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That was not the word I was expecting to hear from a federal judge. I was attending a Call to the Bar ceremony for a colleague stepping into a role as our in-house legal counsel and privacy officer. An experienced lawyer stood and gave the judge an introduction to our colleague Maria Mach and to Wycliffe Bible Translators. Before the judge began her prepared comments, she paused to respond to what she’d heard.

“I’m not sure if ‘gobsmacked’ is the right word, but I’m going to use it. Given all the harm that the faith community has done to them, I’m gobsmacked that the First Nations would be coming to a Christian organization to help them with literacy and translation!”

The judge is right in implicating the faith community, of course. Mark MacDonald, National Indigenous Bishop for the Anglican Church, described it as an intentional strategy at the time: "The mission of the Church had been to suppress our cultures.” The results are heart-breaking on so many levels. A Plains Cree bishop told me, "Our generation is blaming the Church for losing their language and culture."

Doesn't that break your heart?

So you can imagine how an outsider would view our current work; the kind of cooperative effort we’re engaging in is stunning. To me, it just makes sense. Yes, the residential schools were cooperative efforts between government and Church. Both share blame. But the way I understand the Bible, believers should be first in line to repent, first in line to forgive, first in line to reconcile. Therefore the Church must lead with apology and honest attempts at addressing past wrongs. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called religious denominations to take action in educating on our tragic history and why apologies were necessary, in respecting indigenous culture and spirituality, in repudiating colonial thinking, and in actively seeking reconciliation.*

Having done that, an innovative collaboration can take place. The Cree have some interesting motivations to ask us for help.

In restoring their languages, the First Nations seek to reclaim their cultural identity and stem the tide of alcoholism, victimization and suicides. Oji-Cree teacher Zipporah Mamakwa longs for a change in the next generation:

"It is my belief as a language teacher that the language amongst our children brings a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, a sense of security and comfort. We don't feel whole without our language."

But that’s just the first step. Our Cree brothers and sisters believe their people need to understand how God views them. God wants to speak directly to every man, woman and child to show them they are created in His image, that He loves them, that He understands their pain and that He desires to redeem what has been broken and lost. That understanding doesn’t come because someone outside their culture tells them. It comes when they can hear God speaking their language. The Bible clothed in local language and culture is never an outsider.

These two strands come together powerfully to effect real change. A holistic program that blends literacy, language development, community development, health awareness and mother-tongue education together with the Bible in a language that speaks to the heart can be the catalyst for a whole new trajectory. Indigenous people groups can see themselves as God sees them. They can plan for a more hope-filled future. They can find healing from past hurts and injustice. Self esteem grows, as the people begin to use their own language. Quality of life and life expectancy increases. Children’s education and adult literacy reverse the sense of inadequacy and ignorance. Relationships in families improve.

Why shouldn’t the Church go first in atoning for past harm? Why shouldn’t the First Nations see in us a willingness to make amends and seek reconciliation? If we know the gospel and the lavish grace of our Saviour, we know that no sin is too great, and no wounds too deep for His healing touch. If we know the immense power of radical repentance, confession and forgiveness, we aren’t gobsmacked when God restores a path for the First Nations to work with a Christian organization like ours.

This is not Wycliffe’s story. It’s not even the First Nations’ story. It’s God’s story, and we’re privileged to play a part together in it.

Interested in learning more about Wycliffe's work among the Cree? Even better, you can participate through funding. Check out the Cree Initiative or contact me.

* Not familiar with the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action that specifically called out the faith community and church denominations? For an easy-to-read version, click here. Start with nos. 48, 49, 58, 59 and 60. CBC recently created an assessment of progress at Beyond94, and I was pleased to see that the Christians have gone first. The mainline churches responsible for so many of the residential schools are leading the way. The Kairos program, which we have invested heavily in, is also mentioned. But there's very little progress mentioned from evangelical denominations.

Roy Eyre is a student of leadership, design thinker, follower of Christ, husband and father. He has served as president of Wycliffe Canada since 2011. For more, see his full profile or read more of his President's Blog and leadership blog.


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