August 16, 2015

The following sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s by the Rev. Dr. Stewart Folster, minister at the Saskatoon Native Circle Ministry.

John 21:14-19

“Healing and Reconciliation”

The National Church has been talking a lot about healing and reconciliation in the past couple of years. It is their hope that the relationship between the Presbyterian Church in Canada and the First Nations of this land can be reconciled and that we can walk into the future together and begin a new and healthy journey together.

Healing and reconciliation. Healing can take place from now on until the end of the road. Reconciliation is about making things right. It’s about putting our faith into action. However, we can’t reconcile unless we know that we have done something wrong and that we have the desire to make things right. So, reconciliation needs education. We have to educate ourselves about our own histories. A mission relationship gives us the opportunity to share stories and share the struggles and joys of each of our ministries. And we can share our faith and share the uniqueness of our style of worship and the different ways that we evangelize and do mission. I think we have done some of that but we need to do more. There is so much more that we can learn and experience from each other.

Some of our story and some of our history is painful. I can understand why we are reluctant to go there. But the outcome of that study can have great results. Jesus says to Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” And Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” And Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” What was Jesus talking about when he says Do you love me more than these? Was he talking about the fish? Did he mean that the fishermen loved their jobs more than they loved Jesus? If that is the case, then they were only in it for the money and so the Lord’s people would never mean very much to them. Or was Jesus referring to the disciples when he asked Peter Do you love me more than these? If that was true, then Peter would love his friends more than Jesus and therefore, he would not be willing to give up his life to follow Jesus. Jesus also said tend my sheep. Take care of the people. Bind up their wounds, comfort them, give them shelter and clothing and food and visit them when they are lonely or when they are sick and heal them because they are my children.

I work in a Mission in Saskatoon on the poor side of town where many of our homeless hang around on the streets. Our Mission is called the Saskatoon Native Circle Ministry. 80% of the homeless and the people in prison are of First Nation background. They have lived through many struggles in this life: “Let me tell you about Bill. Bill was from a Cree reserve in northern Manitoba. At age 5, Bill was taken from his home by the church and the government and was raised in a residential school. Bill was sexually abused by the staff in the residential school. When the children were removed from their homes, the parents forgot how to be parents. They became emotionally and spiritually ill and they became abusive themselves. That’s what happens to you when your children are taken away from you. You become so traumatized and lost that your feelings go numb. And you become an abuser because you want something to replace the hurt and pain and you want to be able to forget. So, when Bill returned home, he was sexually abused at home. So Bill grew up to be an abuser himself. And for the abuse he inflicted upon others, Bill served more than ten years in prison. Bill was sexually abused in prison. When Bill was released from prison, Bill came to us at the Mission and he came to church every week and I taught him about his culture and traditional ceremonies. Bill was sober for 8 years while he volunteered for us. So Bill went before the review process to try to receive compensation for the sexual abuse he experienced in residential school. He believed that he would receive more than $100,000 in compensation and that he could help his family members and some of his friends who needed the help. However, the adjudicator and his team of lawyers did not believe Bill’s story. They said that he changed his story too many times, but in reality, Bill was adding more to his story every time his lawyer interviewed him because more memories kept on coming up to the surface. Just more than a year ago Bill turned 60 years old and then he died. I think Bill gave up on life. The rejection was just too much for his heart to handle. We suspect that Bill died from a drug overdose. Bill never received a cent for the abuse that was inflicted upon him. He died broke and in poverty and he died alone with no family members at his side. Like I said, Bill became an abuser and I think his family and community disowned him and would not allow him to go back home to live.”

At the Mission, we work with lots of people who have lived a life like Bill. They come to us for healing and comfort. Sometimes they are very angry and very vulnerable. The challenge we face is- how do we really help them with the limited resources that we have? We can pray for them and become their friend and feed them and offer them clothing but not much more than that. The First Nations men we work with who are my age grew up and learned to live off the land, fishing and hunting and trapping. They were once self-sufficient and they lived a happy and healthy life. But after the residential schools and after colonialism, all of that was taken away from them by the government in cooperation with the educational and church systems. Now, my people are homeless, digging through garbage bins looking for junk to sell, panhandling on the streets, committing break-in crimes, and into drugs and even prostitution. And they are filling up the prisons. We give them food and clothing when they come to us, but they need much more than that. So what can the church do to help them get back on their feet? What can we do unless we find the funding to offer life skills programs and programs that can help build up their self-esteem and complete their education and learn how to work again and have ambition and the desire to live a drug-free and alcohol-free lifestyle?

Jesus saved my life and led me back to a healing road when I cried out to him for help. But he also led me back to the sacred teachings and ceremonies of my Ojibway people. The teachings and ceremonies of my Native elders literally saved my life. They taught me how to pray every day and how to feel good about myself as an Ojibway who has been called by God to serve Christ. They gave me an identity…that I think is very beautiful and uplifting…Today, I can lift up my head and look people in the eye because I feel good about myself. I don’t have to look down on the ground when I meet people. The Native elders taught me that we are all created by God and that in God’s eyes, we are all equal. No one is better than anyone else. I am just as good as the Pope or the queen or the mayor and they are equal to me. The homeless people are just as good as you or I and God loves them the same as us. It’s the same with gay and lesbian people. God created them and we are all brothers and sisters.

Healing and reconciliation. I pray every day that our Church will one day recognize the importance and value of my culture and identity and traditional ceremonies. Our Confession to First Nations peoples in 1994 recognizes its value and the Confession apologizes for the hurt and pain that was caused by the loss of culture and language. So, when will we begin to see the fruit of that Confession? Or do we wait for another 20 years and then confess our shortcomings all over again? I think it is time to begin this road of healing and reconciliation.

At Saskatoon Native Circle Ministry, we work with Native youth who are into street gangs and prostitution and they become drug dealers and chronic alcoholics. We work with young moms who face violence in the home because extreme poverty creates all kinds of abuse and conflict and violence. We work with young parents who constantly lose their children to the child welfare system because the parents get hooked on drugs and alcohol and they just can’t seem to turn the corner and find that healing road that they need in order to provide a safe and healthy home for their families. People who use our food program come to us when they are intoxicated or high on drugs. So we have to be patient and yet strong and learn when it is time to step in and ask people to go home and sleep it off. We have to protect people who are vulnerable so it is a good idea to stay physically fit in case you have to handle a violent situation. One month ago, I actually faced someone who brought a gun into our mission and I had to take the gun away from them and then call the police so they could deal with the situation. Thankfully, our Board has decided that it would be wise to install video surveillance in our Mission. I think video surveillance will cut down the violence and the incidents where people try to sneak drinks into our Mission and cut down on the things that mysteriously go missing in our programs. It will help us to work in a safer environment. In fact, it has been installed and it is a blessing.

The street people and the homeless people are like little children in many ways. Small simple things, things that we take for granted will bring them joy. One day, a local church donated some new socks to our Mission. On Fridays, we serve a hot meal in the afternoon and it always brings a huge crowd because they are hungry and because it might be the last meal they will have in that day. So, while our program manager and volunteer served the food, I decided to walk from table to table and hand out new socks to everyone. Well, it was a big hit and everyone expressed their joy. I heard comments about how our Mission takes care of them, about how we show our love to them and treat them like family. And that is exactly what happens when you work with the poor for a long time. They get close to you and they become like your family. They worry about me when I am away and they are overjoyed to see me again when I return to work. And even though many of them have done many years of prison time for violent crimes they have committed, I find it hard to believe that they did those things. I see them as beautiful people who need lots of attention and intimacy because that kind of love has been lacking in their upbringing.

One of the special things we have been able to do in the past year is to offer an art program to anyone who drops in to our Mission. We hired an art teacher and we found some initial funding to provide a small salary for her and some art supplies. The people are really getting into that program and there have been some beautiful samples of art being created by them. Oil paintings of landscapes and animals and eagles, dream catchers, beadwork, and all kinds of wonderful things are decorating our walls and windows. Artists are able to sell some of their art. We are planning to have a community art sale event and the art teacher is going to put together a calendar from twelve of the best pieces of art. So look for that in 2016. The people are very excited about having their art displayed as part of a calendar that could be sold across the land. The art program builds self-esteem and it brings out the creativity in people who have so much talent to offer and who need to know that they have so much potential. You can see the joy in them and how they look forward to doing more and creating more. One of the best artists in our program has offered to paint a mural on one of our walls in our dining room. Our twining partners, St Andrew St Paul, in Montreal have offered a donation to fund that project. The artist loves to paint eagles and bears and mountains and he is very good at it. The mural has been completed and it is very special. You have to drop by some time and see it. It is truly amazing. We were able to hire two local artists at a total cost of $600. It is an amazing piece of art that will be with us for a long time. Like I said, please come by and visit us. About 2:30 in the afternoon is the best time to come on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, or Friday.

Jesus said, “Do you love me more than these?” In other words, are we willing to share what we have so that those who have nothing can have their needs met and feel loved? Sharing and caring is a basic law of our medicine wheel. It is one of the four sacred directions of my people. Caring and sharing is symbolized by the birds and the animals. The birds and animals cared enough for all of us that they were willing to die for us so that we could have food and clothing and shelter and tools and many other things that we needed. They were willing to die so that we could have life. The man in our village who was the best hunter often became the chief because he was willing to share the meat that he hunted and he would share with the whole village, not just his family. He was respected because he had the most to share and that is exactly what he did. Today, we are seeing the exact opposite. People are getting rich because they are not willing to share. People are homeless and they are walking the streets hungry because no one will share their resources with them. A wise Elder once said that the earth is our mother and we cannot own the earth. We cannot sell our mother and she was given to us by the Creator so that none of her children would go hungry and be without shelter.

Jesus was willing to die on the cross so that we could have life. He cared enough for us to share his life with us so that we could have forgiveness and mercy and peace and hope for eternal life. He showed us what it means to really love someone, to be willing to put others first before ourselves, to give of ourselves so that others could live, to pick up our cross and follow Christ. There must be so much more that all of us can do for the poor and the hungry and the lonely and the imprisoned and the oppressed. There must be so much more that we can do for each other. That is what reconciliation means. It means treating each other like we are brothers and sisters who love each other and respect each other. God bless all of you. All my relations!