Early in the evening of Sept. 19, soothing, live harp music greets local Anglicans and visitors who enter the doors of St. David’s, a small church in the Anglican diocese of New Westminster, located in the heart of East Village, a culturally diverse neighbourhood.
For the last four nights, St. David’s has welcomed participants of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) B.C. National Event, a gathering intended to record the experiences of former students of Indian residential schools and others affected by their legacy. From the late 19th century until the mid-1990s, about 150,000 aboriginal children were taken to federally funded schools intended to assimilate them into the dominant European culture in Canada. Anglican, Roman Catholic, United and Presbyterian churches operated these schools across Canada.
While at St. David’s, people gather for a eucharist, followed by a light supper of soup, bread, coffee or tea, fruit and cake-welcome nourishment after an often long and difficult day of hearing stories of pain, loneliness and anger shared by former students who suffered various forms of abuses in the schools.
St. David’s is not a “typical” Anglican church. The sign on its façade offers the first clue: it is a shared ministry with the Nisga’a Ts’amiks, a society that represents about 1,400 Nisga’a citizens from northwestern B.C.’s Nass Valley who reside in the Vancouver, Victoria and Nanaimo regions. Inside the church, one immediately notices that the tabernacle is in the shape of a Nisga’a mask with a large cross-a carving by a young, well-known Nisga’a artist, Mike Dangeli.
The shared ministry began four years ago when local Nisga’a community leaders approached St. David’s to see whether they could rent some space within the church. “Historically, most of them [Nisga’a people] have had a relationship with the Anglican church [and] it was their desire to strengthen their relationship with the church here in Vancouver,” said the Rev. Michael Batten, rector at St. David’s, in an interview with the Anglican Journal.
Like a number of Anglican parishes across the country, St. David’s is a small church that is “in some ways struggling and also trying to connect with our neighbourhood and our context,” said Batten. The parish embraced the offer from the Nisga’a community and since then, they have built a relationship that has grown to become “a pastoral relationship, not just a landlord-tenant relationship,” said Batten.
At least once a month, St. David’s uses the Qu’Appelle liturgy, one of the experimental liturgies leading up to the Book of Alternative Services, which has been adapted and translated into Nisga’a.
In keeping with the TRC event-where the voices of indigenous people are front and centre-St. David’s has used this unique liturgy since Sept. 16 and will continue to do so until the event ends on Saturday, Sept. 21.
At each service, a special collection is taken up and the money collected is given to the TRC to help pay for the meals offered to survivors.
Batten said that because of his parish’s strong connection with the Nisga’a community, as well as other indigenous communities in Vancouver, parishioners deemed it important to open the church’s doors each night this week.
The TRC event is being held at the Pacific National Exhibition, a ten-minute walk from St. David’s. “The event is happening in our parish and so we thought, ‘Well, we’re not a big parish; we can’t do a lot of logistical support, but we can pray,'” said Batten. The parish also invited other parishes across the diocese to engage with them about what is happening at the TRC event.
Many of the diocese’s clergy are involved as volunteers at the TRC event, Batten said, but it’s harder for lay people because they’re at work during the day. “This is a way, at least, to encourage people to be aware of what’s happening and to pray, which is important to do,” he said. As his relationship with indigenous people has deepened, Batten said he has been impressed to see how in indigenous communities, “everything is surrounded and sustained by prayer; prayer is absolutely essential to every day life.”
It is this prayer-centred life that Batten said he wants people to experience and to learn that “even though we don’t have a lot in the way of physical or financial resources, we have spiritual resources that we can draw on, and that can be just as important in sustaining the work that’s happening here.”
Asked what his experience has been like at the TRC event, Batten said, “It’s been draining and I think a lot of people have experienced that.” It’s always difficult, he said, “no matter how many times you have heard the stories of what happened at residential schools-it is painful to hear them again.”
But, Batten said, it is important to hear them. “Whenever someone tells you what happened-they’re telling you for the first time and they’re taking that risk of making themselves vulnerable to share with you the pain that they experienced…and have often carried around with them for many, many years,” he said. “It’s painful to receive that, but I have always felt when somebody honours me with that story that that’s a sign of respect and a challenge to me to change something about myself and to encourage my own attitudes to change.”
At the Sept. 19 service, which Batten celebrated with Archdeacon Ellen Clark King, priest associate at Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, he wore a black, red and white Nisga’a button blanket. A Christmas gift, it had been given to him by the Nisga’a community at a Christmas Eve service that saw the cozy church with creaky wood floors packed to the rafters.
Batten has had no formal instruction in Nisga’a, but he offers greetings in Nisga’a and now feels very comfortable using the Nisga’a liturgy. He has received gracious encouragement from the elders.
Although the liturgy is not used very much outside Nisga’a communities, Batten said he knows it carries a deep meaning.
“It’s a very powerful symbol. Churches were part of an effort to wipe out that language and every indigenous language in the country, so it’s very important that we find an opportunity to speak and hear those languages in our worship,” he said.
“Maybe there are only 20 people in church, but we’ll do it- we’ll use these words publicly and celebrate that this is a living language, not a historic language, and by doing that, we are here celebrating the resilience of indigenous cultures and languages in this country.”