By: Thirza Cuthand, director of Devout + Out: Susan
Devout + Out is a three-part series about about openly LGBTQ leaders in the church. Devout + Out: Susan tells the story of Susan, a queer Mohawk minister balancing two faith traditions on Ontario’s Six Nations reserve.
For people who don’t understand why a queer person would become involved with the church at all, it is doubly confusing when a queer Indigenous person becomes a minister. And yet, after much reflection and study of various religions, that was the life path Susan saw for herself.
Susan comes from Six Nations of the Grand River, the largest First Nations reserve in Canada by population. Her family is still experiencing the intergenerational impacts of residential schools, yet she joined the United Church and now serves as a minister at the United Church of the Grand River on Six Nations.
As a queer Indigenous filmmaker, it was fascinating for me to explore Susan’s story. I have a grandfather who is a minister and an aunt who is a priest, and I know that there is anger in the Indigenous community toward Christianity as a force of colonialism. I have also seen lateral violence within the Indigenous community toward Indigenous Christians, as though they are brainwashed and colonized people. Susan acknowledges that Christianity has a bloody history — that it's harmed people. But she also sees potential for Christianity to be part of healing and growth.
It was illuminating for me to hear Susan’s perspectives on the complicated relationship between Christianity, the church and Indigenous communities. I consider myself ambivalent toward Christianity; my own experience was in the Anglican church, which has a much more complicated relationship with queers than the United Church. My grandma convinced my mom to send me to bible camp as a kid, though I never even cracked open a bible until I was in my 20s.
My aunt once told me that, in seminary, she learned there was an ongoing challenging of ideas within Christianity — that it’s not a set-in-stone religion (though some would like it to be). To me, Susan embodies a similar sensibility in her approach to her service, one in which the church has room to grow and embrace more and more people who have been alienated by other priests and ministers.
The struggle between preserving Indigenous spirituality and traditions, and the cultural domination of relatively newer spiritual concepts like Christianity is not going to be resolved with one short episode of a documentary series. But I do hope it shows how Susan has found a place where God, the church and Indigenous experiences can coexist … and that other Indigenous people can come to a resolution between Christianity and Indigenous spirituality that is somehow defiant of colonialism.
The fact that Christianity was used so violently as a tool of colonization may taint it in many Indigenous people’s eyes. And yet the basic tenets of Christianity are love and compassion, something all faiths and spiritualities share. Love and compassion are also things the queer community shares in terms of its formation of communities, chosen family structures, activism, and care collectives for the ill and disabled.
I believe Susan’s background as an Indigenous queer activist and current role as a United Church minister are not mutually exclusive, but rather inform her and help her achieve her present goals to heal her community and the world. It’s my hope that this episode demonstrates how radical queer and Indigenous love can transform Christian spaces into accepting, loving spaces for all.