Skip to content

Something Like the Grace of God

Whenever I drive through the reserve, I’m always struck by how little seems to have changed over the last thirty years. I remember coming to play hockey here as a kid, remember how it seemed like a different world to me. And it kind of was—and still is, at least taken at face value. The windswept barren prairies in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, the haphazard housing, the run down buildings that dot the the side of the road as we enter and leave the tiny town, the signs of poverty and chaos, the ominous billboard as you enter warning of the fentanyl crisis, urging indigenous youth to say no to drugs—“The drug dealers don’t care about you, they just want your money!” There was a recent article in the local paper saying that tribal police were considering requiring visitor permits for anyone coming on to the reserve in an effort to curtail the impact of the drug trade. If you’re going to the reserve with a narrative of hopelessness in your head, it won’t be hard to have it confirmed.

Last Saturday, thirty or so of us from a few local churches went to the reserve looking for a different narrative. We were there to do the blanket exercise—an interactive experience where we took on the roles of Indigenous peoples in Canada. We stood on blankets that represented the land, and through a series of readings walked through the history of our region from pre-contact through treaty-making, colonization and resistance. It was a different way of telling the story than many of us learned as children. Rather than a narrative of heroic European settlers “civilizing” the west, it was a narrative of steady loss—of culture, of language, of social cohesion, of relationships, of independence, of hope, and, of course, of land. The story wasn’t new to me, but the way of telling it was. It was another reminder of the truism that history is written by the winners. And here, on the reserve, we were reminded that it’s impossible for someone to win without someone else losing. A lot.

When we were planning this event, we said that we didn’t want to do it in a church basement in the city. We wanted to go out to the reserve. And we wanted to do it under the guidance of an indigenous leader. God knows we’ve had enough of white people telling native stories for them. I was very glad that we were able to spend the day under the leadership of a Blackfoot elder who interspersed the events of the day with some sharing of his people’s history and worldview. I was also glad that I was able to do this event with my teenage Ojibwe kids. I wasn’t sure if they would want to go or not, but when Saturday morning dawned they were surprisingly willing. I’ve been to so many events and been part of so many conversations about indigenous issues where it seems like all we white people do is kind of marinate in a not very inspiring cocktail of guilt and grief and virtue signaling. We aren’t always very good at resisting the temptation to make it mostly about us. Or embracing narratives that can be as simplistic as the ones we rightly reject, as BC chief Robert Joseph recently reminded us. I’m always far more curious what indigenous people make of events like this.

As it happens, my kids didn’t have much to say beyond, “yeah, we know about all that.” They said it was interesting to have the story told in a different way, but beyond that they didn’t offer much. They didn’t, evidently, have the same kind of conflicted, angst-ridden reactions that their father did during scenes where native kids are taken from their parents and placed in non-native homes, where families like ours are described as part of the problem rather than anything like a hopeful story. The sadness of the larger narrative seems not to touch them in a deeply personal way just yet. Maybe that will come. Maybe not. One day a few months ago I asked my daughter what she thought of the way that indigenous people are perceived in our area. She paused for a minute, then said, “I think it’s really sad, but it’s not my story.” I vacillate between thinking “but it actually kind of is” and wanting to cheer her with the wildest enthusiasm I can muster.

Near the end of our time together, the Blackfoot elder who has been leading us shared a bit of his own story. The contours were bleakly familiar: emerging through addictions, struggling with family members still locked in their grip, doing what he can as a mental health worker in a context dominated by drugs, alcohol, social decay, family dysfunction, suicide, and loss. His face was etched with sadness as he spoke about this. But then he looked up and a broad smile that threatened to swallow up the room and all its sadness spread across his face. I don’t remember his exact words, but he talked about how it was good that we were there, and that we were together, and that he didn’t want our guilt, and that little efforts like this would be part of how reconciliation would become a reality. “It’s something like the grace of God,” he said. Yeah, something like that.

We made three concentric circles around the blankets at the end. The Blackfoot elder stuck the youth and young adults, including my sheepishly grinning teenagers, right in the middle. To the beat of the drum we danced our time together to an end. I walked out of the little community center that seemed to be dropped down in the middle of nowhere on a sun-drenched spring afternoon. I looked up at the majestic Rockies and felt very small. I thought about what we had just done. This, too, seemed small, particularly in light of the enormous challenges on the reserve. We hadn’t really accompished much, after all. We hadn’t done anything about fentanyl or poverty or crime or social decay or racism. But we hadn’t done nothing, either. For a short time we had listened, we had learned, we had embraced one another and we had shared a meal. We had been part of a good story. And it was good. Something like the grace of God.


Image above courtesy of Ruth Bergen Braun.

26 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kathy Shantz #

    I guess I must have a lot of FB friends who like your blogs and this topic interests me. I have never done the Blanket Exercise but it seems to be a very popular church activity these days even though it was first put together 2 decades ago. I guess the TRC has revived its prominence I wonder how useful this is? Does it motivate people to move beyond symbolic gestures? Bob Rae writes a very good article that articulates my own frustration with earnest church people and their TRC efforts.
    So much of what I see Mennonites and other churches “doing” is of little consequence. The real rubber hits the colonization road when we start to talk about money, lots more money. The real truth that needs to be told is that funding, at every level has to be increased. Equality is expensive. But we can’t talk reconciliation until non -Indigenous Canadians recognize and commit to this truth. Even as the Pilgrimage for Indigenous Right treks bravely on to Ottawa I find myself wondering and imagining this: Why didn’t the pilgrimage incorporate a fundraising element into the walk? Why not ask churches to create a line in their church budget to be remitted to the First Nation on whose land their church building stands.

    April 26, 2017
    • I think that for some the BE goes beyond symbolic gestures to real relationships and a commitment to meaningful change. For others, probably not. You would have a broad spectrum of responses and motivations represented at any one of these gatherings, I suspect.

      In this particular case, we really tried to do it as a listening exercise with our Blackfoot neighbours. We wanted to do it on the reserve, not in the city. We wanted to have input not from “officially trained” BE leaders but Blackfoot folks. We wanted to eat together. We tried to take seriously that one of our first tasks is to listen, to not control the narrative. There were probably some ways in which we could have planned it better, but I think it was a good start.

      Re: funding, yes, where we spend our money is undoubtedly a “rubber meets the road” kind of test. But I’m not convinced that funding is the only answer. I’ve talked to indigenous people at various events who have told me that the answer isn’t always more money, because sometimes the money just disappears without much to show for it. In some ways, throwing money at problems has been demonstrated to be an ineffective way to bring about lasting social change around the world for the simple reason that wherever there is big money involved, corruption is not far behind. Money can be part of a solution, certainly. But the deeper issues, I think, are social, relational, ideological. Very often, the indigenous people I talk to say something like, “we don’t want your guilt or even really your money. We want to be thought of and treated as equals.” For that to happen, I am convinced that we need to have more shared spaces for listening and dialogue like we had last weekend.

      April 27, 2017
      • Kathy Shantz #

        Thanks for your reply. Perhaps I wasn’t clear by what I meant by money. Bob Rae’s article elaborates more on the money question but to summarize, money for First Nations means predictable, adaeqaute, long term revenue streams that will allow them to become independent self governing entities. You might be amazed at what happens when Reserves actually have adequate revenue streams.

        My husband is a researcher working for an Ontario First Nation. We have related to folks on their Reserve for almost two decades now. As their Land Claim litigation slowly works its way through the court system and as they leverage their legal position, they have been able to conclude multi year revenue deals from several companies, who are building renewable energy projects on their traditional lands. Its so lovely to go to the Reserve now and see new housing projects, enhanced school programs, expanded mental health programs, support for elders and plans underway to build their own high school. All this is enabled by longterm revenue streams. They are also in the dreaming stage of building enough renewable energy infrastructure to go completely off grid. These are the kinds of things that stable, adequate revenue can do for a community. When I think about what is possible for First Nations I think of this.

        April 27, 2017
      • Thanks for sharing this, Kathy. I appreciate your taking the time to clarify what you had in mind re: money. This sounds hopeful and inspiring in all kinds of ways. I wish you and your husband all the best in this good work that you are doing. Thanks for leading the way in concrete efforts toward reconciliation.

        April 28, 2017
  2. Yep … the grace of God. Something like that. And if we try to define it any more clearly, we will probably find ways to miss it. Great post, Ryan.

    April 26, 2017
  3. Paul Johnston #

    3 quick points, Ryan….I’m pushed for time today. It will be my youngest’s birthday on Monday, family birthday on Saturday and some joyful preparations await. 🙂

    1. On Drugs- I have some previous life experience with drug traffic in a rural community. Among other things, it is essential you have a local distributor, known and liked and a paid off connection within the policing/political community. One thing you cannot have in a small community is anonymity.

    If a drug problem is openly rampant and efforts to curtail it seem lacklustre and ineffectual. Your paid off political connection likely resides at the top of the local food chain. I would start with the chief and work my way down.

    Drug dealing at larger levels is not the purview of any one ethnic group. It is not tied to racial orientation. It simply requires cultural alienation. A belief that you live in an, “Us vs Them” world. You do not connect, hold yourself accountable, for the damage your activities cause. You admire yourself for your ability to manage drug use/illegal drug traffic, successfully and believe that the strong can. As for the weak, that is their problem….something was gonna come along and fuck them up anyway…and you get the added solace of a shit ton of cash.

    2. On Personal Identities- I love what your daughter says here. I agree wholeheartedly with her, it is not her story. Her Identity is not tied to biological or racial demarcation. A lower form of identity we consign to the animal kingdom (Of which man is a member). Her identity seems to be tied to the experiences that a “values” centered life identify. The choices of identity that free will provide….the “content of your character” as Martin Luther King so beautifully spoke of….The potential for nobleness or debasement…we are free to decide…

    Of course her future identity will include a sense of responsibility, a love of neighbour, that will make this story part of hers but it is enough for a teenager to come to know and love their true selves, before they can truthfully love another.

    Take a bow daughter. 🙂 Take a bow, Mom and Dad. 🙂

    About God’s will- God as I understand the Spirit and I am sure if needed, could find ample scriptural support to defend my understanding, chooses not to bring to bear any more caring to my circumstances then I do. If I do not care for myself, God will not negate my free will exercised and take over care of me. Again, I am free to decide.

    Should I decide to work to the best of my ability to love and care for myself in a way that reconciles my love of self with the best interest off my neighbour, God is then fully loved and His infinite graces are shared with me in abundance…. not the vague and mostly ineffectual kind you seem to be referencing here…sorry for the push back but in love I feel it necessary…also, in love, I invite your response to this specific. I too am very capable of misunderstanding and mistaken discernment’s. 🙂

    Through faith then if my understanding of the word/logos is accurate and I seek to reflect/mediate God’s will, I cannot care more for my brothers and sisters any more than they do, for themselves. When they exhibit this caring of self I am called to assist as best as able. Until they do, I can only pray for them and share the Word with them if they are so inclined to listen.

    The spirit of pity runs deep in us all. But I believe it to be a wrong Spirit. A spirit that leads to enabling and chronic social disorder. Ironically, given the context, a spirit that I think it fair to say could be called, “patronizingly colonial”.

    Peace be with you, my brother. 🙂 If I bring anything to our, “meal” here that is of value, it is only because, as always, you have set the table. 🙂

    April 27, 2017
    • God… chooses not to bring to bear any more caring to my circumstances then I do.

      I am actually quite convinced (and eternally grateful) that this is not the case at all. If there is anything the Easter makes plain, in my view, it’s that God brings quite a bit more caring to my circumstances than I do. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…

      In that light, I am quite happy to prodigally distribute pity and love and listening and care and sharing of the Word and whatever else I can muster, confident that nothing good that is offered is wasted. I don’t see an attempt to listen, to learn, to laugh, to cry with neighbours as “vague and ineffectual” at all. I see it as one small attempt to love our neighbours as ourselves, as Christ commanded us.

      April 27, 2017
  4. Paul Johnston #

    It is a good response that you offer but in context I am not speaking to the cosmic implications of Easter or the greater care that God has for humanity, then humanity has for God. Rather I am speaking to the notion of accountability for myself or yourself or any self, on an individual level.

    God will not intervene against my free will. To do so would violate His very nature.

    My first response then to my plight must always be a self accounting, an examination of conscience and a willingness to acknowledge my mistakes and work to correcting them. (Aka confession of sins and a willingness to repent) It is then that God can and does abound through grace, it is then and then only that others can intercede constructively leading to good fruit, providing they too have made a similar accounting (the better understanding of the “whose sins are being put into the back seat of a cop car”, from your latest post) and are informed by the same Spirit as I.

    You say yourself in the beginning of this thread, “Whenever I drive through the reservation I’m always struck by how little seems to have changed over the last 30 years”.

    if what was being done and much has been done….”sometimes the money just disappears”…was the will and word of God, much would have changed. It hasn’t. Either our God is vague in His commands leading to ineffectual understandings or we are not following the will and word of God.

    Don’t misunderstand me, Ryan there is value in, “listening, learning, laughing and crying with our neighbours” but any concerned social advocate can bring that and THAT has never been enough.

    If we do not come in power bringing the Holy Spirit we would do better to renounce our faith and join one of the myriad of secular social agencies.

    Better to be cold, then lukewarm.

    ….If your relationship building has an “end game”
    plan to come in power then please explain it to me. I am not grasping it. I sense a spirit (yours) that intends well but seems overwhelmed by the circumstances on the ground.

    April 27, 2017
    • I don’t disagree with your comments about personal responsibility or free will, Paul. I simply think that all freedom (even yours and mine) operates within varying degrees of constraints. On the reserve, those constraints can be huge, not least due to the influence of ostensibly Christian efforts over the years to “encourage” indigenous people to confess their sins and repent. In this context, saying something like, well just “follow the will and word of God” is complicated. I’m sure you will say that I am implying that God’s word is ineffectual. I am not. I am saying that sometimes (not all times) the word of God looks like silence and listening and the sharing of pain. Blessed are those who mourn…

      I’m sure I don’t think in terms of “end game” nearly enough for your liking. I’m ok with that. I don’t think it’s the church’s job to fix the reserve. As Anabaptists, we’ve never been closely wedded with institutional structures tasked with creating and maintaining social order (indeed, we’ve often been on the wrong end the stick, so to speak), so it’s not where my thoughts tend to gravitate. Our task is to be the hands and feet and, yes, the voice of Christ. Indigenous people need the gospel as much as any other of the families of earth. But sometimes when all a group of people have experienced from Christ’s body is a loud mouth and an oppressive hand, it’s best to sit, to listen, and to weep, if necessary. It probably doesn’t “accomplish” much, on some understandings, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important or that it’s not the work of God.

      April 28, 2017
      • Paul Johnston #

        If your statement, “when all a group of people have experienced from Christ’s body is a loud mouth and an oppressive hand” is true, why is it that almost 70% of aboriginals self identify as Christians?

        April 29, 2017
      • I don’t know if 70% of indigenous people identify as such or not, but if we take your statement at face value, I would say that the obvious answer is “the grace of God” and the beauty of Christ,” both of which mercifully can transcend the sins of his church.

        The second thing I would say would be to turn a variation of the question back to you. If, as you say, 70% of indigenous people self-identify as Christians, why do we still see this segment of the population vastly behind on virtually every social well-being index? If the solution to problems on the reserve is as simple as “following the will and word of God” and 70% of them are doing so, why don’t we see better outcomes?

        It seems to me that the truth of the matter is in fact quite complex and that the church of Christ is inextricably tied up, to varying degrees, in both the problems and the solutions, in both the wounding and the healing.

        April 29, 2017
  5. Nomad #

    I love the healthy answer your daughter gave to you.. “..but it’s not MY story”. I think the Indigenous Canadians (and Native Americans for that matter) are trapped in a “story” that the white man keeps alive by relentlessly touting the glories of their historic ethnic culture thus forever fostering a mentality of separateness from the World at large while perpetuating a spirit of victimhood. In essence they have been and are being “setup to fail”. Why is it that integration into main stream society is never proposed?…let me answer that: It never will be. Hence they will forever remain isolated in a living Hell.

    “A person might be at fault to some degree , but poverty is primarily a psychological state to which one surrenders after repeatedly being put down. It’s a state of oppression. After continually being assaulted by negative voices from within or without,finally surrendering to them.We can’t stand against them. Soon we are so disadvantaged that we can’t even recognize,much less take advantage of the opportunities offered to us…..Victim behavior is predictable. It is deadly. And it characterizes much,if not most,of the human race in one form or another. We may all be thinking of some group other than ourselves, but every group finds itself in a state of oppression in relation to some other group. (Richard Rohr-What The Mystics Know/Seven Pathways to Your Deeper Self) pg26-27)

    April 30, 2017
    • Thanks, nomad. I agree, the system is broken at a very deep level. I frankly struggle to see a way out of it on a political level. The narrative of victimhood fuels so many unhealthy attitudes and behaviours both in those legitimately victimized and those who derive meaning and purpose from heroically repenting of their real or imagined sins. Rohr’s quote is accurate on a number of levels. We somehow need to become people who are capable of telling and hearing the truth, even when it’s not flattering or marketable.

      May 2, 2017
    • Paul Johnston #

      Hey Nomad, Mr. Rohr, as you may or may not be aware of, is a very polarizing figure within the Catholic community. From what I have read of him through his columns published in the Catholic Register, my opinion of Mr. Rohr is that he seeks spirituality but is not Catholic. That is to say,he can and often does affirm a spirituality that is irreconcilable with Catholic teaching.

      Not a big deal for many I suppose but given that Mr. Rohr has been ordained a Catholic priest, however you feel about his understandings, it is a cause for scandal. Myself, unless Mr. Rohr has the audacity to claim the title of prophet, which to date I am not aware he has, and allow the church to spiritually discern his claims, I believe his conclusions are best ignored.

      I say this because I cannot believe that the Holy Spirit would move in such a fashion, based on the law of non contradiction.

      As I understand Scripture, our Catechism and our traditions, insofar as they speak about the promptings of the Holy Spirit, unless someone is prepared to claim the mantle of prophet, dissent leading to contradiction, is best ignored.

      Yes, to make such a claim is to invite ridicule and worse,expose the church to deceit, larceny and or delusion. But whether it resonates with us or not, in the 21st century, it is the only safe precedent we have.

      That doesn’t mean Mr. Rohr’s comment here is without value, to me. Ironically, that which Mr. Rohr acknowledges and summarily dismisses, is the part that is decisive for me.

      Considering the degree by which my person might be at fault is consistent with my understanding/experience of the Holy Spirit as my right first response.

      I hear the second argument and it simply deepens my resolve, insofar as I am able, to cultivate the gift of faith in Jesus, such that I will never surrender to harmful psychological states.

      It may read as willful arrogance and gross insensitivity on my part, to you or any other reading here but it is my abiding hope and prayer that it is not. I simply choose to believe that by the grace of God and my best efforts, (God’s love and my reciprocation) all sin, mine, yours, theirs, can and will be, overcome.

      I know that twists your intention here and Mr. Rohr’s. I mean you no offense….Mr. Rohr is another matter lol… but I feel compelled to respond with what I believe to be of truth.

      May 2, 2017
      • Nomad #

        Your entitled to your opinion about Rohr, Paul. 🙂
        It is interesting though that I purchased the book from a Roman Catholic Trappist Monastery.

        May 2, 2017
      • Paul Johnston #

        Ha, ha. Interesting indeed. Surely all group affiliations come with more nuance and internal division then their communion might lead others to believe. 🙂

        Recently I have been blessed with the opportunity to address a Catholic Charismatic prayer group. I’m scheduled to speak on Wednesday June 7th unless Ryan gets to them first and gives them fair warning lol

        I feel compelled to speak to a prompting of the Holy Spirit regarding Mark 12:28-32….”.the oneness of God and the whole of the law”….” good let us start small” I said back to the Holy Spirit…lol

        With regard to the notion of loving “One’s neighbour as oneself” (the second part of the law) it occurs to me and hopefully pertinent to this convo, that the biggest problem aside from the obvious lacking in commitment to the Holy Spirit and our lack of love for God, may well be best described as a crisis of identity.

        Even when we have the zeal to love as God commands do we understand who we really are and who are neighbour really is, in order to for our love to be true.

        The answer surely lies in a deeper spiritual relationship with God so that we begin to understand the truth of our own identity. The identity that God has created for us. Simply put until we see ourselves as God sees us, how can how can we know the truth about who we are? How can we truly see our neighbours as they are?

        If this is so, a right direction at least, then it challenges every category we have established in order to define ourselves and others. Every religious, political, personal, racial, ethnic or sexual identity must be reconcilable with the oneness of God and the whole of the law, or be able to be so modified, or be consigned as a false identity and discarded……yeah small existential stuff lol….and I’ve got thirty minutes only….thankfully for many…..20 too many for most lol.

        Forgive the redirection of dialogue, Ryan, Nomad and any others reading but if you have any discernment’s regarding this topic they would be much appreciated.

        Opinions matter too but I would appreciate a distinction being made between what an individual thinks and what they feel is directed by the Holy Spirit.

        May 3, 2017
  6. Paul Johnston #

    That about 70% of indigenous people self identify as Christians simply refutes your, “sins of the church” argument and the ideological and political prerogatives expressed by our government through it’s version of, “Truth and Reconciliation”.

    Belief however, is not faith. The gift of faith is given freely to those who sincerely commit to Christ through an indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Allowing Christ, through the Spirit to animate our choices, faith and only faith, conquers our impoverished lives.

    Two things about poverty. One, material poverty only exists when there is not enough food, water, clothing and shelter available to sustain a life. Every other material possession is a grace, a privilege, a pleasure and a gift. To be denied any of it or all of it, is in no way a sign of poverty. To think so, is to be faithless.

    All other forms of poverty and they are most perniciously the fruit of faithlessness, are spiritual. Irrespective of what a person has or doesn’t have materially and very often the more they have, they succumb to a spirit of self entitlement, envy, contempt of others and greed.

    May 1, 2017
    • The fact that 70% of indigenous people retain a nominal connection to the belief (which, as you remind us, is not equivalent to conquering “faith” ) that was in many cases forced upon them during the most formative stages of their lives “refutes” my claim that the church sinned against these people?

      May 1, 2017
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Yes, unless you don’t consider them able to speak for themselves.

    May 1, 2017
    • Well, spending a Saturday on their turf listening to them narrate their own story could be interpreted as indicating that I do, in fact, consider them quite able to speak for themselves.

      May 2, 2017
  8. Paul Johnston #

    Sorry, Ryan. I must clarify, we are not identifying the argument similarly and I am afraid based on my last statement you would conclude ( as could anyone else ) that I am arguing that the church never sinned. Of course it did. We all do. One against the other.

    As for the truth of the matter and real reconciliation, this is only possible, as it is only possible in every human conflict, through faith in and mediated by, Jesus Christ.

    May 1, 2017
  9. Paul Johnston #

    And yes, while the church has sinned. It has done and continues to do much that is good. If it wishes to improves it’s ratios, as with all things this requires a deeper level of conversion, (Union with Holy Spirit) and action intentional to that conversion. Likewise those who have been sinned against, who have, unless they can make a legitimate counter claim of sinlessness, would do well to focus on forgiveness of the past, acknowledgement of what was good from the past and look towards what they need to change about their choices and actions in order to facilitate grace.

    If we are not moving the discussions in this direction, quite honestly I do not understand our actions to be consistent with the Spirit, the Word or the will of God.

    May 1, 2017
    • Absolutely agree, Paul.

      May 2, 2017
  10. howard wideman #

    Thanks Ryan. 500 north is planning high school blanket events in Sudbury

    Sent from my iPhone


    May 2, 2017
    • Glad to hear it, Howard.

      May 3, 2017

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: