New Agape aims at partnership with native people

By on March 1, 2002

At its meeting last summer, General Synod identified five priorities for the church over the next three years. In the next several months, the Journal will examine each of those areas.

THE NEW AGAPE, designated as a top priority by last summer’s General Synod, is a plan designed to create an Anglican indigenous church in Canada, and a commitment by the church to new and active partnership with indigenous people. What does it mean? In a nutshell, it means the Canadian Anglican world is about to change, even in communities where people believe there are no indigenous people around. And how will it happen? Information for parishes on how to implement Agape (ah-gah’-pay – the word is Greek for love) has been collected in binders that will be arriving on parish doorsteps in the spring. The binders will contain workshop themes, how-tos, ideas, community activity plans, worship suggestions, a list of resources and videos, and lists of speakers who can talk about indigenous issues. ‘Just recommending it’ Although quite radical in its intent, Agape is based on good will rather than a strict imperative. Nobody has to follow it. “We are just commending it to help build better relationships in this society of ours in Canada, through our church, to work at some new understandings. In that comes healing,” said Donna Bomberry, indigenous ministries coordinator for General Synod. Listed among the top priorities for the next three years by General Synod last July in Waterloo, Ont., the new relationship with indigenous people, according to the Agape preamble, is based on a partnership that focuses on the cultural, spiritual, social and economic independence of indigenous communities. It is designed to “help our church and its members work at justice and healing our relationships, to one day find a reconciliation between native and non-native Canadians,” Ms. Bomberry added. The link between Agape and residential schools is clear in the list of directions contained in Agape documents. “Efforts to heal the wounds caused to individuals and communities by the residential schools experience must be designed and led by indigenous peoples,” it states. The “binder project” will challenge parishes to find new ways to engage with native people. “In many ways we are asking them to join in a diocesan initiative to learn about their neighbours in a neighbouring reserve community or to link with neighbouring indigenous churches who may or may not be Anglican,” Ms. Bomberry said. She expects no overnight miracles, however. “It’s not a quick fix ? it took us generations to get where we are at and I am sure it will take generations to learn a new relationship.” Ms. Bomberry noted that her office has examples of what other communities have begun to do in other years. These were Anglican communities who in the past did not identify indigenous people among those they served. Edmonton singled out “Some are getting back to us and have now have identified five or six new parishes who are doing ministry with indigenous people within their community.” She singled out the diocese of Edmonton in particular. The diocesan executive officer, Michael Wimmer, said that two churches in the city of Edmonton were actively involved with indigenous people. “St. Faith’s has a significant number of indigenous people who participate in the life of the parish and have community suppers,” he said. “St. Stephens is more in the way of an outreach program. Its involvement with the inner-city pastoral ministry is ecumenical – Anglican, Lutheran and United and to some degree Roman Catholic.” Sometimes Agape happens when the incumbent has a special understanding of native people, as in Cold Lake, Alta., Mr. Wimmer noted. Rev. David Lehmann of St. John the Evangelist church in Cold Lake grew up in the Arctic and went to a school that was predominantly aboriginal. At Cold Lake for just two years, he said in an interview that his previous and also first parish was a multi-point parish in the Northwest Territories in predominantly native communities. “Sometimes I was the only non-native person in town at the time,” he said. “The elders trained me well.” When he left after five and a half years, Mr. Lehmann said that half the services were conducted in the local Slavey language. The church in Cold Lake faces different challenges and is in the midst of a “slow transition” into more outreach ministry, Mr. Lehmann said. Aware of presence Greater awareness of the needs of some of those local indigenous people with addiction problems came when part of the woodlot where the church sits was cleared to build a grotto. Parishioners (who include two aboriginal families and some Metis) found that the woods had become a drinking place for some natives. The liquor store was nearby. “That’s when we became more aware of their presence,” he said. Now, a third of the people who were hanging out in the woods are coming to church on Sunday. The process of getting them there has been anything but easy, and has required some delicacy. At first, they wanted to show up just for lunch following the service. The two aboriginal families who were part of the congregation serve to remind the other parishioners of the traditional native teachings, Mr. Lehmann added. St. John’s contributes to the local friendship center lunches, where there is now an addiction counselor on site. Since homelessness is not an issue in the community because “everyone has a home – they are here because the booze is here,” providing lunch is often a way to reach people. Many of the people hanging around outside the church and in the woods suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome, Mr. Lehmann added. Native people come in to the church to talk, tell stories and for prayer, he noted. This is Agape in Cold Lake, Alberta.

 

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