Culture Clash


As a lay missionary working with Anishinabe people on Manitoba’s Keeseekowenin and Rolling River reserves in the 1970s, I, like other missionaries at the time, was given lessons in how to learn any language and cross-cultural communications. This was preparation for sharing the gospel in a way that was sensitive to the Holy Spirit working within the cultural context of the people.

When I arrived, I found that people over the age of 40 were very comfortable in their own language and less so in English; 20- to 40-year-olds were ashamed to speak their language, with adequate English; and those under 20 knew little of their own language while conversant in everyday accented English. I started to learn Anishinabe from an elder and, after a couple of years, lessons started for the young on the reserve. In my preparations, there may have been a passing reference to residential schools, but the full story was not yet known. I met some wonderful, faith-filled people whom I still treasure in my heart, and I still pray for those who exhibited self-destructive behaviours, all-too-often rooted in shame.

Forty-two years after leaving the reserves, I felt blessed to hear Rev. Mark MacDonald give a talk on truth and reconciliation at Knox College, Toronto, where he, as national indigenous bishop for the Anglican Church of Canada, received an honorary doctorate in May. He started by mentioning that we should always start meetings by reading the gospel. For one thing, it shortens the meeting.

His readings were not chosen in advance, but serendipitous: Matthew 18:20 and John 16:12-20. A few of those present commented on the new word they received from verse 12: “I have much more to say to you, but right now it would be more than you could understand.” I reflected on how Europeans arrived on these shores with the papal blessing from the 1500s, that any new peoples who did not know the gospel were deemed heathen, and their personal safety, land and even their lives were forfeit to Christian civilization. I have felt for some time now that God brought us to these shores not only to share the gospel, but also to learn new perspective on the gospel from outside our own culture. The first goal got twisted by a colonial government into a goal of cultural annihilation. And we utterly failed at the second.

And so, the schools: “Until we understand the depth of betrayal … in baptizing these children, making them our own and then visiting horrors upon them, we won’t have a spiritual understanding of what we have done,” MacDonald said. There were 185,000 students involved. Among the 80,000 still living, there are 50,000 claims of physical and sexual abuse.

We need to understand systemic evil. Societies construct mindsets that can be evil: ideas, ideologies, institutions that can be equated with some biblical principalities and powers.

“Indifferent … is sometimes what we look like when we’re ashamed. It’s how some of us hide our shame,” said MacDonald. We feel the need to act, but don’t know what to do. What is God calling us to do? Our Western missiology used to be more about idolatry, idolizing our culture. Now the emphasis is more upon faith.

MacDonald asks, “How will God prepare us to hear and understand?” We need to be open to the leading of the Spirit. Extraordinary things happen when God puts ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Keep in touch with what’s happening. Idle No More (an indigenous resistance movement in Canada) has shown that you can be indigenous and modern. That was a shock to some people, not only that there are modern indigenous peoples, but that they are still critical of some aspects of our culture.

MacDonald also touched on the future of the church, where denominations are shrinking. Here we can learn from missions to First Nations. He states that we need to open ourselves to learning to be the church where having a building is a liability. How might the gospel look as it spreads without buildings? He asks, “Can we be the Church without a church?” (To look for an example within the PCC, we have only to look to the Cariboo ministry in B.C. Perhaps we will be using this model on a wider basis in the future.)


About Jay Bailey

Jay Bailey is the first male graduate of Ewart College, a former lay missionary in Manitoba, a retired French teacher and a voyageur, based in Simcoe, Ont.