I'm a pastor; in the face of genocide, the soul of my church is threatened

Lutheran pastor Ryan Andersen gives his view on the journey required for Canadian churches as newly identified graves put the trauma of residential schools in sharp relief.

Confession and repentance is the first step to healing, says Lutheran pastor Ryan Andersen

The doors of Saskatoon's St. Paul's Co-Cathedral were painted in protest after the discovery of 751 unmarked graves near the former Marieval Residential School on the Cowessess First Nation in June. (Donna Heimbecker/Facebook)

This column is an opinion from Ryan Andersen, a Lutheran pastor and lead organizer for the Calgary Alliance for the Common Good, a group of 32 local organizations committed to a more just and compassionate city. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Churches are burning. Others are sprayed in orange and red with the haunting words: "We were children." 

But these are small losses compared to thousands of graves of children. What are a few buildings, when the church is losing its spiritual legitimacy? Who in their right mind would turn for spiritual hope to institutions that preach love but participated in and hid the abuse and deaths of thousands of children at residential schools in Canada? 

I am a person of faith and a member of the clergy. I'm left with a harsh question: In the face of genocide, can the churches save their own soul?

I believe there is a way. It will not be easy, but it is good.

For Christians, when a wrong has been done, the first step toward healing is confession. Confession is a humble seeking and speaking of the truth. All of us are tempted to cover over our faults, push blame onto others and portray ourselves as being right. In the spiritual life, this is deadly because it hides our wounds and leaves them to fester. The uncovering of truth, when it is approached with honest humility, is a gift because it reveals our wounds, which opens the possibility of healing.

Seeing the truth is a gift

When Indigenous people found the courage to share their stories of suffering during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), it was a gift. 

As First Nations undertake the work of documenting the deaths of children at residential schools, it is a gift. They are revealing the wounds that have been at the heart of Canada and of the churches. Now that we can see these wounds, there is a possibility they can finally heal.

But we must not rush into thinking we know the truth of colonization. 

This spring, ground-penetrating radar technology helped pinpoint the locations of previously unmarked graves at many residential schools. This memorial to the children grew quickly on the steps of Calgary's city hall in June. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

I once thought that after living on a reserve, hearing stories and studying history, I had learned the truth of colonization. Was I ever wrong. Since then, I have learned from Indigenous teachers that this truth is an onion with layers upon layers.

Learning and talking about the church's role in residential schools is just a beginning. Renouncing the doctrine of discovery, which tried to justify taking land not already held by Christians, is just a beginning. 

For the churches to truly enter humble truth-telling, we need to wrestle with the full truth of colonization: its ongoing impact on Indigenous people, how our beliefs led us to commit this harm, and how we as settlers have both benefited and been dehumanized by colonialism. Only when we have been humbled and opened by this wrestling will we be ready for what comes next.

In Christian theology, confession leads to repentance. That doesn't mean simply saying sorry or self-flagellation. The word translated into English as repentance means the transformation of one's mind.  Transformation happens most often through relationships.

The House of Prayer Alliance Church was damaged by a fire this month in what Calgary police describe as a deliberate act of vandalism. No suspects have been identified. Elsewhere in Canada, churches have been burned to the ground amid the anger surfaced by the identification of hundreds of grave sites at residential schools. (Mike Symington/CBC)

When settlers of faith build relationships with Indigenous people, it's often with those who feel "safe" — who have adopted the Christian religion or have developed the skills of fitting into western culture. 

But that's not enough. If the churches are to save their own soul, it is time to listen to those who make us feel uncomfortable, who are angry. It's out of love they are angry because they grieve for what happened and what continues to happen. 

It is time for us to sit in this anger, to listen to it and even welcome it. It's an expression of love mixed with grief. When we understand why people are so angry that they want to burn down churches, then we'll know we are getting somewhere. 

Learning to share anger

This will involve listening. I have learned from Indigenous teachers that if we want to listen, we need to leave the spaces we are comfortable in. It is time for church members to become students and learn from the ones we thought we needed to teach.

In the face of genocide, can the soul of churches be saved?

We'll know the answer if we also feel deep anger fuelled by love when children continue to be taken from their families instead of families getting the support they need to keep their children; anger at policing that over-polices but under-protects our fellow human beings, resulting in thousands of women and girls going missing and murdered; or when we start asking publicly why these unmarked graves are not treated as crime scenes. 

We will find the answer when we're standing side by side with Indigenous peoples, working together for justice. Then we will be able to speak of reconciliation, even atonement, which means being together again or literally "at one." 

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Do you have a strong opinion that could add insight, illuminate an issue in the news, or change how people think about an issue? We want to hear from you. Here's how to pitch to us.


Rev. Ryan Andersen is the lead organizer for the Calgary Alliance for the Common Good, which unites 32 organizations representing 35,000 Calgarians, to create a more just and compassionate city. You can follow Ryan @PrRyanAndersen or the Calgary Alliance for the Common Good @CommonGoodYYC