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In Canada, aboriginal pastors mix Christianity with Native spirituality

Aboriginal pastors are mixing faiths to help parishioners grapple with a legacy of mistreatment

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Inside a cramped, run-down loft in one of this city's poorest neighborhoods, Cheryl Bear Barnetson sits at a communal drum, leading a group of people in song.

The sharp beating of the drum grows louder and faster. She and the other aboriginal singers surrounding it begin to chant.

“Jeeee-sus, Jeeee-sus, Jeeee-sus …”

Although it doesn’t look like a typical house of worship, this place is a church. Bare brick walls surround small coffee tables and chairs. A large wooden cross is all that distinguishes the space from a 1920s speakeasy.

Barnetson is one of the pastors who minister here every Sunday night. Using traditional aboriginal practices, they share the gospel with the people who walk through the doors of Street Church. They all attend for their own reasons — some for religion, others for a free meal.

To the right of the stage, an aboriginal man plays a hand drum along with the congregation. After the song is finished, she says, “We’re all here for Jesus tonight.” The man abruptly stands, takes his drum and walks loudly down the creaking stairs, shouting profanities.

His reaction does not surprise Barnetson — she knows that churches once played a central role in suppressing and attacking aboriginal culture in Canada — nor is she concerned. As the man walks out the door alone, 50 or so people are lined up waiting to get in.

Cheryl Bear Barnetson (center right) addresses a drum circle.
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According to the 2001 census, 50 percent of aboriginal respondents in Canada highly value both traditional Native spirituality and Christianity. Barnetson is one of them. She practices a style of Christianity known as contextualization, which attaches biblical meaning to traditional ceremonies and practices. Her hand drum, for example, is used in Nadleh Whu-ten culture for clan songs and community ceremonies, but she plays it to share the story of Christ. She also integrates Christianity and Native spirituality on a larger level. Under her leadership, the Foursquare Church of Canada, a Pentecostal denomination, developed a ministry to target aboriginal worshippers. Street Church is part of that.

She traces contextualization to the 1990s, when a number of organizations in the U.S. began focusing on how aboriginal Christian leaders could incorporate traditional Native practices into modern church services. In 1996 a handful of these groups held the first World Christian Gathering of Indigenous People in New Zealand. The event came with a clear message: Many aboriginal and indigenous peoples around the world were choosing to be a part of evangelical churches, and they wanted their cultures to be accepted within them.

“It was really a neat time for me as a Native person,” Barnetson remembers. “For the first time in my life, I felt like I could be both Native and Christian at the same time and not feel like there was something bad about me.”

The relationship between aboriginals and the church has historically been a difficult one. She remembers an encounter that took place when she was a young adult. “One day I was going to school, and I had my backpack on,” she says. “I was walking out of our building in Native housing, and an elder stopped me and said, ‘Hey, you’re going to school! Good for you, what school you going to?”

Barnetson told him that she was going to Bible college. “Right away his face changed, and he said, ‘How could you go there after what they did to our people?’” She pauses. “That question hit me very deeply because I know what it means, and I get it.”

The elder was referring to the long and violent relationship between Christian churches and Canada’s indigenous peoples. For more than a century starting in the mid-1880s, the federal government partnered with the Catholic, Anglican, United, Presbyterian and Methodist churches to run more than 130 Indian residential schools. These were government-funded boarding schools that removed aboriginal children from their families and forced them to assimilate. Over 100,000 Native children attended these schools until the last one was closed in 1996. Tens of thousands of residential students were verbally, physically and sexually abused during this time. They were taught that traditional spirituality was evil, and many were given Christian names or forced to have their hair cut. 

Street Church is packed to the brim for a visiting aboriginal musician.
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In 2007, Canada established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as part of a court-ordered settlement to address the impact of residential schools. Among other things, the TRC provides former students an opportunity to share their experiences during national events. The last one was held in Vancouver in 2013, and Barnetson was in attendance. She describes hearing the elders’ stories of residential schools as a defining moment. “It was impossibly hard to listen. Hearing the stories from actual survivors gave me a bit of a spiritual crisis,” she says. Since then, she has been devoted to repairing the relationship between aboriginal people and the church.

In accordance with Native belief, Barnetson sees healing as both a physical and a spiritual endeavor. Epidemic levels of alcoholism, family violence and substance abuse plague many aboriginal communities in Canada. One way Barnetson helps members of her church work through their problems is with ceremonies such as smudging, in which sacred substances such as tobacco or sage are burned in an abalone shell and then inhaled. In many aboriginal cultures, smudging is used to cleanse the mind, body and soul. “We have all kinds of cleansing ceremonies,” she says, “and that’s basically what the Bible is about as well.” This approach offends some evangelical Christians, who contend that these ceremonies have nonbiblical, pagan roots. It also bothers some traditional spiritual practitioners, who fear the integrity of Native culture is at stake.

Daniel Justice, a Cherokee author and the chairman of the First Nations and indigenous studies program at the University of British Columbia, is very aware of the power of the church in aboriginal communities. In the 2001 Canadian census, more than 60 percent of aboriginals — almost 1 million people — identified as Christian. Almost 28 percent of those identified as Protestant-evangelical. This makes him especially wary of the role churches play in reconciliation efforts with aboriginal communities. He believes that new ministries devoted to bringing aboriginal people to Christianity often replicate old patterns of colonization. “Now evangelicals are coming back in to help heal people from the traumas of residential school,” he says, “which they and their predecessors visited upon communities.”

He also sees Barnetson’s style of Christianity as a form of cultural appropriation. “Too often it’s a superficial thing,” he says. “Sitting in a circle, passing around a talking stick or using an eagle feather — none of these are superficial in and of themselves, but when they’re completely dislocated from cultural and religious contexts that they are meaningful to, they just become props.”

Christina Dawson displays one of her treasured eagle feathers.
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Churches are not alone in using aboriginal practices for healing. In British Columbia, there are a number of substance abuse and trauma treatment centers that offer smudging and sharing circles alongside psychotherapy. Shelley Goforth, a manager with the Alberta Health Services’ aboriginal health program, believes that Western medicine often misses the spiritual dimension of healing that exists in many Native cultures. In an an academic review of healing programs, she wrote, “The key to healing from residential school abuse and its intergenerational effects lies in the area of reclaiming identity.” This, she elaborated, means “recovering traditional values, beliefs, philosophies, ideologies and approaches and adapting them to the needs of today."

An emphasis on traditional Native values was crucial to Christina Dawson, who struggled for many years with drug and alcohol abuse before finding religion.

She is a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth nation from Vancouver Island and has been attending Street Church as a congregant for more than 10 years. She remembers the moment of her conversion: She was at Church Street one night, lining up with her husband for a hot dog when a pastor kneeled beside her and she suddenly decided to make the decision. She says that the change has helped her deal with her substance problems and made her proud of her aboriginal heritage. Street Church’s use of Native spirituality was part of what helped her connect with the sermons and the community. “I was really surprised, ’cause the only time I’d ever seen regalia and hand drums was at potlatches and stuff like that,” she says. “But when I saw them bringing it into the church and using it for worship, it really touched my heart.”

She became an ordained minister last year and now works as an assistant pastor at Street Church. After Barnetson’s drum circle, Dawson finishes her Sunday sermon with a prayer and invites members of the audience to go up to the pulpit and share their stories with the congregation. One of the first people to stand is Hans Sanderson, a former residential school student from Manitoba. He tells the audience about his rough upbringing on his home reserve. “I started drinking at age 7,” he says. “When I worked with my uncles, they would force me to drink beer with them.” After the nuns saw how badly he and his sister were treated, the two were sent to the Guy Hill Residential School, where they encountered more abuse. He continued drinking and gambling for many years after that. When he started attending Street Church, he says, it finally affirmed his aboriginal identity. “Going to Street Church has really given me more insight as to who my people are. Before, I had never really talked about my people, about their culture and identity, about my identity as a Native person. It’s developed into something I know I want to be involved in.”

To Barnetson, Sanderson and Dawson are proof that her approach is working. “I think there’s been an attack on Native people for hundreds of years … this idea that being Native is not good,” she says. Barnetson sees her work now as “retelling the gospel” so aboriginals “don’t have to give up who we inherently are.” She pauses. “For Native people, that is the most important. I think that’s the key to healing.”

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