I just got home from a momentous day. It did not begin so well: It was pouring rain and my carful with a waiting list evaporated into empty seats. I was tempted to crawl back into bed, but thankfully I did not give in to the urge.
I arrived in downtown Vancouver to the strains of a Gospel choir hidden by thousands of umbrellas all around me. A “Mennonite Folk” sign caught my attention so I hung out with my faith family as we awaited the speech by Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. who fifty years ago delivered his “I have a dream” speech at a walk not unlike this one. Chief Robert Joseph, who first dreamt of this walk, also spoke before the throngs started moving. Indigenous people were visibly and numerically present in the walk; this was for them after all.
What was so significant about this “Walk for Reconciliation”? It was the climax of the Vancouver Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings that happened this past week. For too long we have not noticed our indigenous peoples in Canada in a healthy way. The original plan with colonization was to assimilate them into the predominant Christian Euro-culture. This was going to be achieved through the residential school system whereby children were taken from their homes, parents and communities in order to Canadianize, civilize, and Christianize them. The schools were thus operated by the main European church groups in Canada. This is bad enough before even mentioning the cruel abuse that often went on in these places! And the last residential school was closed in 1996! Only then were we beginning to see the evil that was perpetrated on the native people of this land. Since then church and political leaders have made important apologies for the atrocities performed in the name of Christ and country. Walking in the rain with thousands of others was for me a way of acknowledging the stories of survivors of residential schools. Hearing only a few in the last week was all I could handle. I have benefitted from a system that abused others. At the closing ceremony, national chief Shawn Atleo talked about how this event was an indication that Canadians are “beginning to see us” and are recognizing the importance of First Nations in Canada. He seemed encouraged and empowered by the support and spoke of hope for change. If my walk in the rain can help to give dignity and hope to an oppressed people then I’m glad I got out of bed this morning. I can be part of fulfilling their dream for justice and reconciliation.
A few things Bernice King said stick with me. She talked about how social change, i.e. reconciliation, takes place. First of all she spoke about the necessity of seeing others as valued human beings, of working together with different others. She also strongly advocated for nonviolent action by saying, “We do not have a choice between violence and nonviolence, we have a choice between nonviolence and nonexistence!” In her closing she acknowledged that reconciliation and social change is a long and arduous process, but encouraged us not to get weary. This walk is but a beginning. I sometimes feel frustrated and helpless in the face of national crises such as this or even bigger and further issues of violence in the rest of the world. I cry out, “I only teach theology, what can I do?” I recommit myself to teach a theology of peace, not as an option, but as THE way of Jesus. Others may be more on the front lines of advocacy and policy or you may play a small role behind the scenes like me, but if we walk together we can make a difference. Each small thing is part of recognizing God’s reign of justice and peace in the world.