Eyelash-to-Eyelash: Theological Reflections on Reconciliation
Earlier this month members of DUCC (Diakonia of the United Church of Canada) got together in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia, for their national gathering. CCS Development Coordinator Lori Stewart was in attendance along with lots of CCS alumni, current students, and former staff from across the country.
Past CCS Principal Maylanne Maybee served as a theological reflector during the event, lifting up and mirroring back to the participants some of the theological themes and ideas emerging from the group, particularly around the topic of reconciliation and the Calls to the Church from the Caretakers of the Indigenous Circle. These are some of Maylanne’s reflections:
As an Anglican deacon, I am offering these reflections as an “ecumenical guest”. As a former principal of the Centre for Christian Studies I consider myself a dual citizen, well-grounded in both the Anglican and United Church traditions. I want you to know how blessed you are to be part of DUCC, a robust body of diaconal ministers, well-educated and well-formed, and part of The United Church of Canada, with its strong social justice agenda, with a national mandate for policy and action, and a centralized structure that allows for sound coordination and solid educational resources.
As diaconal ministers, you share a clear sense of who you are (as opposed to who you are not). You have demonstrated a sense of humour and good use of people’s different gifts, as well as flexibility, competency, and continuity with the past. You are intentional about consensus decision-making; you have a system for nominating, recruiting, checking in, exiting, and thanking those who take their turn serving; you have a process theme about staying connected.
Not all churches or diaconal groups possess or practice these qualities! I encourage you to know your strengths, build on them, and share them with others! Consider inviting more ecumenical guests to your next gathering. Ask how you can co-operate with other diaconal groups locally and regionally. Who else can you invite to your circles of support and action? I am so grateful to have been “taken in” by the River DUCCS of Ottawa, who include me in their meetings and correspondence, and offer their friendship and support.
Responding to the Calls to the Church from the Caretakers of our Indigenous Circle
I am struck by the 2016 video on the UCC website regarding the Calls to the Church. Entitled A Different Future, it features comments from Beverley Brown, Paulette Regan, Jordan Cantwell, Nora Sanders, Lori Ransom, Adrian Jacobs, and others. I am struck by the language of their comments: lamentation, sin, atonement, repentance – words often avoided in United Church circles when speaking of ourselves individually, but perhaps appropriately applied to the church as an institution.
How do we react or respond to this language? Who acts on it and how? Do we all act on it in the same way? How does a church lament, repent, and atone when it includes settlers, immigrants, and Indigenous peoples, who bring very different experiences and perspectives? How do we distinguish between being an inclusive “church” where all are welcome, and an institution that has excluded and caused harm to its own members?
Recently I heard a commentary on the word “Reconciliation” from Catherine Meeks, Executive Director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing in Decatur, Georgia, reflecting on her work over four decades to dismantle racism.
She makes a case for eliminating the term “racial reconciliation” from our vocabulary. She says, speaking of the United States, that there is “nothing between white people and black people and Native (Indigenous) people in this country to reconcile. It assumes that once you had a relationship, something happened, the relationship was broken, and now you’re trying to restore that relationship. But between slaves and slavemasters,” she says, “there were transactions, but not relationships.”
She goes on, “We want to talk about things that make us feel good, things like racial reconciliation, justice, and beloved community. But these things can’t be achieved until we do the kind of deep inner work that excavates the wounds.”
What we are doing at this gathering – storytelling, movement, singing – are ways of “excavating the wounds” inflicted by a colonial system that has been dehumanizing for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. We need to listen to the stories of our Indigenous neighbours, and we need to do our own inner work, to listen to ourselves. The question to ask ourselves is “What is our part, what are the wounds we carry in ourselves from participating in a colonial system?”
Having made a case against using the word “reconciliation” for the work we are doing, I’m going to propose an alternative meaning: Reconciliation is about building relationships across difference.
I like the meaning and etymology of words and have always thought that to re-concile means to come together again in council. But I learned recently of an even earlier root meaning: that the “cilia” part of “re-conciliation” comes from the word for “eyelash”. In other words, it’s about a relationship that is close enough to bring us eyelash-to-eyelash with the other!
Another word whose root gives me insight is “respect.” As I understand it, it means literally to take a second look. When we are building a relationship of respect, we are taking time to take a close second look at the other, someone whose appearance or background or culture may be radically different from ours. A second look that makes us see not the things that make us different as individuals, but the things that show us our shared humanity.
So rather than thinking of reconciliation as restoring a once harmonious relationship (though there are, indeed, hints of some of that), I’d like to suggest it’s about building relationships across difference, relationships that start with respect, by taking a second look, and that bring us closer, over time, to being together eyelash-to-eyelash.
Thank you, Murray (a.k.a. “Lady Tata”), for encouraging us to do work I didn’t think was possible! You were confident we’d find within us the creative energy we needed to personalize the Caretakers’ Calls to the Church document and put them into dramatic form. And we DID! But in a way that could only be done in community and friendship with each other. Each performance was different, yet there were interesting commonalities. They all had to do with listening first and acting second. Many of them showed pockets of resistance on both sides, settler and Indigenous. And they all led to some image of walking alongside one another other rather than joining hands in a single circle.
So thank you, Lady Tata, for putting us in an uncomfortable place. Thank you for coaching us to find the creativity and energy within ourselves. And thank you for your light touch as we wrestled with difficult realities. You offered joy and wisdom in true diaconal style.
How do we move from distance to respect to (re)conciliation? Here are three steps I want to suggest:
SHOWING UP – I think what we’ve learned here is that we start by getting in touch with our own discomfort. I so appreciated the comment that even if we are experiencing feelings of deep shame or guilt or regret, we sit with those feelings, recognize our inherent dignity, and show up anyway.
TAKING A STEP BEYOND – Thank you to my roommate Dorothy Naylor for pointing me to a book with the title, The Place Called Reconciliation, from the Corymeela community in Northern Ireland. It has a reflection on the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10, two men who take a step forward, away from their comfort zone. The two are separated by huge cultural and religious differences: Cornelius is a Roman Gentile military officer; Peter is a Galilean Jew, a peasant fisherman. Each receives a vision from God. Cornelius is told that God has heard his prayers, has seen his goodness, and accepted his gifts to the poor. And so he is sent to Joppa, for reasons not yet clear. Peter has a vision and sees a sheet filled with animals and birds descending from the sky and hears a command to “kill and eat” the kind of food that has been forbidden by his religion. But he replies, “I cannot eat what is profane and unclean.”
Both men embark on a journey of discovery. When Cornelius comes to meet Peter, he invites (does not order!) him to visit him in his home with his community of friends and family. It is an intimate gesture that brings them nearer to each other, eyelash-to-eyelash. Peter, for his part, risks having the Gentile messengers sent by Cornelius stay under his roof, and as a Jew he enters the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, which is forbidden territory.
It shows us that the way of reconciliation demands that someone steps out beyond the normal boundaries of their daily life, beyond the established cultural and religious boundaries, so that something new can happen.
That is what Marlene and Charmain have invited us to do with our Black colleagues in The United Church of Canada and beyond. Step outside our familiar territory, sit with our discomfort, recognizing that similar steps are being taken by them.
And that is what the Indigenous Caretakers have invited us to do in their Calls to the Church – to take a step out of our place of comfort and familiarity, and to recognize that their invitation for friendship has taken them out of theirs.
FINDING COURAGE – Yesterday we were greeted by a young Indigenous woman, accompanied by her mother who coached and encouraged her to speak true words from the heart. In baptism, the candidate is accompanied by parents, godparents, and sponsors. In A.A. and Al-Anon we work out the steps of recovery with the help of a sponsor.
When I was principal of CCS, Adrian Jacobs, the Keeper of the Circle at the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre, was an important encourager and sponsor in my journey toward reconciliation. He said, “If you want to be in relationship [with Indigenous people], come and spend time with us. You will always be welcome.” And that is what we did – our student shared learning circles in each other’s space; our Central Council members met with their board. Our staff taught at their school, and their staff at ours.
There are a lot of ways to prepare for the support of friends and sponsors – by learning about each other face-to-face and from other resources, spending time with each other, reading books, taking courses (there’s an excellent course on Indigenous Canada offered by Coursera). But the best way of all is through friendships – finding someone who will offer support, share our discomfort, point out our mistakes and learnings, teach us how to receive and give friendship.
And so, let us seek conciliation, building relationships across difference, and coming together eyelash-to-eyelash. Let us learn each other’s stories and tell our own, from the heart; and let us take steps – showing up in spite of our discomfort, going beyond ourselves, and seeking a friend or sponsor to encourage us on our way.
Thank you for this time together. Go in peace!