Indigenous Christian ministers walk in 2 worlds

Some Christian ministers who are Indigenous open up about how difficult it can be to reconcile their personal faith with the role that churches played in Canada's residential schools.

'Our culture and our traditions can be side-by-side to Christianity,' says divinity student

Some Indigenous Christians who have committed themselves to ministry say they hope to serve as a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous churches and traditions. (Pixabay)

Andrew Thunder knew he wanted to commit himself to Christianity before he was 10 years old.

But for the 28-year-old and other Indigenous ministers in Canada, it can be difficult to reconcile their personal faith with the role that churches played in residential schools.

About 150,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit children in Canada were removed from their homes and forced to attend the church-run, government-funded schools. Many children lost their language and culture, and some were physically and sexually abused.

"There [were] obviously some good intentions from the church and government to come in and educate the Aboriginal people, but it was the method that was completely incorrect," Thunder said.

"It is embarrassing for me, being identified as a Christian."

Indigenous and Pentecostal

Still, it's the only life Thunder ever wanted.

He is studying business at the University of Manitoba and plans to sharpen his leadership skills there before returning to his role as a Pentecostal minister at Cross Church in Winnipeg.

Andrew, left, and James Thunder are held by their father, Max Thunder, in this family photo. (Submitted by Andrew Thunder)
Four generations of Thunder's family were Christian, starting with his great-grandfather, who was Anglican. Later, his grandfather and father would become Pentecostal — his father, an evangelist.

Older brother James Thunder, 31, is a graduate of a Bible college and seminary in Saskatchewan and once served as a youth minister.

Andrew Thunder says he sees himself as a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous churches. He visited Indigenous churches to hear their concerns when he was the Aboriginal missions assistant with the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada in 2011.

Thunder said he took those concerns to non-Indigenous churches and helped create partnerships through ministry resource sharing, communication and mentorships.

Andrew Thunder speaks at a memorial service for 11-year-old Teresa Robinson in Winnipeg on May 25, 2015. (CBC)

Righting wrongs

Thunder said he knows there's no easy way to fix the past wrongdoings of churches because he still sees the pain caused by the residential schools system today.

For instance, alcoholism, drug abuse and high suicide rates can be traced back to families being broken apart, he said, adding that the effects of the "brokenness" have been passed on to the following generations.

But in the past decade, he's witnessed a shift within the church when it comes to reconciling with Indigenous people.

"I'm seeing quite a bit of action of people attempting to make things right, whether that be changing the language, changing the way we speak," he said.

James Thunder is seen speaking at the Lott Thunder Revivals Thanksgiving Convention at the RBC Convention Centre in Winnipeg in 2016. (Submitted by James Thunder)

Letting the church hear Indigenous voices

For Murray Pruden, 40, from Saddle Lake and Whitefish (Goodfish) Cree First Nation in Alberta, the path to the ministry started with a "calling" he experienced in his mid-20s.

"I had some visions, some dreams, where I was shown things and told about my path," Pruden said.

His vision consisted of a church on a hill, with a raging river surrounding it along with a broken bridge.

He said after he experienced the vision, he approached an elder for guidance. He was told he would get closer to this church in time and would eventually calm the river and fix the bridge.

Murray Pruden stands at Mount Precipice south of Nazareth in April 2017. The site is significant in Christianity, as it's believed that an angry crowd of people tried to push Jesus off the mountain. (Submitted by Murray Pruden)
Pruden is currently studying at the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre, a First Nations divinity school near Beausejour, Man., and at the Vancouver School of Theology.

Like the Thunder family, Pruden's family was close to the church.

"My grandparents really made it a weekly thing, every Sunday, to go to church," he said, adding that he remembers his grandparents supporting him as he took part in the church as a child.

Pruden said his grandparents attended residential schools, and he's aware of the damage caused by the church and the government in running those schools.

"I am an advocate for our people to take something back, to advocate on our people's beliefs and cultures, and to let the church and government know that we have a voice," he said.

"If we have our people in the path of ministry, we can then be a diplomatic instrument in the religious community."

Pruden wants to bridge an understanding with non-Indigenous people to help them understand colonialism as well as Indigenous culture and languages.

"Our culture and our traditions can be side-by-side to Christianity and the idea is, in our teachings, everything is to be in harmony," he said.

"We need to learn that respect and teach that respect and show that we can do it."

No conflict

Aaron Sault, 33, from Six Nations, Ont., believes he, too, was called upon to do "the Lord's work."

Sault is also studying at the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre in Manitoba and at the Vancouver School of Theology to earn his master of divinity degree.

His goal is to become an Anglican priest.

Aaron Sault is working on his master of divinity degree, with the goal of becoming an Anglican priest. (Supplied by Aaron Sault)
Sault said although churches are not exactly overwhelmed with young people these days, he would like to help change that.

"I don't look at the church as evil, and that I'm angry and mad at the church, or that the church is a bad thing," he said.

Sault also continues to practise longhouse traditions, something that was part of his childhood. He would listen to the teachings from the elders and help them while inside the lodge, which might include passing sacred items such as rattles and drums or giving the elder water.

When Sault is practising both world-views, for him, there isn't a clash.

"There's no conflict between times of my ceremony and the church; they are never in conflict," he said.

"I don't have to say, 'Oh, I should be in the longhouse but I need to go to church this Sunday.'"

Sault said he feels it's OK to look back on the role the church played in causing pain for Indigenous people, but he also cautions against "living in the past."

The same goes for celebrating Canada's 150th birthday, he added.

"If we can't celebrate together, if we can't get along together, and if we can't hold hands and be united, I don't think how are even going to get to the talking table to discuss things."