A choir starts to sing as we stand amidst the 70,000 people, waiting our turn to walk. “Oh happy day (oh happy day), oh happy day (oh happy day) when Jesus washed (when Jesus washed) my sins away (my sins away).” My heart wants to sing along. There’s hope in the words, a lightness and freedom my heart craves. But my heart is still heavy with the pain of what I’ve just heard.
150,000 children. One hundred and fifty thousand. Wrenched from their families and placed in residential schools where the mortality ranged from 40-60%. Forbidden to speak their own language. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, sexually abused. And all in the name of Jesus. The man who speaks has listened to 7000 of them tell their stories of pain, an echo of his own story.
My cheeks are wet with ache for those children turned adults who have carried their pain on into their own families, and for those who’ve wound up without families, living on the street. I hear someone mourn that a full 40% of the people who end up in our shelter program are aboriginals. It’s no wonder their numbers are so high on the streets, with this kind of pain flowing through their veins.
But even more than the stories maybe, even more than my imaginings of the anger and pain I would feel if my own nieces and nephews were taken from our family and taught to be ashamed of our language, our ways, of us, this one statement pierces me. I hadn’t known it was the victims who set aside $60,000,000 to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The “truth” part doesn’t surprise me. That they would need to tell their stories I understand. But the “reconciliation” part? That they would seek relationship with us again brings me to my knees. We who have decimated their lives, destroyed their families. . . why? And that the victims themselves would pay the full price to seek reconciliation with the perpetrators – it seems all backwards, all wrong. I want to do something, to repay somehow not only the first wrong but this second. It feels easier to repay than to receive.
His words still ring in my ears: “Truth to reconciliation is a difficult jump because in between there needs to be forgiveness.” I wonder which is harder, the offering of forgiveness to those who have caused such pain, or the receiving of the forgiveness offered?
An hour before, we had wiggled down between close wood pews to pray, trying to wedge our stiff bodies into a kneel. Why have we made it so hard to kneel? We should be flat on our faces at grace like this.
We had hoped in our schools to teach children gospel. With our ungentle ways, we broke them instead. Now I kneel, broken and grateful, learning gospel from them.
I watch them walk together, one a white man owning his place as a minister of the church, carrying around his neck the church’s shame and hope, history's horrors inflicted and the cruciform promise of forgiveness; the other a chief, his brother, wearing the symbols of which we tried to make him ashamed. Hands on each other's backs, fear and shame have both lost their power as they walk, brothers together.
What at first seemed the mournful tears of heaven soaking my sneakers and wetting my cheeks now feels like rivers washing us clean, a baptism of blessing.