In September 2018 Sarah MacGregor and Martha Wood attended the Minority Youth Forum in Hokkaido, Japan, hosted by the Center for Minority Issues and Mission (CMIM). The 2018 Forum focused on the history, injustices, and challenges that affect the indigenous Ainu people of northern Japan, as well as other indigenous peoples around the world. 

Irankarapte is a greeting of the Indigenous people of Japan, the Ainu people. This term translates to “Allow me to softly touch your heart.” This greeting perfectly sums up our experience at the Minority Youth Forum, “Finding the Kairos in Reconciliation,” held in Sapporo, Japan. Throughout this journey to Japan, we discovered many things that touched our hearts significantly. Every day was a new experience and opportunity to learn new things — from the hospitality we received, to the connection to nature we experienced, to the artwork that we had the pleasure of seeing and learning to create, to the conversations with people from other cultures.   

“Allow me to softly touch your heart.” 

Such impactful words. We experienced this beginning with worship on the very first night of the conference. We were moved by how easily the group built community and engaged with reconciliation and learning more about the Ainu culture. As non-Indigenous people representing Canada at an international conference, we were wary of our role in these important conversations — especially at a conference focused on minority issues when in Canada we are part of the majority.

But these conversations are important and we were amazed by the similarities and differences between different cultures around the world. We learned about the Indigenous people of Taiwan and the colonization that occurred there. We learned about how the Ainu have experienced the impact of the language being lost and territory and traditional practices being affected due to the industrialization of land. We learned from other non-Indigenous people who were learning about Indigenous cultures for the first time, as well as from non-Indigenous people who were there to learn more. The group learned about Canada through a presentation of the Kairos Blanket exercise. These conversations are key to reconciliation and building community. We shared what we know.   

We all came from such different places, and yet share so many things in common, such as how we live our lives as Christians. Camp experiences and student church groups on campus are some of the things that connected us. We realized that most of us were enthusiastic about living out our faith and learning to be the church. It was powerful to be with other young people who are active in the church. It was impactful to learn about the challenges those who are in the minority face through their lens. As people who are not a minority in Canada, it was a new experience to be in an environment where we spoke a different language, looked different, had different customs, and belonged to the minority. The lessons we learned at this conference have taught us to listen carefully to conversations about minority issues and act as an ally. 

The Two Fish and Five Loaves  

Through these commonalities, we shared stories of ourselves. During the first worship we reflected on the scripture of two fish and five loaves feeding thousands. This theme of sharing what you have was reoccurring. Whether it was a participant reaching out and sharing hand actions for communication as there was a language barrier, sharing fellowship during delicious meals, or sharing the joys and challenges of our lives in the circle. Sharing continued when an earthquake hit! Having never experienced an earthquake before, we were thankful for the knowledge and warmth that was shared during this new experience. We were also thankful to the nearby church who provided us with a meal when we had none because of the earthquake. 

Some final thoughts from us individually: 

Sarah: It is easy to say that my experience in Sapporo softly touched my heart. I was touched by learning about the Ainu people and their experiences. I am thankful for the opportunity to meet amazing people from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan and hope that they too were touched by this experience. I hold a lot of gratitude for the opportunity to learn more about what it means as a non-Indigenous ally and for People in Partnership in The United Church of Canada and the Centre for Minority Issues and Mission for believing in the importance of these conversations. It was powerful to learn, see, eat, pray, and share throughout this youth forum. It has helped me to expand my understanding of who I am and how to continue to walk towards reconciliation. I have learned that the greeting of Irankarapte, “Allow me to softly touch your heart” incorporates the root of reconciliation of beginning conversations to build right relations with one another. 

Martha: The connection between the Ainu people and the Indigenous peoples of Canada really hit home for me when our group took a field trip to the Ainu museum, where we saw a collection of artifacts from the Ainu people. The clothing, tools, buildings, lifestyle, and culture parallel that of the Indigenous peoples of Canada, specifically those on the west coast in British Columbia. My eyes have been opened to how much humans share around the world. Before travelling to Japan to learn about the Ainu people I never thought about how closely these two groups of Indigenous peoples would be connected. I have forever been impacted by the Ainu people, their culture, and history. As a history teacher I will incorporate what I have learned about the Ainu people into my teachings of world history and of Indigenous peoples around the world.

— Sarah MacGregor and Martha Wood

Sarah MacGregor is a member of Brucefield Community United Church, just north of London, Ontario. She has been involved in youth initiatives at various levels of the church, such as a GC43 commissioner, a program coordinator with GO Project, an employee of Camp Menesetung, and a guest at the All Native Circle Spiritual Gathering. Sarah is available for speaking Huron County and North Bay, Ontario. 

Martha Wood is a member of Bracebridge United Church. She was also part of a 2017 Toronto Conference delegation visiting the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea, and as a steward at the 2017 General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches in Leipzig. Martha is available for speaking in Bracebridge, Ontario (Shining Waters Regional Council).

Does this blog pique your interest to participate in people-to-people opportunities with global partners? We invite you to find out more at the People in Partnership webpage or by pip [at] united-church.ca (emailing us).