Settler folks in the United Church join in a partnership with a local Indigenous friendship centre to better learn to live into reconciliation in concrete, tangible ways.
Finally, the strawberry harvest is upon us. Succulent strawberries fill our farmer’s fields, making for delectable pies, jams, and other treats. In my yard, wild strawberries are sprouting up in unexpected places, delighting my young son as he tramples about.
In many Indigenous cultures, the wild or natural strawberry is known as the heart berry because of its shape. Practically speaking, the strawberry is a source of traditional food and medicine. Symbolically, it represents peace and forgiveness. Despite its small stature, this is a plant that carries big, powerful teachings. As Indigenous Elders explain, in the same way that the berry is part of an intricate system of leaves, stems, and roots, so the heart is part of the vastly complex organism of the human body. The heart is at the centre of what it means to be fully human.
The heart berry also evokes love and reconciliation. This humble fruit, in Indigenous teachings, inspires us to be connected to families and communities. It encourages us to move beyond ourselves and recognize our place in the grander scheme of things.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the theme of this year’s Barrie Powwow, held the first weekend in June, was “Honouring the Strawberry.” To the area churches who partnered with the Barrie Native Friendship Centre to host the hospitality tent, the theme was auspicious.
Our partnership with the centre first began about a year ago. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee at Burton Avenue United Church in Barrie, Ont., began gathering there for its meetings, at the invitation of a staff member. These gatherings gave us opportunities to meet with staff and to listen to their needs, challenges, and hopes. In the course of these conversations we agreed to care of hospitality for the dancers, drummers, and other performers at this year’s powwow—providing snacks, sandwiches, and hydrating drinks for about 600 people over a two-day period.
Quickly, other churches joined us, creating a small but mighty volunteer contingent in what was to become an ecumenical event. “Overwhelming contributions of hundreds of muffins, as well as financial and volunteer support seemed to flow from our local churches and UCW,” recalls Selene Taylor, one of my fellow committee members. Taylor also remembers a few moving moments: a neighbour of hers whom she hadn’t spoken to in the past approached her smiling, her children in full regalia, ready to dance, and extended a hug of welcome; a student, originally from Attawapiskat First Nation on James Bay, explained to her that he had learned to dance last year, and had chosen to pay tribute to his late grandfather by dancing for him; and Taylor herself participated in an intertribal dance for the first time, swinging her arms and moving her feet to the beat—even winning a CD for her efforts!
Five years after the conclusion of the Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission, settler folks in the United Church still struggle to know how to live into reconciliation in concrete, tangible ways. Finding our way into relationship is challenging but critical. The liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez asks: How do you work against poverty if you don’t know the name of one poor person? We could also ask: How do we work toward reconciliation as a church if we don’t know the name of one Indigenous person in our community?
In Christian teachings, reconciliation is sacred work. In Matthew 5:23–24, we learn that this work must take precedence: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
In Indigenous ways of knowing, too, relationships are central, connecting people to one another, to the Creator, to the land, to their ancestors, and to the future.
Our relationship with the Barrie Native Friendship Centre is in its beginnings, but it is already doing some small measure of healing. “I can feel the love here,” I heard one person remark as they came into the tent for a bite to eat. Another person explained that when she heard that it was the churches who were taking care of the hospitality tent, she didn’t know what to think. I suspect she wasn’t alone—my sense is that there were others who were hesitant to have church people present in such a visible way, given our history. But then she went on to say how much the gesture meant to her: “To think that church people would do this for us,” she said. To which another fellow committee member said, “It’s about time.”
It is about time. My hope is that this small, humble gesture of love and reconciliation will, with God’s grace, be the first of many more. As we feast on strawberries this season, let’s think about how we can open our hearts to the work of right relations.
— Julie McGonegal attends Burton Avenue United Church in Barrie, Ont., part of Lake Simcoe Treaty #16.