Sunday, July 17, 2016

Christians and Aboriginal Canadians: Who is Least-Reached?

When I heard that a major Canadian evangelical denomination had characterized Aboriginal people as “least reached” by Christianity, a number of things came to mind.

The first was information from the 2011 National Household Survey, which found that over 63 percent of Aboriginal Canadians identify with a Christian denomination.

According to the survey, most Aboriginals who say they are Christians are Roman Catholics, followed by Anglicans, United Church, Pentecostals, Baptists, Lutherans and Presbyterians.

That doesn’t sound like “least reached” to me, unless the denomination in question considers itself to be the only true expression of Christianity—which may, in fact, be the case.

The second was a comment made to me last year by Kyle Mason, founder and Executive Director of Winnipeg`s North End Family Centre, about the terrible legacy of the residential school system.

When I asked Mason—who is Aboriginal and a credentialed Christian minister—what he would say to churches that want to reach Aboriginal people, he replied: “We have been reached by Christianity. It’s not that we haven’t heard. We have heard, and we have been damaged.”

To me, that also sounds like Aboriginal people have been reached, but not in a good way.

The third thing that came to mind was a presentation I heard in June by John Ralston Saul at Canadian Mennonite University.

During a conversation with the author, he spoke about how Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians had reached out to each other in the earliest days of European exploration of this country—how Europeans had reached out for help to learn how to live in this land and survive, and how Aboriginal people had reached out to give it.

He went on to suggest that we could learn lessons from that encounter by once again reaching across the divides that separate Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, discovering in the process what it means to be a Canadian today.

That idea intrigued me. I wondered what that reaching might look like, especially for non-Aboriginal people of faith.

For an answer to that question, I turned to Terry LeBlanc, a Mi’kmaq Christian who directs the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies.

According to Leblanc, there is much Christians could learn from our Aboriginal neighbours. 

Take the issue of the environment, for example, which is viewed differently by Aboriginal people.

If non-Aboriginal Christians want to understand how Aboriginal people view creation, they could begin by “changing the starting point” of their theology from Genesis chapter three, which is about the fall, to Genesis chapter one, which is about the creation of the world, he said.

“The starting point determines the destination,” he stated, adding that by starting with the fall Christians have come to see the world as a place that is evil and needs to be escaped. 

An Aboriginal view of creation, on the other hand, starts with the idea of the earth as good, not as a place that is evil and that we need to escape.

It is, he said, “something that God loves. Creation is good, not evil.”

By seeing the world as evil, we are on “a trajectory towards the degradation of the environment,” he added. 

As for Christians who want to reach Aboriginal people, Leblanc has a caution. They need to move away from the idea that “mission it is a one-way street. The evangelist should also be open to being evangelized,” he said.

Christians, he added, “need also to be learners, not just teachers” and have “a deeper humility about the message” they carry.

Pondering all these things, I find myself wondering who, exactly, is really least-reached. It may not be who some people think.

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