In the Shelter of the Land
CCS student Kendra Mitchell-Foster recently returned from a trip to Iceland, where she was doing her Global Perspectives Experience (GPE).
In the Shelter of the Land
Iceland is a very windy place. When you rent a car there, you learn that there is no insurance coverage for the wind blowing the door off your car. It happens too frequently. The wind is one of my favourite things about Iceland, it blows around and through me, sweeping away the cobwebs of details, deadlines, and who I think I ought to be, and leaving me clear, grounded and connected. Daily life in Iceland is bound tightly to the land and to nature. In a place where you must be aware of natural changes and adapt to them to survive, the culture and social character are equally tightly linked to the natural world.
I am standing at the edge of a field with a giant iron key in my hand, given to me by Halla, the pastor at Hofsós. The wind was too strong today for her to bring her niece and nephew with us to the church; they are sick, and she has to drive back south with them in a few hours. So she gave the key to me, and asked me to drop it off with another church member later that afternoon. The key is larger than my hand; it’s heavy, and it’s on a long chain. Grafárkirkja, the oldest Christian church in Iceland, and the only remaining stave church, sits below snow-covered mountains with the grass on its turf roof leaning over to the south under the pressure of a near-constant north wind. I am on the farm Gröf, where there is a record of a church standing in this same spot since the year 1240. Grafárkirkja, the present church, was built in the 1600s. It stands within a circular graveyard bearing a single tree, guarded by a low turf wall with a bell-gate. I have been here before, twice, but never inside, and never with the key in my hand. It feels surreal.
My great grandfather grew up in this fjord, and generations of his ancestors before him. In fact, I can trace my lineage in Skagafjörður back to the 1400s. I feel the pull of this land, and its distinct history and culture call me back each time I visit. There is a sense that when I am here I belong to my ancestors in a different way. That I can understand their stories and their lives in a different way. That I can learn from them in a different way. Skagafjörður is known for three elements of culture: singing, horse breeding and riding, and the strong thread of faith that still carries forward Catholic elements in a Lutheran region. The last Catholic Bishop of Iceland, Jón Arason lived in Hólar (and was buried there after his execution in 1550), which is just near the bottom of the fjord and inland to a sacred valley Hjaltadalur. My grandfathers’ farms Nautabú and Fjall are just next door to the place where Jón Arason is buried.
I know that the land I walk on is rich with history, I also know it is rich with struggle, blood, starvation and strife. I know that as I take steps toward this sacred place wherein people have sought the comfort, strength, connection and solace of God for nearly 800 years, that I am walking gently and reverently. The key becomes heavier in my hand as I open the wooden gate of the circular turf wall, should I be here alone? Should I be coming into this place as I am? Do I belong here?
Do I belong here? This is the question that three years ago led me to begin this saga of organizing my GPE in Iceland. As part of my own decolonizing and anti-racism journey, I had been hungry to learn more about decolonizing my own spirituality, my perspectives on life, and my understanding of myself and my identity. I was, and continue to be, invested in the Wet’suwet’en Land Protectors and their resistance to the Canadian Government’s illegal construction efforts to put a pipeline through their territory. I had applied to be a resident in their camp, to help with the resistance to occupation by RCMP. As I filled out this application, I began to think about the “Land Back” conversations I had had in my old life working with Indigenous communities while employed by the Regional Health Authority. I had started to think about myself here in Northern BC as a settler, and how it is different here than it is in Manitoba where I was born. I started to think about what would happen if we did miraculously give all of the land back. I thought about what it would be like to “go back where I came from”, as white supremacy often tells immigrants. What would it be like if I had to return to Iceland, the country from which my great-grandparents emigrated in the 1870s?
I cannot speak the language in any functional way. I don’t know the modern culture. Similar to Quebecois French, Canadian Icelandic is really old-fashioned. Vesturíslendingur (this is the name the Icelandic diaspora in Canada and the USA has been given) culture is famously backward and a little weird when considered by Icelanders. I could not gain employment, my children could not really go to school. Where would we live? The farms that I belong to are now either abandoned or owned by someone else. If I had to return to Iceland, would I belong?
My understanding of this question is much more complex than it was before I went on my GPE. The answer is that I do belong, and I don’t at the same time. The fact that I am standing in this graveyard of the oldest turf church in Iceland with a key in my hand, this is a statement that I do belong. I have been given trust and care because of who I am, and because of who I was born to. I have been told I belong because of my blood. I have, as well, had experiences that show me that I do not belong, I do not understand, and I cannot communicate. They show me that because of who I am, to whom I was born, and where I was born, I will never quite belong regardless of the circumstances. I could not speak to the people in the nursing homes that attended the masses I assisted with. I could not ask questions or hear their stories. I have lost the ability to connect to the people who keep the knowledge and care for the community. I close my eyes and lean into the wind, the key becoming colder in my hand as the time passes. I pray for an open heart and to experience this place without the protective academic lens. I pray to be fully present to the spirit in this place, and I ask God to be with me there.
I open my eyes and bring the key to the lock. The door is thick Norwegian wood; I expect it to be really heavy, and really hard to open. But the lock clicks and the door swings open easily on its massive hinges. It is almost always colder inside turf churches than it is outside, and today is no different. The ceiling and the rafters are low, there is very little light and the interior of the church smells of wood and cold earth. Leaving the key in the lock, I walk down the aisle toward the oil-painting altarpiece dated 1680. The crucifixion scene looms above the last supper, and St. Thomas and St. Andrew flank the central image. It is painted on wood, angels carved into the top. There are only 8 pews in the church, a raised pulpit and one-third of the church around the altar is reserved for the choir, pastors, and sacraments. The feeling within this place of prayer, devotion, birth, death, marriage, and confirmation is overwhelming. The small windows cut into the feet-thick wall let in a faint light. I climb into the pulpit and imagine what it would be like to look out on people in my community, lovingly, proudly, and doing my best to ensure that the desperation that often accompanied life in Iceland didn’t take over their spirits.
I felt in this moment a grief at having lost the continuity of religion and culture from my great grandparents. I felt this severing of language, belief, story and belonging to the land. In this place where people worshipped, made their homes, and lived inside the land, I had lost the understanding of what that relationship means. I can only understand this through my own Canadian lens, through the English language, through a settler mindset. I am a United Church of Canada Diaconal Ministry Candidate, in a young church, without the same kind of history and depth of connection to the land. I was overwhelmed and began to sing. I sang my two favourite hymns over and over in that place. I was overwhelmed with grief and gratitude in equal measures: even in the soul-sadness of experiencing that severance, I was filled with rejoicing and gratitude to be on my knees, on that bare plank floor, in the cold and dim sanctuary, feeling this need to reconnect and feeling the reconnection beginning at the same time. I was overwhelmed with the depth of feeling, and with the depth of God’s presence with me in that place. I lay down on the floor, face down with my arms outstretched and prayed and cried into the floor. My tears sinking into the unfinished wood, my breath stirring the bits of soil and moss in the cracks between the planks. My heart pouring out, emptying my spirit into the land, and feeling held by the unbroken line of spiritual devotion of that place. In this moment my own devotion and experience allowed me to be a small part of that unbroken line.
I went to Iceland to learn about the influence of colonization on Christianity there; it’s so different from here in Canada. The settling of Iceland did not depend on genocide of Indigenous peoples and theft of their land. Icelanders will tell you they have never been colonized, yet the conversion to Christianity, and then from Catholicism to Lutheranism were imposed by Norwegian and Danish foreign powers. Icelanders have a very different relationship to the land, stemming from a Viking covenant with the Landvættir (Spirit of the land) to protect the land, and in turn be protected by it. Icelanders see the land as alive in a different way than we do in Canada. I wanted to know what that means for reconciliation with Ásatru (the pagan religion) and what lessons it all might carry for the United Church of Canada in our own reconciliation, decolonizing and anti-racism journey. I found out a lot about all of these things, and I hope I can do them justice in putting them to work here in my UCC ministry. But what I really found out is that decolonization is not an academic process. What I really found out is that it is easy to learn about it, easy to do it under the guise of a project or outreach with a paid job. It is much harder to do with your heart wide open, with your armour left at the wooden gate in the turf wall (remove it, for this is holy ground on which you walk), with your voice and body offered in humilty and gratitude, with transformation beginning in tears, breath and reverent curiosity.
The GPE is designed to offer CCS students a glimpse of how Christianity, colonialism, power, social and cultural dynamics are entwined in other places in the world to determine how people‘s lives are lived. We also need to know that all of these things are at play in our own lives, they all affect how our lives are lived and all of the people around us. If we never turn this examination inward, we will miss the point. BIPOC scholars, activists, clergy, thinkers, people of all kinds of backgrounds have been saying for years that decolonization begins with a lot of self-work, but self-work in relation to others. This experience in Grafárkirkja was one of many on this trip that have changed me irrevocably, and that have continued to hold power and transformation for me since arriving back in Prince George. Bringing these experiences to bear on how I listen to people‘s stories, how I respond to people and communities, how my ministry evolves, and most importantly, to how this journey of decolonization within myself will connect with the decolonization journeys of others, of the United Church, and of the communities with whom I have connection.
I gently peel myself off the floor, rising to a kneeling position in front of the altar. I give thanks, I take deep breaths. I rise to standing and walk toward the grey light of day beyond the threshold of the door. The wind sweeps my hair away from my face and cools the tear-redness of my cheeks. I breathe in the cold air and turn to lock the door. As I step down from the stone threshold and look across the fjord I lean back into the lee of the building, feeling the protection of the land and of the unbroken line of devotion in this place. I am not ready to leave the graveyard, but I am late for mass in a town 25 minutes away. I make sure to close the gate behind me and as I look down, I see the stone marker that tells me Hólar, and my great grandfather‘s farm, is 22km away.