference a consequence of a meager, doubting faith?

        And what of illusions of goodness? Things that appear good in the moment, offer some temporary respite but in the end, persistently lead us back to conditions as bad as or worse than they were before.

        I see a post Christian world full of meager faith, band aids and the devil in disguise offering false hope through government, business and other self serving institutions. Along with a remnant of the faithful that is mostly afraid to walk on water.

        What do you see?

        October 3, 2014
      • While on earth, did Jesus offer “layered grades of healing” to those who had complete faith in him? Is God’s power limited in some way? Or are the incremental stages of goodness you reference a consequence of a meager, doubting faith?

        Perhaps. Or it could just mean that I’m not Jesus. I assume your every human interaction is marked by the complete and restorative healing you reference here?

        I see a post Christian world full of meager faith, band aids and the devil in disguise offering false hope through government, business and other self serving institutions. Along with a remnant of the faithful that is mostly afraid to walk on water.

        What do you see?

        I see a post-Christian world comprised of meagre faith alongside strong, vibrant faith… I see weakness and cowardice alongside courage and resourcefulness… I see love and hope and joy and community… I see apathy, laziness and weariness… I see the signs of the kingdom flourishing precisely where we would expect to see them if we read the gospels—far from the halls of power and influence, among the small, the insignificant, the weak, the broken… I see a church learning (as it has always had to learn and re-learn) the centrality of following the teachings of Jesus and refusing the idols of political power and consumeristic religion and self-absorbed piety… I see a church having to relearn the truth that the way of Jesus is always to invite, never to coerce or impose ourselves upon the culture around us…

        I see precisely what one would expect to see of a body of broken and sinful yet redeemed and hope-filled people who are trying to walk with Jesus on the Way.

        October 4, 2014
    • mike #

      Paul, I totally understand and agree with what your saying about the need for forgiveness and letting go of past wounds and the benefit of then moving-on with one’s life, and as you know this process works out quickly for some and not so quickly for others. It can be messy and not so cut-and-dried anytime humans beings are involved. Sometimes, because of our particular make-up,our wounds will run deep and sometimes we stubbornly hold on to them for various psychological reasons. Jesus knows this and has compassion, I’m living proof.

      October 2, 2014
      • He has blessed us both with the indescribable experience of his compassion. How rich we both are!! We must share this gift through the actions of our lives. 🙂

        May the Lord continue to bless and keep you, my brother.

        October 3, 2014
  5. A question for you, Paul: You are critical of goodness done that is not explicitly linked to Jesus Christ. What do you make of the list near the bottom of my most recent post, taken from Matthew 25? The “sheep” seem genuinely surprised to inherit the kingdom. They were not doing the things they did explicitly FOR Jesus, it seems. And yet, Jesus says, “I was hungry… I was thirsty… I was naked… I was in prison… and you helped me.”

    Amazing what simple acts of goodness, whatever their explicit motivation, might lead to.

    October 4, 2014
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Not all my human interactions are fully restorative. I haven’t fixed you yet. 🙂 ….” lights will guide you home..and ignite your bones”…No we aren’t Jesus are we. We are supposed to be capable of greater things. :)…As I understand Matthew 25 the “sheep” were explicitly working for Christ but stunned by the depth and dimensions of Christ’s presence on earth and truly humbled by their reward.

    October 4, 2014
    • What in the text itself leads you to that interpretation?

      October 4, 2014
  7. mike #

    This is probably the most Beautiful and well spoken statement on Christianity that I’ve ever read anywhere, a rare Book in a nutshell. *****5Stars

    “I see a post-Christian world comprised of meagre faith alongside strong, vibrant faith… I see weakness and cowardice alongside courage and resourcefulness… I see love and hope and joy and community… I see apathy, laziness and weariness… I see the signs of the kingdom flourishing precisely where we would expect to see them if we read the gospels—far from the halls of power and influence, among the small, the insignificant, the weak, the broken… I see a church learning (as it has always had to learn and re-learn) the centrality of following the teachings of Jesus and refusing the idols of political power and consumeristic religion and self-absorbed piety… I see a church having to relearn the truth that the way of Jesus is always to invite, never to coerce or impose ourselves upon the culture around us…

    I see precisely what one would expect to see of a body of broken and sinful yet redeemed and hope-filled people who are trying to walk with Jesus on the Way.”- Ryan Dueck

    October 5, 2014

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