As Canada marks a second annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, let's listen prayerfully to the story of Temera Millar and the insights of Ron Hartwig, both of North American Indigenous Ministries.
In September 2021 my family (Phil Wagler) visited the Kamloops Indian Residential School, a building that is now an infamous symbol – around the world - of Canada’s painful past and ongoing reconciliation journey. What struck me most was how obvious a landmark this school building is, standing boldly red-bricked in the dry beauty of Thompson Country. What happened in Kamloops – and other places across Canada – was not done in secret. It was in front of us. The policies of government and strategies of church mission were aligned and unhidden. Why are we only now coming to see?
As we mark a second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation – or Orange Shirt Day (which rolls off the tongue better and hints at a story to be told) – we are finally beginning to see what has always been there. We are seeing our past more clearly. And, perhaps for Christians, coming to see the gospel and mission of God more clearly too.
To be Christian is to move from having known about Jesus to knowing him. 2 Corinthians 5:16 says, “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.” To be His people is to see who is in front of us with new creation eyes as we receive and live out the gospel in our moment in time and with the people God has placed us with.
For over 70 years North American Indigenous Ministries (NAIM) has served among and with First Nations communities. They have been learning much and have much to teach. As you give some thought to the Christian hope and task of churches in these days and open your eyes to see, heart to feel, mind to understand and feet to move, please listen prayerfully to the story of NAIM’s Temera Millar (video below) and the insights of executive director Ron Hartwig (text below video).
The NAIM Challenge
By Ron Hartwig
You might not know about North America Indigenous Ministries (or NAIM, pronounced “name”). If you haven’t heard about us, that’s okay – it can be beneficial to “fly under the radar.” We have been working in Native communities for more than 70 years. Over time, we have shifted methods, strategies and expectations, but disciple-making has always been our heartbeat.
Reaching out to Canada’s Indigenous Peoples proves to be a difficult calling with unique challenges. For the past several generations, many who carried Bibles and talked about Jesus to the Native peoples used methods that were far from representing the true love of God the Father and Jesus. It’s completely understandable why today there is not a readiness to hear and accept the gospel in Indigenous communities. Sometimes, we face strong animosity when people understand who we represent.
On the other hand, God’s Spirit is and has been moving among Indigenous Peoples. There is a growing number of First Nations believers in Jesus – Indigenous disciples who have a passion to reach their people with the true gospel.
Indigenous-led ministries are scattered across the country – from soup kitchens and tent-meeting outreaches to church planting networks and organizations having influence at the highest levels of Christian academia. It’s exciting to see God raising up leaders of First Nations heritage who, it’s worth reminding ourselves, are first and foremost followers of Jesus – the sons and daughters of God.
I consider it an honour to lead an organization that has a togetherness of Native and non-Native staff and volunteers. Additionally, God moves in powerful ways when we step out and partner with other ministries and see that God can do more through us when we work together than when we focus only on our individual goals and plans that seem amazing to us.
A growing number of Canadians are beginning to understand the history of residential schools and the destruction that system brought to Indigenous communities across Canada. For Indigenous communities, the family unit was the heart and soul of their bands and tribes: the children, mothers and fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers, aunties and uncles.
When we find out about the truth of intentional cultural genocide and its atrocities, we can begin to understand what has shaped Indigenous anger – or the addictions and abuse. These sad realities can be traced to the breakdown of the family caused by a system designed to “get rid of the Indian problem” as deputy superintendent general of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott wrote in 1920. Decisions and actions of government and church profoundly impacted generations of Native children, children who had to learn to survive at these schools while family members back home struggled to cope with the pain of loss and feelings of powerlessness.
The church today needs to continue in the direction of learning and feeling the shame that comes from hearing the accounts of residential school survivors. It’s uncomfortable. But many Indigenous survivors and their children and children’s children continue to experience intergenerational trauma that is much more uncomfortable. We would all do well to posture ourselves to listen with compassion as Indigenous Peoples continue to process the abuses of the past. The First Nations communities watch to see how Christian communities handle the stories that are shared – stories they have known all their lives.
Has God put an Indigenous person in your life? Is there someone you can reach out to and build a friendship with? Do you already have a friendship that can grow deeper?
Each of us, Native and non-Native can posture ourselves to be more open to relationship and cultivate better togetherness – especially in the body of Christ. The foundation needs to be one of kindness and compassion, with hearts eager to listen and care for one another.
Temera Millar serves her people as part of the NAIM team. She lives north of Whistler, B.C., on the unceded territories of the Lil'wat Nation and Squamish Nation. Ron Hartwig serves as executive director of NAIM. He lives in Merritt, B.C. Phil Wagler serves as global director of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Peace & Reconciliation Network. He lives in Kelowna, B.C. This blog series and related podcasts are produced in collaboration with the Peace & Reconciliation Network. Read all the blog posts at FaithToday.ca/AllThingsReconciled.