This column first appeared in the June issue of the Anglican Journal.
On April 23, 2014, near his home on Siksika First Nation, we laid to rest my adopted brother and friend, the Rev. Mervin Natowohki (“Holy Water”) Wolfleg. Even in his long illness, he continued to be courageous, loving, humorous and connected. Even in the sadness of his passing, the many unique qualities of his leadership and fellowship were present, but some things stood out with special clarity and strength.
Even if you have never heard of Mervin, you have been touched by his work. He was the artist who created the symbol of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples. Other aspects of his ministry are not as well known, though they had deep and broad influence. Merv was a trailblazer. Long before it became widely acceptable, he advocated a gospel welcome to indigenous culture and practices. Many now accept the possibility that indigenous symbols, ideas and ideals can serve within the framework of a rigorous and dedicated Christian discipleship. That was not true when Mervin started his work.
He was way out in front on many issues-political advocacy, spirituality and indigenous identity, in particular-but he never seemed to be apart from the rest of us. He always wrapped his very firm stances with friendship, humour and humility. He was a leader, but never seemed to be a leader in a stand-in-front sense. It was always the type of leadership that typifies the very best of indigenous elders: leadership within the circle. When he spoke, it was with the authority of a friend and brother, not of an office or position.
Mervin brought the presence of his family and nation with him-he loved them deeply, but he invited us all to be a part of that love, helping us to see that by loving family in a good way we become relatives to others-including the rest of creation. While Western institutions are often uncomfortable with indigenous ways, he would insist that they made sense and received fulfillment in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He was, in all things, a believer-a believer who made the church look good to those who had long ago given up on it. Having suffered in the residential schools, he spoke with courage about his experience, without losing compassion for others, even those who hurt him. In his 67 years, he had his own ups and downs, but his experience appeared to give him admirable humour, humility and hope.
We will miss Mervin greatly, but his influence and example will be with us as we go forward. I will eagerly pray and look for his anointing to fall on some of us who have been left behind. Blessed rest, my brother.
Bishop Mark MacDonald is national indigenous bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada.