Saturday, December 15, 2012

Mental Health and the Church - 5 Tips for Pastors & Friends

I'm a little late getting back to this two-part series on Mental Illness and the Church, based on the class I took at Regent in May called "Darkness is my Only Companion."  Go here to read part 1: Top 5 Things That Surprised Me. 

Mental illness is in the news because of the tragic shootings in Connecticut yesterday.  Although I've seen nothing confirming that the gunman suffered from a particular mental illness, and I worry about the stigmatization of all mentally ill people as potentially dangerous to society, I welcome the discussion about how best to care for people with mental illnesses.

In this post I want to give some advice for pastors and friends seeking to love and support people who struggle with mental illness.  This would obviously be better written by someone who is actually struggling with mental illness, but I'll do my best to pass on what I heard from those in my class.

5 great ways to love & support mentally ill friends

1. Actively fight against the stereotyping, belittling, marginalization and stigmatization of mentally ill people.

Mental illness is incredibly stigmatized in our society.  The mentally ill are seen either as weak people who should work harder to deal with their issues and be normal, or as dangerous people to be feared, locked up, or at least avoided.  This second one is exacerbated by works of fiction - how many evil antagonists do you know who aren't portrayed as at least a little bit "crazy"? - but also by the stories that tend to get picked up by news media.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the reporting of the Sandy Hook tragedy.  In reality, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violent crime than to be perpetrators of these crimes, because their ability to react quickly in self-protective ways can be impaired.  These debilitating stigmas (stigmata?) have made their way into the church, for reasons I'll examine below.  And yet I think if the church were to seriously examine its own heroes and saints, I think they'd find it plausible that a lot of them struggled with mental illness. Jeremiah?  St. Francis?  I say this because I also believe some mentally ill people may actually be more aware of the spiritual realm, and more in touch with the mystery of God, although discernment between helpful and harmful visions and spirits may take years to develop.  Whether or not these people are prophetic, they deserve dignity and respect simply because they are made in the image of God.  We talked a lot in class about how Jesus clothed the Gerasene demoniac after freeing him from his demons.  How can we figuratively "clothe" and protect the dignity of those we know for whom mental illness is a daily reality?

Some ideas - let's jump on this bandwagon and "call BS" on the ways youth with mental illnesses are bullied and isolated.  Let's follow John Franklin Stephens' lead and inform people when they're using words that wound and belittle.  My personal challenge?  Root out the word "crazy" from my vocabulary.  I use it startlingly often. 

2. Remind your friends that our brains can be ill while our souls are well.

What's the difference between your brain, your mind, your soul, and your "self"?  We may all have different ways of distinguishing between these concepts, with varying degrees of overlap.  The brain is perhaps easiest to define, because it's a tangible bodily organ.  But while the "mind," "soul," and "self" all involve some functioning of our brain, they are also broader and more abstract, describing our consciousness and our ability to relate to others, including God.  Although we sometimes talk in the church as though we're easily divisible into bodies and souls, we are not.  We are whole, complex beings. 

Mental illness is something that happens in the body, in hormones and brain pathways.  Sometimes it's triggered by an event that touches the spirit, like an intense experience of loss or grief.  Sometimes it has spiritual side effects, such as an altered sense of self, or a diminished ability to sense God's presence.  Not feeling God, or not feeling joy or hope, is an awful experience, but it doesn't automatically mean you're outside of relationship with God, or that your soul is causing your mental illness.  Even though our bodies and souls overlap, and even though we tend to associate faith with our emotions and thoughts, having a mental illness doesn't mean your soul is sick any more than having lung cancer means your soul is sick.  It doesn't mean you are possessed or that God has given up on you.  As my professor writes, "The soul, as the self in relation to God, continues healthy in anyone as long as that person is in Christ, relating to and witnessing to God" (101).  We should also affirm that it's possible for humans to have a sick souls in all sorts of ways that have nothing to do with mental illness.

Having said all this, it's still necessary for people to figure out how to engage with God in the midst of their mental illness.  So, we need to...

3. Bear their burdens, pray for them, and listen to their "dangerous" questions.

We are not called to offer advice or lectures, but to be present, to listen to their experience and to sit with them as they wrestle with pain and confusion.  Why am I sick?  Why does anyone suffer?  Did God do this, or allow this?  If so, why?  to test me?  punish me?  humble me?  teach me?  Is there meaning in my illness?  As Justin Lee pointed out in his new book "Torn," we need to remember that Job, in the Old Testament, asked similar questions, and his friends did quite well at supporting him... until they opened their mouths.  We must be slow to speak, quick to listen, and always committed to pray for our friends. 

The community of faith is crucial in these situations.  We must learn to lament together, to weep with those who weep.  But are also able to hold onto faith and express hope when our friends' illnesses prevent them from doing so.  We can let them lean on our faith, especially in times of corporate worship.  In a journal entry, my professor explained why she continued attending church and praying the liturgy with her congregation, even in her darkest moments: "I need to wrap my tongue around the gracious words of others, in hopes that their words will nourish my soul, somehow sink in and sprout into trees of righteousness, into songs of hope. Because I have no words of gratitude in me, only shame at my absolute hardness of heart." (87)

We can offer our presence when our friends are in hospital.  My professor suggested that when people are in the psych ward, we should visit, but keep our visits to 15 minutes at most, since they can be more draining difficult than we realize.  When she visits people, she asks them a few questions about how they are doing, offers to read a psalm, and to pray, and then she leaves and visits again after a week.

It's also important to be present and attentive to the family members of people with mental illnesses, offering practical support - e.g. meals, babysitting, retreat time. 

4. Persevere in love, and you could be part of changing their brains.

There are many things we cannot do. Most of us do not have the expertise to lead people through therapy or prescribe medication, which is why it is crucial to refer friends to psychiatrists and therapists if they are not already in touch with them.  Pastors are not adequate substitutes for these trained professionals.  However, there is something I learned that underlines why friends and pastors are so important.  That something is neuroplasticity.
 It's a beautiful thing, the neurological adaptability - the pliability - of adult brains.  A gracious, God-given example of redemption and transformation, I believe.  In the womb and in early childhood, our brains are at their most adaptable stage, developing circuits and patterns, pathways between brain regions, ways of doing things and reacting to stimuli.  Scientists used to think that after childhood, our brains were static and could not change.  But studies of stroke and brain damage victims have shown that brains can adapt well into adulthood.  Brains can re-wire themselves to adapt to new circumstances, creating new neurons, new pathways, and new ways of reacting.  Positive stimulation through rewarding activities and environments of love and care over the long term will actually create new thought patterns and re-wire brains.  More research is needed, but this suggests that our long-term friendships with mentally ill people may improve their experience of life to the extent of contributing to altered patterns in their brain.  Through long-term love, we may be able do things that psychiatrists and therapists cannot even do.  I find this incredibly hopeful. 

5. Call up Sanctuary and have them come do a workshop or seminar at your church.

Sanctuary is a Vancouver-based ministry co-directed and founded by my former colleague Sharon Smith.  They come alongside churches in order to "create awareness of mental illness, improve understanding of the mental health recovery journey, and facilitate caring activities to meet the needs of people living with mental illnesses and their families."  Sharon has taught me much of what I know about mental illness, and I believe she and her colleague have much to teach the church as a whole.  I highly recommend contacting them, especially if there are people in your church who are in need of care, or wanting the church to understand their journey with mental illness.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Mental Health and the Church - Top 5 Things that Surprised Me

It's been about five months since I've written... I'm a bit of a blogging failure this year.  But I've had this one in the works for a long time now, so I thought I'd finish it off and get it out there.

One of the best things about being a graduate of Regent College is getting to go back and audit classes at half the price.  Last May I audited a class called "Darkness is my Only Companion," with a rather bleak title taken from Psalm 88.  The class was about mental illness and pastoral care, which definitely falls into the "need-to-know" category for me in my work!  In fact, during the two weeks of the class, I had two friends hospitalized for suicidal tendencies brought on by bipolar disorder and depression.

The class was taught by Kathryn Greene-McCreight, an Episcopal priest from New Hampshire who has bipolar disorder.  Her life experience was such a rich source of learning, as were the in-class discussions with my classmates, who included people living with mental illness, people who grew up with a mentally ill parent, people who had children or siblings or friends with mental illnesses, chaplains, prison workers, pastors, and medical professionals.

I'd like to write two posts about things I learned or was reminded of during the class.  Next week, I'll write a post for those seeking to be good pastors and friends of people with mental illnesses.  But first, in this post, I'll go over some the top 5 general facts about mental illness that struck me or surprised me.  (I'm swallowing my pride and revealing my general ignorance!)

1. Many mental illnesses run in families.

Before the class, I had no idea that there was any genetic aspect to mental illness.  My prof talked about studies that have been done on people with the three major illnesses (depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia).  Children who have one parent with a mood disorder (depression or bipolar) have a 15-30% chance of developing a mood disorder, and if both parents have a mood disorder, the child's risk factor jumps to 50-75%.  Children with a schizophrenic parent have 5-15% chance of developing schizophrenia, and that risk also jumps to 75% if both parents are schizophrenic.

Having said that, mental illness is by no means strictly a genetic phenomenon.  A study of identical twins showed that if one twin was schizophrenic, the other twin only had a 50% chance of also being schizophrenic.  Even though they had the same DNA, in half of the cases, the genes for schizophrenia were only triggered in one twin.  It seems that the presence of inner stressors (e.g. physical trauma and illness) and exterior stressors (e.g. poverty, isolation, abuse, drug use) are very crucial factors in determining whether someone's genetic potential for mental illness will actually reveal itself in the person's life.

2. The major mental illnesses have no cure.

For whatever reason, this fact struck me like none other in the class.  I think I'd always thought that mental illnesses could go away eventually, or at least go into remission, allowing the sufferer to live a relatively normal life.  In fact, major mental illnesses require lifelong management and care, like diabetes.  They can be managed, but they will not go away.  This is one of the overwhelming and sobering aspects of being diagnosed.

The search for a cure continues, but mental illnesses are among the most complex of all diseases, with a variety of environmental and genetic factors, and the research isn't as well funded as other less-stigmatized diseases.

3. While the major mental illnesses are incurable, medication and therapy do help, especially in combination.

My professor was especially good at talking about this, since she's tried just about everything to manage her bipolar.  Through literally years of trial and error, she and her doctor have found a mixture of medications that work for her.  However, as she puts it, bipolar medication "tends to create a ceiling but not a floor."  That is, it helps contain the high (manic) episodes, but the low (depressive) periods are less responsive to medication, and she often has to ride them out.

The side effects of medication are also a constant challenge for people with mental illness, especially when these medications are taken constantly over a lifetime: changes in weight, nausea, headaches, drowsiness, restlessness, confusion, seizures, heart problems... My prof had a stroke recently, and her doctors believe it was her bipolar medication that made her prone to strokes at such a young age.  Medication is a life-saver for many sufferers, but it is a long road to finding the right mix, and the side effects and health risks remain.

Humans are not only chemical creatures, but also relational creatures, which is why my professor recommended regular therapy alongside medication.  Therapists listen and help talk through strategies for living with and managing the effects of the illness.

4. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is used effectively today, and is much different than what we see in the movies.

This really surprised me.  I'd assumed ECT (aka "shock therapy") was an inhumane and now-banned quasi-torture performed by doctors who were a bit sadistic and didn't have a good grasp of mental illness.  (I watch too many movies.) 

Nope.  Turns out those doctors actually had a pretty good grasp of mental illness, and they've refined the procedure to make it less... torturous.  These days, patients are put to sleep before the procedure, and the electricity is targeted directly to the brain, so there are no bodily convulsions beyond a slight toe wiggle or eyelash flutter.  The shock to the brain acts like a "reset" switch, and can be more effective than medication.  For people suffering with depression, antidepressants are effective about 50% of the time, but ECT is effective 75-90% of the time.  It can, however, have side effects, like memory loss and confusion.  There's a great TED talk about ECT here.

5. Most people who attempt or commit suicide do not actually want to die, they just want their pain to end.

Pretty self-explanatory, but it was a good reminder for me.  Other suicide-related facts that surprised me:
- Males are four times more likely to commit suicide than females, but suicide attempt rates are 3-6 times higher for females than for males.
- In the USA (and probably in Canada too), a person is about 50% more likely to kill themselves than to be killed by someone else.
- More than 90% of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental illness.
- Talking about suicide with someone who is suicidal actually decreases their risk of completing suicide, so long as it is not discussed in a joking or glorifying way.

Those were my Top 5 general-knowledge-type lessons from the class.  Stay tuned for ideas about how pastors and friends can helpfully interact with people who struggle with mental illness.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Truth & Reconciliation - What does Reconciliation Look Like?

This is my fifth and last post in a series of blogs I'm writing on my experience attending the Truth & Reconciliation event in Victoria last weekend. The Truth & Reconciliation Commission in Canada addresses the Indian Residential School system that existed between 1840 - 1996 (see their website for more information). If you haven't read my introductory blog entry, you can read it here first. Here is the second post on being a witness. Here is the third post, with stories from survivors. Here's the fourth post, on apologies.

This last post has been a long time coming... sorry for the month-long hiatus! I've had a lot of other things on my plate, but this question has been at the back of my mind the whole time: What does reconciliation between First Nations people and the Church look like?

To help me process that question, I returned to a powerful book I read several years ago, Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf. Volf is a theologian whose reflections on God and life have been significantly influenced by his experience of war in his homeland, Croatia (former Yugoslavia).


My first thought is that reconciliation can happen on both the macro and micro levels. We will need to figure out how to seek reconciliation as large groups and communities, but some of the most challenging and meaningful work will happen on the grassroots level of individual relationships between First Nations people and Christians. Which means that we need to seek out these relationships with one another, and do the hard and rewarding work of learning to love each other. First Nations Christians may be helpful by acting as bridges between their people and the Church. However we should be careful not to place all the responsibility for initiating and maintaining relationships on First Nations Christians, knowing that they too will likely need space to process their own pain and the pain of their people.

Taking responsibility

In my last post, I wrote about apologies, and how we in the Church often seem to fail at them. So a start toward reconciliation might be figuring out how to own up to what we've done. I was recently in a conversation about residential schools with some other pastors.  Some were lamenting the fact that First Nations people continue to harp on the Church and to emphasize only the bad parts of the schools, when (according to them) many people groups at the time used corporeal punishment as an acceptable form of discipline for children. One of them lamented, "The First Nations people are crucifying us!" To which my co-pastor Jodi insightfully responded, "But as followers of Christ, we should not shy away from that experience!" (That's my paraphrase - she said it better!).

Jesus commanded us to take up our cross and follow Him. Of course, the Church's "being crucified" in the acknowledgment of her responsibility and shame around residential schools is different from Christ's crucifixion, because Christ was wrongfully accused, and his death brought supernatural redemption. Still, as a Church following a crucified Savior, we should never shun the humbling reminders of our sinfulness and our continual need for mercy and sanctification. Attempts to distract, shift blame, or point out the parallel wrongs of other groups are only taking us back to that embarrassing scene between God, Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. We must be willing to own up to what the Church has done, even though we weren't directly involved as teachers in a residential school, and even if our particular denomination wasn't directly involved in the schools (many First Nations people don't make the denominational distinctions we do - they see Christians as a unified group). In our relationships and our communities, we may find situations in which it would be helpful and healing to apologize vicariously for the sins of other Christians, and we should do this willingly and very prayerfully.


But there is more required of us than apologies and responsibility. I asked my Gitxsan friend Hector what the Church could do to seek reconciliation with First Nations people, and he said: "Stop saying sorry and start doing something."

In his book, Volf talks about Zacchaeus, whose version of "doing something" was paying back four times as much as he stole: "A genuine repentance of the oppressors will lead to the “injustice” of a superabundant restitution, which seeks to offset the injustice of the original violation" (118). No restitution will be able to "pay for" or "erase" the wrongs done, but it will contribute to reconciliation.

Some would say restitution was offered to Canada's residential school survivors in the form of $1.9 billion dollars in compensation, split between survivors after the settlement agreement in 2006. However, this was legally mandated restitution, rather than a "superabundant restitution" offered freely as in Zacchaeus' story. Also, it merely followed suit with the charity model we often employ with First Nations people and other marginalized people in our society. Many of my friends in the DTES who received this compensation money readily admitted to using a large portion of it to fund their addictions, patterns of pain-numbing they've been stuck in since they suffered at the schools.

By saying we need to "do something," my friend Hector emphasized action - costly action - but also careful action, action with attention to long-term consequences. Sadly, the compensation money given out over the last 5 years did not bring justice or healing to First Nations people, and did little to bring reconciliation. As a Church, we are called to be more creative and find just ways to act that reach deep into the core of the problem and don't contribute to the perpetuation of cycles of pain & abuse.

Some Christians have already thought of creative ways to offer restitution. I've recently read about churches in California and in Saskatchewan who are seeking reconciliation with First Nations groups around the issue of land claims. These churches are actually buying land and giving it back to First Nations people!

If we want to bring restitution for the sins of residential schools, perhaps we could focus our attention on education in First Nations communities. First Nations children are the fastest-growing demographic in Canada, but their graduation rate is only half of that of the rest of Canadian students. Recent reports found huge funding shortfalls for education in First Nations communities, despite the fact that access to education is a right named in many of the treaties governing them. At least fifty reserves need new schools but have no funding to build them. This year's federal budget only covers half of what the AFN says is required to address these shortfalls.  Perhaps, as part of its restitution, the Church could commit to providing First Nations people with the resources they need and deserve so they can educate their next generation.

Nelson Mandela, speaking about apartheid injustices in South African, said, "If someone steals my pen and then asks me to forgive him, unless he returns my pen, the sincerity of his contrition and confession will be considered nil. Confession, forgiveness, and reparation, wherever feasible, form part of a continuum." Unfortunately, we have a long way to go... Jodi (always full of wisdom!) observed that right now, not only have we "not returned the pen" to First Nations people, many of us in Canada are actually mocking them, looking down on them, and blaming them for not having a pen! We emphasize addictions, poverty, suicide, and lack of education among First Nations people without acknowledging our role in the pain that contribute to these realities. Another part of our restitution might be lobbying for changes in curriculum so that the history of residential schools and colonialism (and their lasting effects) is taught to every Canadian student, so that potential prejudices are addressed early on.

The Role of First Nations People in Healing & Reconciliation

Of course, First Nations people have a significant and challenging role in this process of reconciliation, too. Most of Exclusion and Embrace is directed toward the victims, spelling out the hard and risky work of forgiveness, of working through anger, leaving vengeance with a perfectly just God, and gradually becoming willing to embrace and welcome the very people who have made you suffer.  When I attended the Truth & Reconciliation event in Victoria, I was amazed to hear the willingness of so many survivors to forgive the Church, and to enter into relationship with the God who was so misrepresented by their teachers.  This can only be interpreted as a miraculous work of the Spirit.

One rather controversial thing that Volf says is that victims need to repent of their sins. Let me quote a long but very profound passage from his book:
"Jesus called to repentance not simply those who falsely pronounced sinful what was innocent and sinned against their victims, but the victims of oppression themselves. It will not do to divide Jesus' listeners neatly into two groups and claim that for the oppressed repentance means new hope whereas for the oppressors it means radical change. Nothing suggests such a categorizing of people in Jesus' ministry, though different people ought to repent of different kinds of sins. The truly revolutionary character of Jesus' proclamation lies precisely in the connection between the hope he gives to the oppressed and the radical change he requires of them. Though some sins have been imputed to them, other sins of theirs were real; though they suffered at the sinful hand of others, they also committed sins of their own. It is above all to them that he offered divine forgiveness. Significantly enough, it is also they, not the self-righteous members of the establishment, that responded to his offer. For as a rule, the kingdom of God enters the world through the back door of servants' shacks, not through the main gate of the masters' mansions" (114).
What are the sins of the victims?  Volf says that victims are very likely to mimic the behavior of their oppressors, to let anger and bitterness fester inside of them, and to excuse and fail to take responsibility for their reactive behavior. "Without repentance for these sins, the full human dignity of victims will not be restored and needed social change will not take place" (117).

One of the most profound expressions of reconciliation I saw at the Truth & Reconciliation event in Victoria was the reconciliation between a First Nations woman and her adult daughter. The woman was sharing her experience of residential school, and near the end of her painful account, she introduced everyone to her daughter, who was sitting behind her. She said she wanted her daughter to be there to hear her story, so that she would know what was at the root of her mom's anger. She acknowledged that she had been a horrible mother and had chosen to take her pain out on her daughter, beating her the same way she had been beaten at the residential school. She wondered aloud if this was part of the reason why her daughter was attracted to men who abused her. She apologized and embraced her daughter, saying "there is still some gentleness in me... Hopefully I will leave all this shit in this room and learn to live without guilt or anger." I was moved deeply by this interaction, and I think the Church could learn a lot from this example of humble repentance.


One reminder that I found sobering and helpful in Exclusion and Embrace is that the final reconciliation will not come until Christ returns. We must not expect that we will achieve full healing and fully restored relationships in this world. What Volf suggests is that we ask ourselves "what resources we need to live in peace in the absence of the final reconciliation... to achieve a nonfinal reconciliation in the midst of the struggle against oppression" (109). But Christ will come, and therein lies our hope!

I pledge to continue to work toward peace and "non-final reconciliation" as we wait together for Christ to come, to liberate the oppressed from the suffering of their oppression, and to liberate the oppressors from their injustice (23).

What do you think reconciliation looks like?  Leave a comment with your thoughts!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Truth & Reconciliation - How (Not) to Apologize

This is the fourth in a series of blogs I'm writing on my experience attending the Truth & Reconciliation event in Victoria last weekend.  The Truth & Reconciliation Commission in Canada addresses the Indian Residential School system that existed between 1840 - 1996 (see their website for more information).  If you haven't read my introductory blog entry, you can read it here first.  Here is the second post on being a witness.  Here is the third post, with stories from survivors.

I've been pondering the reactions of friends and my own reaction to the quotes I posted in my last blog entry.  Seeing them all listed together was rather overwhelming.  

Here's my main thought... insofar as they separated kids from their families to try to make them less Indian, the residential schools represented an unjust system, a program of cultural genocide.  But over and above this cultural genocide, there was also an extremely disturbing amount of child abuse at the schools.  And why was that?  That's the question one of my best friends asked me - why was there so much abuse, particularly sexual abuse?  It wasn't a few isolated cases, and it wasn't only the celibate Catholic priests - it happened in multiple schools run by different denominations.  The abuse was systemic; it was endemic to the school system.  I think the prevalence of abuse had something to do with the fact that these children were generally seen as uncivilized savages.  They were lesser humans, in a separate category from white children.  It was this faulty belief that somehow legitimized the abuse for the many of the teachers, and by perpetually abusing the kids, they sustained and reinforced their belief that the kids were worth very little.  It was a twisted, self-reinforcing system, an "institutionalized pedophilia," as one of the judges in the settlement put it.  

As a Christian white person listening to all these survivor stories, I had the overwhelming urge to do something or say something to express my horror and remorse.  I was tentatively hoping that this kind of thing might happen during the "Expressions of Reconciliation."  This was the time in the weekend when representatives of churches and other organizations gave speeches in front of the whole gathering.  Some were apologizing, and some were not.  (One thing I learned that weekend is that the word "apologize" is a legal term, and carries the responsibility to make reparations, as opposed to a word like "regret.")  Yes, words alone can be cheap, but words can also be very powerful and healing, so I knew it would be important for these representatives to choose their words carefully.

Honestly, I will humbly admit that I have no idea how to properly apologize (or even "express regret") for something as vast and complex and systemic as the residential schools.  I realize that it makes things much harder when you're apologizing on behalf of a group, and you do not have free rein over what you say.  But I've got to admit that I learned more during these speeches about what I would not say than I did about what I would say, if given the chance.  So without further ado, I will categorize these observations for you in a little section I'd like to call...

How NOT to Apologize

- Come with self-serving goals (other than reconciliation).  By far one of the strangest "expressions of reconciliation" was from BC Hydro (our province's electricity provider).  BC Hydro did not participate in any way in the Indian Residential Schools.  With nothing to apologize for, the guy in the suit ended up bragging about how BC Hydro brought twenty of their top employees to this Victoria event to volunteer, and how they want to understand what happened so they can better do business with First Nations people.  Don't get me wrong, I'm all for listening and learning, but the whole thing came off not as an expression of reconciliation, but as a promotional spot, a weird advertisement for BC Hydro.  My friend Laurel leaned over to me and said, "I wonder if most people hear the church apologies with the same cynicism we hear this one with, asking 'what's in it for them?'"

- Encourage the people you hurt to "focus on remembering the good times."  Yes, someone did say this, and yes, I almost left the room.  This particular priest's version of an "expression of reconciliation" was to spend most of his time talking about the residential school he worked at, and how it was a wonderful, loving home for the majority of the students.  His words were met by shouts of protest from the survivors in the crowd.  One woman sobbed loudly and uncontrollably through his speech.  I don't doubt that there were good experiences at residential schools.  But reconciliation depends on the church's and government's ability to humbly acknowledge and take responsibility for the horrible experiences, even if they feel they were the exception to the rule.  It is definitely not the offender's role to determine on what experiences the victims should focus.

- Don't show any emotion.  After all the tears that flowed during the survivor statements, the lack of emotion during the apologies was particularly evident.  The apologizers often used emotion-laden language, but there was not a single tear, not a single embodied expression of remorse.  One denominational representative said "I hang my head in shame," but he was not, in fact, hanging his head!  Not that I would have wanted these speakers to force emotions that weren't there... but why weren't the emotions there?  Were the speakers having trouble identifying with the actual perpetrators?  Were they too distant from what had happened?  Or do we North Americans just suck at embodying remorse?  We don't have a lot of culturally appropriate expressions of sorrow - we don't rip our clothing or sit in ashes, like the Jews did.  All I know is that as I sat listening to these "apologies," my heart started beating quickly and I felt like I had to do something drastic with my whole body, with my entire being, to show the depth of what I felt.  I wanted to lay face down on the ground in the aisle.  But I didn't even know what that would communicate.

- Draw connections between their pain and your own.  One religious leader began his speech by saying that during his time listening to the survivors' stories, he was struck especially by the parts about losing and being separated from family members, because his own mother had just passed away.  I know that he was trying to personalize his apology and was seeking some common ground with the survivors, but because he didn't adequately qualify what he said, he seemed to equate the very disparate experiences of being stolen as a young child from your parents' home, and having your mother die of old age.  It's always dangerous to say (or imply) "I know how you felt."  

- Congratulate yourself for how far you've come.  This was one of the more subtle things that happened.  A couple "expressions of reconciliation" were dominated by "expressions of how good we've already been doing at reconciling."  One church showed a news report about a reconciliation event they attempted with local First Nations bands.  Another denominational rep talked about the Aboriginal programs and bursaries they'd been offering at their seminary, and gave two gifts to the Commission - a mug and a brochure from the seminary.  It was good to hear these hopeful stories of progress, just like it was good to hear stories of healing from survivors.  But like the survivors, the churches have to spend the majority of their airtime at these events courageously telling the truth about what happened, rather than rushing into the healing part.  And come on... a mug and a brochure?  Really?

- Shift the focus to another offending party.  One church representative said he wanted to finish his speech with an important question.  We were all on the edges of our seats, wondering what question he would leave us with - would it be "What can we do now to encourage reconciliation?"  or perhaps "Do you accept our apology?"  No.  His closing question was... "Where is the government?"  He was pointing out the fact that all the church representatives had given speeches, but no one from the government had come to the Victoria event to say anything.  Valid point, but this constant blame-shifting has already driven residential school survivors crazy.  The church and government sound like children trying to convince their mother that not they, but their sibling, who is the real culprit.  It's time to grow up and own what's ours.

- Act like all the bad stuff is over now.  This was the most consistent problem with the speeches.  Every speaker talked about looking forward to walking together with First Nations people into a bright future.  But no one acknowledged that systemic injustice against First Nations people continues to this day in Canada, and that all of us, especially we Church people, have a responsibility to stand up and do something about it.  

I'll talk more about this last concept in my next post... but I have to think about it some more first!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Truth & Reconcilation - Listening to Survivors

This is the third in a series of blogs I'm writing on my experience attending the Truth & Reconciliation event in Victoria last weekend.  The Truth & Reconciliation Commission in Canada addresses the Indian Residential School system that existed between 1840 - 1996 (see their website for more information).  If you haven't read my introductory blog entry, you can read it here first.  Here is the second post on being a witness.

At the Truth and Reconciliation event, survivors were invited to share their lived experiences at residential school in one of three ways.  They could do so in a private, one-on-one session with a trained statement-taker.  Or, they could give a public statement, either in a sharing circle or a sharing panel.  The sharing circle was a bit more intimate and flexible, allowing survivors to sit facing one another and to interact, while the panel was more formal and drew larger crowds.  In total, 158 statements were taken in Victoria.

I'd like to share some quotes from the many statements I was privileged to hear last weekend, since (as I wrote about last time) I feel a responsibility to bear witness.  The limitation in doing this in written form is that you don't get to hear the emotion behind the statements.  The commissioners stressed that the conference was a "tear-friendly" zone, and that's a good thing, because everyone cried - those giving the statements, and those listening - everyone except the man who confessed he could no longer cry, which you'll read about below.  During every session, health support workers walked around, handing out kleenexes and collecting them in bags.  After the sessions, as you left the room, you were invited to wash your face in a tear-collecting canoe-shaped basin.  The pain the survivors carried and brought to the surface during these sharing circles and panels was palpable and immense.

Just as a warning, some of the quotes I will share below describe abuse and may be disturbing.  Also note that I have tried to quote the survivors as accurately as possible, using their wording and phrasing, but these are not exact quotes.

"At residential school, I kept asking, 'Why would my mother abandon me?  Why would she give me up?'  I got all this money from the legal settlement, but I'd rather have my mother back.  I'm 52 years old, and I'm still a lost little boy."

"When I started day school at age 5, all I could speak was Kwak'wala.  My teacher beat the language out of me.  When I was caught speaking Kwak'wala to my cousin, she made me bend over a desk in front of all the students, she pulled up my dress, and she spanked my bare bottom with a leather strap.  From then on I never wore dresses; I only ever wore pants to school.  If I was caught again, I was forced to write 'I must only speak English' on the chalkboard one hundred times, and the number doubled each time I was caught... To this day I can't speak Kwak'wala.  Sure, I can understand it, but when I try to speak it, it won't come."

"We were always thirsty at St. Michael's.  I remember drinking water from the back tank of the toilet...  I tried to run away once, with my friend.  We were found, brought back, and beaten...  I used to go down to the fence at the waterfront and look through.  I was waiting for my father to paddle up to the shore, to take me home.  He never came."

"I feel unworthy, being a survivor, knowing that most of my friends died, either at the school, or shortly after, because of addictions.  I was molested and raped, like the other boys at the school.  It took 15-20 years of work with a therapist to pry this out of me.  In the meantime, I was callous.  I beat my wife like all the other drunk Indians."

"I was attending public school in my community when I was taken, in the middle of class, and brought to residential school.  They targeted me because my father was a chief.  My mom didn't know what had happened.  She searched for me for three days.  My residential school was on Kuper Island.  We called it Alcatraz, because us kids couldn't hope to escape from an island...  I was sexually abused at that school from when I was ten years to twelve years young.  I have post-traumatic stress disorder, and I never know when I'll be triggered.  I'll walk with these scars forever."

"The day I was taken to residential school, I clung to my mother like glutchum - like a mussel on a rock.  It's the last time I saw her.  She died while I was there.  We weren't allowed to go to her funeral.  We weren't even allowed to cry.  The loneliness has never ever left me."

"It wasn't an education.  The only thing we learned was how to survive... Since Kuper Island Residential School, I can't cry.  I tried to cry when my daughter died, but all that came out was this unearthly sound.  Even now, even today, I can't cry.  For years, because of the abuse, I couldn't stand being touched, even by my granddaughters... but now, thanks to God, I can hug them... There were many ways I tried to deal with the pain.  By grade 9, I was into alcohol.  Now both my remaining sons are alcoholics.  I pray for them."

"There was a fence separating the girls from the boys.  One day I got caught trying to talk to my brother through the fence.  The teachers tied me up, hog-tied me, hands and feet, in a corner.  They accused me of flirting.  I kept repeating, 'That's my brother.'  That's when I learned to disappear into the woodwork, to hide, to blend in, just to survive."

"During my whole adult life, I knew something was wrong.  I'd fly off the handle.  Get drunk.  It wasn't until three years ago that I figured it out, when I was on the internet, and I saw the picture of a priest who worked at my residential school.  It all came rushing back to me, everything I'd pushed down... how two priests raped me on the table, in the kitchen, on a regular basis.  They took away my soul... The evil lives inside all of us who were there, not in our hearts, but deep in our bellies.  We get heavy."

"The teachers told me I was nothing but a worthless, useless, stinking Indian - they said that's why my parents dumped me there... Our protectors turned out to be our tormentors... A lot of things happened in those school bathrooms... I had to pretend like I was the only one it was happening to, even though I saw it in the eyes of the other kids, too.  I would be drugged with wine after dinner, and I'd wake up in the middle of the night in bed, without my underwear or pajama bottoms."

"The nuns and priests degraded us, made us feel like we were nothing... They didn't nourish us with love, affection or praise.  So I never learned how to do that for my kids.  I never expressed love or praise to them.  Now that I'm older, I know better.  Now I never leave home without telling them 'I love you.'"


Some people who gave statements were not themselves former students of residential schools, but were children or grandchildren of residential school students.  They were called "intergenerational survivors," and they shared how their parents' and grandparents' experiences had affected their families.  Here are a couple of examples:

"My parents attended residential school.  They bottled up all their pain.  It tore apart our family - they drank, and couldn't take care of us.  My siblings were apprehended and put in foster care.  Since our parents drank, we thought it was ok... I have so much remorse when it comes to my own children and how I treated them.  My granddaughter says she'll never drink.  I want to believe her.  I want to stop the cycle."

"My mother was taken to residential school at age 3.  She never told us any bad things about it - she said it worked for her.  But when I was young, she would regularly wait for me after school with a stick of some sort... when I'd re-gain consciousness, I'd be on my bed without my clothes on, covered in bruises." 


I won't say much today about these quotes, because they are a lot to digest, and I will comment further in my final post.  I will say that the way I saw these individuals changed so profoundly after I heard them share their experiences.  Their very acts of sharing were so courageous and vulnerable, not to mention the things they endured and the resilience they showed and the healing they continued to seek... every subsequent time I saw them at the conference, it was like seeing a hero.  It's amazing what changes when you learn someone's deepest suffering.

In a few days, I'll write about the apologies and expressions of reconciliation I witnessed.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Truth & Reconciliation - on Being a Witness

This is the second in a series of blogs I'm writing on my experience attending the Truth & Reconciliation event in Victoria last weekend.  The Truth & Reconciliation Commission in Canada addresses the Indian Residential School system that existed between 1840 - 1996 (see their website for more information).  If you haven't read my introductory blog entry, you can read it here first.

In many First Nations along the West Coast, especially those with ceremonies in longhouses, there is a tradition of choosing witnesses.  These people are given a small amount of money, and are formally charged with carefully observing what happens at that ceremony, so that they can tell future generations, and others who are not present.

In his speech at the Opening Ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission event in Victoria (which I attended this past weekend),  Justice Murray Sinclair, one of the three commissioners, told us that if we had chosen to come to the event, no matter who we were, we had become witnesses.  We were "commissioned" to share what we learned at the event, to inform our communities and networks.

Justice Sinclair said that part of what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will do is make it impossible for future generations to deny that the residential schools existed, or to deny what happened in these schools.  Students' experiences are recorded on official record, preserving a national memory that cannot be erased.  I had never considered how easy and convenient it would be for Canadians to minimize or gloss over these painful and shameful experiences.

I pondered the fact that I had not even heard of Canada's residential schools until my Native Studies class in first year university (!).  I still remember sitting on my bed, having just read a first-hand account from a former residential school student.  I wept in disbelief and anger, especially over my discovery that the Church had been so intricately involved in the abuse and cultural genocide.  This truth must be witnessed to, and must be spread broadly, not just to the few people who happen take Native Studies.  If we do not witness to the injustice, we risk repeating the injustice, for although we'd all like to think we've come a long way, the colonial attitudes that implemented residential schools are still buried in our minds like seeds.

The responsibility to witness is especially relevant for people who follow Christ.  Last summer, at the first annual Creative World Festival, which takes place on the grounds of St. Mary's Residential School, Ched Myers said this: "For Christians, the luxury of historical amnesia is unequivocally prohibited.  Jesus said, 'Do this in remembrance of me.'  He told us to ingest memory."  Ched challenged us to actively remember the people whose lives had been profoundly dis-membered on those very school grounds.

So I am attempting in these blog posts to fulfill my duties as a witness - to tell you what I saw and heard and felt in Victoria.  In my next post, I'll begin my witnessing.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Truth & Reconciliation... in Canada?

This past weekend, some friends and I attended a regional event put on by Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Victoria, BC.

The phrase "Truth and Reconciliation" often brings to mind race-based conflicts in places like South Africa, Rwanda, El Salvador, and Guatemala.  Due to the absence of a high-profile genocide or civil war, many Canadians are surprised to discover that Canada is also currently in the middle of a nation-wide Truth and Reconciliation process. 

Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission addresses the 130 Indian Residential Schools that operated in this country from the 1840s until the last one closed in 1996 (!).  About 150 000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children attended these government-funded, church-run schools, which intended to "kill the Indian in the child."  About half of these former students are still alive today.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls them "survivors," and often refers to their children and grandchildren as "intergenerational survivors," since they, too, experienced the negative impacts of the schools, especially in the difficult family dynamics that ensued.

Over the last couple of decades, several residential school survivors have filed claims against the government for the abuse they suffered at these schools.  In 2007, a settlement was reached, which allocated funds to survivors and to healing centers, and mandated the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  This was followed soon after by the (in)famous apology by Stephen Harper to survivors and their families.

The purpose of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is to do research, collect statements from survivors, and make a permanent archive establishing the truth of what happened while the schools were in operation.  They also seek to educate Canadians about the schools, their legacy and impacts, and to encourage and suggest steps toward reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada.

This Truth and Reconciliation process is unique in a lot of ways.  It is the first court-ordered commission.  It is the first one to study such a long period in history (150 years).  It is one of the first Truth & Reconciliation commissions in a First World country.  Of particular interest to me, it is the first commission examining a situation where the oppressed parties were primarily children, and where one of the main oppressors was the Church.


I have never written a series of blogs before, but I feel like my experience at this Truth and Reconciliation event in Victoria merits more than one blog entry.  I hope to publish four blogs to summarize my experience and my reflections:

- Being a Witness
- Listening to Survivors
- How (not) to Apologize
- Forgiveness and Reconciliation

I look forward to sharing more with you over the next couple weeks.  But I also recognize that there's no substitute for attending these events yourselves. 

So please get out your calendars. 

If you are a friend of mine living in Saskatoon, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be hosting a National Event there in just a couple months, June 21-24, which they hope will attract over 20 000 survivors, and even more guests.  It's free to attend.  Check the website for more details as plans come together.  Don't miss this chance!

If you are a friend of mine living in Vancouver, you have to wait a little longer... the Commission won't be here for another year and a half.  It will come to Vancouver September 18-21, 2013.  But it will be big... rumours from the planning committee include a 50,000-person march to kick it all off.  Expect to participate!

Friday, April 06, 2012

A Bud Osborn Poem for Good Friday

This afternoon, on Good Friday, we walked around the neighbourhood for the fourth time in our little church's life together.  Our first ever service, three years ago, was a Good Friday service.  So happy third birthday, God's House of Many Faces!  

As we walked, we stopped at various places to remember parts of the crucifixion story.  At each site, we each planted a wildflower seed and sang, "Unless the seed falls to the ground, ain't gonna be no life at all."

We also read excerpts of poetry by Bud Osborn at each stop.  Bud Osborn is one of the coolest people I know.  Actually I don't really know him at all, but I know his work, and every time I see him in the neighbourhood, I feel like I want to ask for his autograph.  He's a DTES resident, prolific poet, activist (especially against homelessness and against the war on drugs), a very humble and courageous soul.  The story goes that he began following Christ after having been given the book "The Prophetic Imagination" by Walt Brueggemann.  

Today, for our service, Jodi chose several excerpts from Bud's poem "Street Sermon" that I've copied out in full below.  It's from his book "Hundred Block Rock."  The first time I read this poem, when it was printed in the local Carnegie Newsletter last year, I found myself weeping.  For some reason, the title and disclaimer led me to expect a full-on anti-Christian diatribe.  Instead I got one of the rawest, most moving sermons I've ever read.  I write it here in hopes that you'll be similarly moved this Good Friday, and in hopes that you'll buy some of Bud's poetry.

The poem is long, and there is some language, but I promise, it's worth it.

Street Sermon

(after hearing one too many preachers haranguing about hell-fire on granville street)

brothers and sisters    fellow low-life    listen    we are in luck    one 
guy at least    came just for us    a tremendous low-life    jesus    he 
didn't come down here    to this blood-stew    for no limousine 
riders    no bible thumpers    no hotshot angle-shooters    no
came down here    I believe it's the truth    for me and you    I 
mean    junkies    winos    hookers    cripples    crazies    thieves
welfare bums    and homeless freaks    lowest of the low    least of 

do your parents hate you?    your teachers hate you?    po-lice 
hate you?    your friends hate you?    you hate you?    you're 
really in luck    everybody hated jesus too    you got nowhere to 
live?   nowhere to go?    nowhere to hang your hat?    jesus said 
to a cat    'even the foxes of the field    and the birds of the air
got somewhere    to lay their weary ass down    but not me    oh 

do people scorn you?    put you down?    tell stories about what 
a problem    you are?    a judge told me    I was of no use to society
the president    of a university    told me I was trash and obscene
my own mother    god bless her    told me I was     the world's 
biggest asshole    but all that    just makes me eligible     to hook
up with jesus    who got nailed up    bleeding    sweating    balls-
naked    to a wooden cross    to take    all that bad bullshit   off my 

jesus tells you    not to hate your own self    which is easy to do
out here    running around like a fool    but just ask jesus    he'll
help you with that    'love yourself' he says    'so you can    love 
somebody as    unloved    and unlovable   as you been'

I mean    jesus didn't come all this way    go through all that
trouble    to send you and me to hell    no    maybe these other
soft successful    types    I don't know    but not you and me    bona 
fide losers    you and I know    this world    is all the hell    we're 
going to see    jesus came to cool us out    from this hell    right 
here    right now    for real    with love    not handcuffs    editorials
or plastic gloves

do you slash-up?    overdose?    drink lysol?  stick rigs in your 
arms?   or pull a knife on somebody else?  well    jesus is just for 
you    he was the world's    all-time    biggest    loser     the straight 
people    the priests    and judges    hated him because    he said
low-life scum    would get to heaven     before they did

and at the end    when jesus needed his friends    they all took off
on him    except for a hooker    named magdalen    but all his 
close friends    split    said 'no way I don't know him'    except for 
his friend judas    who    turned jesus in    to crimestoppers    his 
friends made him    take the rap    all alone    you know how that 
feels    and jesus     kept his mouth shut    when pontius pilate
the chief of police    wanted jesus to cop-out    with a plea

so if you feel misunderstood    nobody know how you feel    or
what you talking about    that's jesus too    he know about you
he been    through it     and don't you allow these    puffed-up
self-righteous    chumps     sell you no    goody-goody jesus    hell
no    jesus got pissed off plenty times

when jesus was    wandering around    no bus fare    all his 
buddies    kept saying    'what should we do?    what should we 
do?    we're scared'    jesus told them    'lay down your life for 
your friends    and if    your enemy    rip-off your coat    give him 
your shoes too     give up this     money-grubbing    power-tripping
fantasy-acting    ego bullshit    give it up    and you won't be 
scared no more'

but jesus got    hung up    between two thieves    just another 
criminal    and everybody thought so little    of jesus    was down
on him    so bad    they let    a mad terrorist bomber    go free
instead of him    but jesus told that thief    hanging on the cross
next door    like he telling you and me    'right now today    this 
very hour man    I take you with me    to paradise'    jesus told a 
death-row thief    he was going to take him    to paradise

jesus didn't tell    a stockbroker    didn't tell    a rock promoter
he told    the brokers and promoters    'you can't get to paradise
the way you going'    a young banker    came up to jesus    said
'I dig your rap    what I gotta do?'    and jesus told him     'give it 
up brother'    said    'give all your money to the poor    the punks
the drunks    the bums    give it up'    and that banker    did to 
jesus    what most people    do to you    when you got    your 
hand out    he just walked away    'anything but my sports car'

in his own hometown    they called jesus    a crazy motherfucker
I been called crazy    lots of time    in my hometown    locked up 
in the nuthouse to prove it    and jesus    his neighbours told him
'we know you boy    don't go pullin    none of them miracles
around here'    and tried    to grab his ass    but he ran fast   damn
but you know    what that's like

and if you think    you got trouble    just keeping your name
straight    jesus    confused many fools    with that    'are you god 
or what?'    they were always asking him    he said    'who do you 
say that I am?'    a smart-ass    jesus was always being told     'you 
can't do that    it's against the rules    it's against the law'    but 
jesus talking about    the spirit    body and soul    the whole deal
real    real life    not just    bingos    lotteries    and videos

and jesus believed    in having a good time    told those tight-ass 
bastards    his kingdom    was like a wedding reception    and first 
thing jesus did    was turn water into wine    so they wouldn't run 
out    and the authorities    called him    a drunkard    but jesus
just kept saying    'help each other    love each other    no matter 
what    it's the only thing    you can count on'

so     fellow low-life    just know    jesus loves you    if nobody else
does    I know he loves me    especially when I don't    love myself
or anybody else    it's hard to believe in love    in this cruel city   in 
this    nightmare time    that everybody else pretends    is just fine
but remember    no matter what kind    of nasty shit you pull
jesus loves you    in fact    you can't make jesus    not love you

but when you been    kicked around    since you were born    love 
is like    an insult    'oh we love you so much    we want to hurt you 
some more'    but not with jesus    when you suffering    real bad
just reach a hand    out of your    heart    and he'll help you make 
it    jesus has already    helped you make it    you just didn't know it.

and the gospel tell you    the gospel just    the highlights of a
low-life    jesus believed    in the devil too    the devil that runs 
around    in him    and her    and me    and you    and all over
everyplace else    seems like    jesus knew the devil personally but 
jesus didn't    go on and on    about some    therapy-self-help-
socialworker-shrink-headed-victim-disease-shit    jesus knew we 
couldn't be    this crazy    this miserable    this goddamned 
mean and vicious    without a lot of help    from the devil    so 
jesus    kick-boxed the devil    right out of people    jesus knows 
we're weak    and easily possessed    by all the crap    in this world
jesus    knows all this stuff

so the devil    came to see jesus    one on one    when jesus was
strung-out    from not eating    and hanging-out    in the desert
near kamloops    and the devil said    to jesus 'if you're such a 
bigshot   turn this stone    into a loaf of bread    and feed yourself'    
and jesus said    'forget you    I'd rather be    hungry    than do   
what you tell me to do'    did you ever do that?    refuse    and have 
people say    'you don't know    what's good for you?

then the devil    said to jesus    'look here    I show you    all the 
world  cars    drugs    power    sex    beer    in the    whole world    
I'll give you all that    just say you're mine'    but jesus    could not 
be bought    and the devil kept     working on him    the devil said    
'okay    you so stupid    jump off this cliff    and see if your big 
daddy save you   like you always    talking about'    jesus just 
laughed    he knew better

I haven't always known better though    those deals    the devil 
offered jesus    sound pretty good   to me    but I have been    
mostly fucked-up   in my life    so I ain't the best expert    on 
my own life  I do need help    so   all you    nuts    junkies    freaks
jesus is always    by your side    like a kind of   no bullshit    
truth-talking guide    always with you   but not     so close by    
he'll get on    your nerves

I mean a lot of times you think    he's not there at all    cause he
ain't doing    what you think   he ought to be     doing for you   but 
he's there    knowing what you need    better than you do   knowing
you    better than you do    just like    the devil do

but that's good    because everything    I know how to do   and 
everything    you know how to do    has got us both    right here   
probably broke    maybe on dope    no real hope    listening to a 
lunatic   like me    because neither of us    has figured out anything    
better to do    with the    mountain-moving love    jesus   has made us    
all    to be

(Bud Osborn)