During a recent learning exchange at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto, eight Anglican priests and elders from the Cree Nation in the diocese of Saskatchewan shared with theology students what life and ministry are like on a reserve.
Most indigenous clergy working on reserves in northern Saskatchewan are unpaid and have to find other ways to support families and ministries, said National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, who helped welcome the Cree visitors. For seminary students “to see a priest who also runs a trapline is an extraordinary thing,” he added.
Over the course of their one-month visit in March, the visitors attended classes ranging from Old Testament theology to pastoral psychology, and learned about ministry and life in Toronto. The exchange made it possible for the lives of both sides to be “touched and changed,” said Bishop MacDonald.
After all, learning is “really a two-way street that builds confidence and trust, which is important to the ongoing mission of God in the church,” said the Rev. Wilfred Sanderson in an interview. Sanderson is a priest at St. Stephen/St. Luke, Fort La Corne.
“It’s all been very useful and we know that we can apply that to our ministry,” said the Rev. Beryl Whitecap of Little Red Reserve.
Gary Graber, a Wycliffe graduate and a director at James Settee School, where the Cree priests received their theological education, said Wycliffe students were astonished to learn about the vast distances priests travel to fulfill their ministry. It’s a six-hour truck drive to visit the sick in a hospital in Saskatoon, for instance. “It takes about four hours from my workplace to the parish,” noted Whitecap.
And in fact, demands on native priests are many. About two- thirds of the parishioners in the diocese of Saskatchewan are First Nations Cree who live primarily on reserves. At present, there are 23 Cree clergy and 20 Cree lay readers who minister to 26 Cree communities.
Theresa Halkett-who arrived with her husband, Archdeacon Adam Halkett of St. Joseph, Montreal Lake-told Wycliffe students what it’s like to be a lay reader and addiction counsellor on a reserve. “It’s been good to be here and to also be away from the busy world of Saskatchewan,” added Archdeacon Halkett, even as he had to fly home for a funeral and then come back to finish the program. “It’s been a great honour to be part of Wycliffe,” said the Rev. Whitecap, who sacrificed a month’s salary to attend.
“We’ve been blessed by their presence,” said the Rev. Canon George Sumner, Wycliffe principal. “It’s been helpful to us; it ties us in and reminds us of the wholeness of the body of Christ.” He expressed the hope that the “two-way education process” will continue.
For big city folks, this partnership helps clear “a lot of misunderstanding” and misconceptions about First Nations Anglicans, said Bishop MacDonald, adding that it’s important for the church to have “the understanding of the various gifts that different people give….”
Theological training for indigenous peoples is more successful when it takes place in home communities first, said Bishop MacDonald. “The idea is that theology is shaped by place.”
Also in attendance were the Rev. Canon Angus and his wife, Eliza Sewap, of Pelican Narrows, and Charles Whitecap of Little Red River Reserve. Ω