Below is the written tex from Melanie Devla's presentation to Cafe Church here at Saint John's on Saturday, February 2, 2019.
Creator we give you thanks for all you are and all you bring to us for our visit within your creation…give us your strength to live together with respect and commitment as we grow in your spirit, for you are God, now and forever. Amen. [A Disciple’s Prayer Book]
I would like to start by acknowledging that we are here on lands of the Coast Salish peoples, in particular the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh in this area. I am profoundly grateful for their continued presence and witness to those of us who inhabit their lands. The reason I do this acknowledgement is to remind us that this land was inhabited by God’s people long before European settlers arrived.
My name is Melanie Delva and for 12 years I was the Archivist for the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster and Provincial Synod of BC and Yukon, where I collected, took care of and made available the historical records of the church – including thousands of pages of records of residential schools. I am now the Reconciliation Animator for the Anglican Church of Canada. I know what you’re thinking. I don’t draw cartoons! I am tasked with animating, or bringing life to the ongoing reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. In my work I am tasked with holding our Church accountable to its commitment to healing and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, the 94 Calls to Action of the TRC and the UNDRIP.
Thank you for the honour of being with you and speaking here today. I have been asked to talk about the theme of “What is Reconciliation”…in about 10 minutes. Given that entire lives and libraries could and have been dedicated to this single question, I am going to focus on reconciliation as presented in the readings for today, and I see this talk not as an answer to that question, but rather a conversation starter.
I have to tell you that from a young age, the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead has morbidly intrigued me. I was always a pretty weird kid. I had an immense capacity for imagination, and was transfixed by the idea that Lazarus was in the ground minding his own business doing his whole “dead thing” when he heard Jesus’ call to him, and proceeded to dig his way out of his grave (which of course looked just like the ones in the cemetery next to my childhood church), and stood there in his finest suit with caked on mortician’s makeup, blinking in the sunlight while coughing up desert sand and picking plastic flowers out of his teeth. Later in jr high when I became more aware of the ways of and realities of decomposition etc, the scene became even more grotesque in my mind and took on characteristics of a movie detailing a zombie apocalypse. And finally, when I suffered from extreme depression and a general despair about life and the world, I often felt sorry for Lazarus that Jesus ripped that eternal rest and “light perpetual” away from him once he was finally laid to rest, and shoved him - stunned and dishevelled - back into a life filled with both the joys and desolations of humanity.
Wow. What a story.
We don’t really know much of what Lazarus’ reaction was - if and how he was able to regroup and start his life again. How could he ever be the same person after this experience? What did his future look like?
I feel, in both a personal and corporate way, that the story of Lazarus is a fitting parallel to where the church and wider society are in terms of truth telling and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. We have gone through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; we have begun the listening process. But there is a long way to go. How can we be the same after this experience? What does our future together look like?
Children died in residential schools. Many children. Unlike Lazarus, none of the children who tragically perished in residential school – to my knowledge – were ever raised from the dead in a literal way. However, in the truth telling process, the stories of their existence, the violation of their right to live and breathe and speak their language and learn their culture and grow up knowing their parents’ embrace – that is being called into the light. Like Lazarus, we as a country and as a church didn’t really ask for this resurrection. Many of us would have preferred the quiet, safe grave. But Christ called us. He called us in the form of the of the Indigenous survivors who refused to let the country and the Church ignore our common sins in the form of colonization, racism and the residential school system. Christ called us through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – we didn’t have a choice in the matter as apparently neither did Lazarus. So we were called to climb out of the grave of our cultural genocide, our supposed good intentions gone horribly wrong, our racism and our ignorance, and we now stand blinking in the sunlight – more than a little bit stunned. What happens now?
Albert Dumont, in the Words of the Victim, writes;
It is good that you tell me That you are sorry But tell me also What you will do that will Restore who and what I was Before your cruelty Pushed me into raging waters
Our church has apologized. Our government has apologized. Some of us, individually have apologized for ways that we have enabled the systems. But what will we do? A truth is that the TRC was just the beginning of reconciliation, not the culmination of it. One group has reworded reconciliation as reconciliACTION. What will we do. Because here’s some bad news – although the residential schools are gone, the systems that built and supported them are not. The Government of Canada still has the power to decide who is “legally” Indigenous and who is not. They still require that Indigenous nations elect a Chief and band council in a colonial framework despite that process working entirely against traditional leadership systems in many cases. The Church (in some places) still requires Indigenous clergy – raised up to leadership using traditional methods in their community – to leave that community and spend years getting and MDiv or other equivalent from settler institutions. Oh, and almost none of them are paid in the Anglican Church of Canada. There are more Indigenous children in the so-called “Child Welfare System” than ever went to residential school. The land on which we stand at this very moment was never actually ceded by Indigenous peoples. We worship on stolen land. What does this all mean? It means that reconciliation is a long journey and we will be on this journey for a long time. As long as you and I are alive, and likely much longer.
But the GOOD news is that we have the chance to take steps on that journey in our lifetimes, with God as our helper. People ask me virtually every day how they can pursue reconciliation – what they can DO. I tell them I think each person and each group of people needs to find their own way in their particular context and in a way that allows them to act with the highest degree of integrity. First, I always encourage people to go inward and look at their own understandings and assumptions. We need to do some internal work. If non-Indigenous people act out of a place of shame or guilt or because we feel we know what it is that Indigenous people supposedly "need" from us, what we do will go awry in the same way that "good intentions" led to the residential school system. This is why I love the conversation between victim and perpetrator in Albert Dumont’s poems – the perpetrator asks back “what would you have me do?”. It’s a conversation. It’s a relationship. It’s an ongoing conversation.
Since the close of the TRC as a Commission in May of 2015, we now have a clearer road-map in the form of the 94 Calls to Action of the Commission. I would encourage you to read them. Only about 4 of them are addressed directly to church parties, but all of them are pertinent and necessary for the church to look at and take seriously and work through. I also think you may learn something about the state of injustice that is perpetrated against Indigenous peoples on a daily basis in Canada. My own dream would be that every parish in our church would adopt at least one of the Calls to Action to study, engage with, and act on. There are countless local and national Indigenous-led healing initiatives, advocacy and justice initiatives, campaigns and organizations to get involved with. Finding something to do shouldn’t really be an issue.
Whatever we do, we need to realize and understand that the fates of our peoples are intertwined and aligned. Non-indigenous people need to act and pursue reconciliation not because Indigenous people need us to, but because WE all need to. Because we are broken and we are ill and it is only in reconciliation that the Body is made whole. Reconciliation is born in relationship with one another. We don’t know what Lazarus’ life looked like from the moment Jesus told his family to take off his grave-clothes and “let him go” onwards, but I would think he had some choices. He could try to crawl back into the grave – smelly and bloated and embittered. Or he could proclaim his experience of the Glory of God made manifest in his story: That death had once claimed him. The he had been called to come back to life. That the calling came from Christ. I believe we have the same choice. A systemic evil claimed our church’s best and worst intentions. We can try to crawl back into the grave or we can fill our lungs with this fresh, crisp air and look at our loved ones around us and ask how we can be One.
And maybe pick a few of those plastic flowers out of our teeth in the process.