Truth and ReconciliationOrange Shirt Sunday September 27, 2021 by Sebastian Meadows-Helmer
This Sunday we honour and remember residential school survivors and families and those who never came home.
In our Gospel text last Sunday,
we heard how Jesus took a little child in his arms,
and explained to the crowd how the first would be the last
and the last would be first.
And he said: whoever welcomes a little child like this welcome me,
and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
How we treat children matters.
How we treat our own children, our biological children,
And also children that are entrusted into our care,
for example in foster care,
in adoptions, in schools, and most of all,
in residential and boarding schools,
where children are isolated away from their family of origin.
Today, Jesus reminds us:
(V43) if any of you put a stumbling block … before one of these little ones … (NRSV)
if you give one of these … a hard time,
bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust,
you’ll soon wish you hadn’t.
You’d be better off dropped in the middle of the lake
with a millstone around your neck. (MSG)
While it’s difficult to determine exactly who Jesus is referring to when he talks about the “little ones”,
just a few verses prior in the Gospel of Mark,
he was talking about the little child he had put his arms around.
So I think it’s possible to interpret this as Jesus saying:
“If you are abusing children, this is a horrendous breach of trust…
they are so vulnerable and they can’t fight back…watch out…justice is coming…you should be punished in a horrendous way,
just as how you abused the kids…you should be punished by drowning.”
Jesus is saying:
“we have a particular responsibility to care for the least of these…
the most in need,
Treat them kindly and don’t abuse your power!”
In front of the lectern today,
you’ll see a painting with a white Jesus sitting down in a meadow and lots of lovely white children around him,
something most of you would have seen in your Sunday school classroom as kids.
I’ve draped an orange shirt over the corner of the painting.
What I’m aiming at with this display is as follows:
Jesus loves the little children.
The churches and church organizations running the residential schools had a duty to love the children entrusted to their care, just as Jesus did.
But because of racist and systemic colonial attitudes,
they treated the Indigenous children horribly,
by and large without any love and care,
thereby betraying Jesus’ modelling and his appeal
not to put stumbling blocks, or cause to sin, the least of these.
And we as church people,
in portraying so often a white Jesus as loving white children in our paintings on our walls, forget how Jesus was brown,
and how brown children were hurt by institutions who were living out the lie that Jesus only loved white children.
A few minutes ago, we heard the story of Orange Shirt Day as told by Phylis Jack Webstad from the Stwah—chem Cha—thehm
First Nation in Central BC.
The Orange Shirt symbolized for her everything she missed about the life before school.
She told of the emotional trauma:
“we would cry and cry and no one would tend to us, there was no one hugging us…No one to tend to our emotions or to our fears or anything”.
The Orange Shirt is a symbol of the effects of the residential schools and the concept that Every Child Matters.
When we wear an orange shirt we make a statement that residential schools were wrong.
Truth and Reconciliation or Orange Shirt Day is in September because it is the month of the beginning of the school year, when Indigenous children were taken from their families.
An Indigenous Elder once called September the “Crying Month”.
Over 150,000 children attended the residential schools,
and all have stories to tell, many of sexual, emotional, physical, and pyschogical abuse.
For survivors, there is ongoing trauma, depression, grief and PTSD that they face: and many suppressed memories are only now coming out.
There is an ongoing impact upon survivors and Indigenous peoples here in Canada that cannot be dismissed any longer.
This year the news broke of the discovery of countless unmarked graves at residential school sites,
although we were reminded that these were confirmations and not discoveries, as their existence was something that was previously known.
(The Truth and Reconciliation Commission had estimated their number to be at 3,200.)
There have been 1,300 confirmed unmarked graves announced since May alone, in places like Kamloops, Brandon and Marieval, and there are still many more sites to be searched.
One thing we need to remember is that this isn’t distant history;
it wasn’t that long ago: the last residential school was closed in only 1996.
Even within our own congregation we have a residential school survivor.
My words on this topic may sound a little hollow,
so I invite you to consider the words of the Honourable Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,
and currently Chancellor of Queen’s University.
And so what is our response?
What is our role, as settlers, non-First Nations,
in this path of Truth and Reconciliation?
First, we need to educate ourselves about the residential school system and the true history of First Nations, esp. over the past 500 years.
We need to listen to Indigenous voices when their stories are told, and we should lament the way the church as institution has failed the children.
Second, we need to try to overcome our own prejudices.
We also need to acknowledge how we as settlers benefitted from colonialism.
Our riches as Canadian Society come in large part from land
that was taken unfairly from First Nations,
aided by the Doctrine of Discovery.
We need to take concrete actions to effect healing,
for example by financially supporting Indigenous community projects, such as Anishnabeg Outreach in Kitchener.
Concrete actions include the Canadian Catholic Bishops’ formal apology on Friday, and also the removal of our celebration of names associated with racist policies, such as Ryerson, MacDonald and others.
Here at St. Matts, we have the Permagarden and our Indigenous Taskforce project, which are taking some preliminary steps to live out reconciliation right here.
As Canadian society we need to recognize equal partnership
with First Nations, and to remember that we are all Treaty people.
Let us all, respect Indigenous spirituality, culture, history and traditions,
Lament settler policies and the history of colonialism, and work for justice, together. Amen.
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