With his soft-spoken ways and easy smile, it is hardly surprising that Canon Laverne Jacobs’ quiet, pastoral presence is what strikes those who meet him for the first time.
But this calm demeanour belies an intense passion for what friends and colleagues have described as his “trailblazing” work for indigenous ministries in not one, but two church denominations.
On April 18, bishops, clergy and staff from the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada gathered at St. Mark’s Anglican Church in London, Ont., to celebrate Jacobs’ 35-year ministry as a priest, a member of General Synod staff, and as an elder. (Also honoured on the same day was the ministry of St. Mark’s rector, the Rev. David Norton.)
“Much of the foundation of our work today was laid by the careful preparation that Laverne made during his time on the staff of General Synod,” said National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald. “When people look back on this time, Laverne and his work will be seen for what it was and is: faithful, visionary, and courageous.”
Canon Jacobs, 68, served at the Anglican church’s national office for nine years (1987 to 1996), as staff person for the Council on Native Ministries (precursor to the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples) and later, as native ministries co-ordinator. He left to go back as priest in his home community at Walpole Island, an Indian reserve situated between the province of Ontario and the U.S. state of Michigan. Six years later, he joined the United Church’s national office, becoming its first native ministries co-ordinator.
Donna Bomberry, who worked with Canon Jacobs at the council and later succeeded him, describes him as “the greatest teacher and guide.” Bomberry said that she learned a lot from Jacobs’ “style of consulting,” and the way he set a time and place for aboriginal people “to be consulted, to express themselves…to give voice to their concerns, to their issues and needs.”
Teresa Mandricks, program associate at the Anglican church’s indigenous ministries department, has known Canon Jacobs for more than 20 years. Mandricks says he is a man who “brings out the best in people” and who puts emphasis on “dignity, decency, courage and integrity.”
Baptized and raised in the United Church, Canon Jacobs recalls that it had been “a difficult choice” to leave and become an Anglican priest in 1975. But his mother had told him, “You have to do what you are called to do.” She later revealed that an aunt who had since passed away once prayed for him to be raised up as an Anglican priest.
What attracted him to Anglicanism was its devotional life and liturgy, Canon Jacobs says. Still, it took him a while to realize what he was really called to do.
Canon Jacobs has written a lot about his struggles as a native youth who grew up in the 1950s and 60s ashamed of his culture, and as a native priest whose spiritual formation was shaped by Western theology. Fresh out of Huron Theological College, he embraced the Christian traditions and dismissed native traditions and spirituality as “inherently evil and pagan.” But after “a long and painful journey” and with the help of other priests and elders, Canon Jacobs realized that the native spirituality that he feared, in fact, helped to sustain him.
“I think it’s a journey that every person needs to go through, particularly First Nations people,” says Canon Jacobs. “Who am I? Sometimes we don’t wrestle with that question early in life. Sometimes that comes later, or with different circumstances in life…I was quite content with who I was coming out of seminary, and then you realize that you’re not [who you think you are]….”
Canon Jacobs says that he celebrates that native people “are becoming much more confident and are more determined to become who the Creator has called them to be.” He recalls as one of the highlights of his time with the Anglican church the first Sacred Circle gathering in 1989. Native Anglicans had largely felt isolated, but when they got together, “they found out that they weren’t alone and that the struggles they were going through were shared by many others,” he says. “It was a Pentecostal moment.” Subsequent gatherings would later lead to the forging of a new covenant, where the Anglican church expressed its commitment to the self-determination of indigenous peoples in all aspects of their lives.
He acknowledges that while much has changed in terms of native and non-native relations, “there’s still work to be done in right relations.” For native people, “there’s still the issue of trust,” he says. “The dominant society probably doesn’t feel that it needs to [do more], that everything’s fine.”
These days, Canon Jacobs divides his time working part-time as elder for the United Church’s Aboriginal Ministries Council and as “priest-on-call” at both United and Anglican churches in Walpole Island. When the regular priests are away and there are pastoral situations that arise, he responds. Otherwise, “I simply attend and play the organ at both churches,” he says with a smile. Ω