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CRCNA Joins with Act Five Program

December 8, 2021
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With the help of Cindy Stover, a Christian Reformed Church in North America justice mobilizer, a group of students who are part of the Act Five gap-year program in Hamilton, Ont., had a chance in early November to visit several sites and meet with Indigenous leaders in Ontario.

Several of the students appreciated the experience and what they were able to learn.

“I personally was amazed by the posture of respect that is evident in Indigenous culture,” said Emily Eising, one of the students. 

“It was inspiring to hear about people who truly respect the land, animals, and each other. Their care to leave an abundance for future generations felt so contrasting from how Western culture lives today. It felt both motivating and uncomfortable; I loved it.”

As part of the Justice and Reconciliation Team within the Canadian ministries of the CRCNA, Stover’s role as a justice mobilizer is to support congregations and groups as they engage in justice learning and action. She said it was a natural fit to connect with Act Five, which is affiliated with Redeemer University. In 2020 she and Jon Berends, founder and director of the program, met and began planning how to support the students in their learning about Indigenous culture and advocacy. 

“We realized this was a great opportunity to introduce young people to reconciliation work, to help them rethink stereotypes or myths they might have about Canada’s history with Indigenous peoples, and to have firsthand experiences learning about First Nations communities,” said Stover.

The CRCNA in Canada includes Indigenous Ministries, which offers several resources for people seeking to learn more about and to engage with Indigenous peoples and their culture.

Using some of these resources as well as others developed specifically for the program, Stover helped Act Five to outline a three-week course that, among other things, had the goal of inviting “students into opportunities to listen to stories and learn from Indigenous community members in and around Hamilton, [people from] Six Nations of the Grand River, as well as [people] on Manitoulin Island,” says an Act Five paper describing the course.

“It was so valuable to work with youth and help them to learn about intercultural ministry at a young age,” said Stover.

Act Five is a gap-year program for participants who have graduated from high school and want to wait a year or so until they attend college or university. Students live together during the program in a house near downtown Hamilton.

Students have a wide range of experiences over the eight months of the program, which includes the ability to earn credits from Redeemer, located in nearby Ancaster, Ont. The goal is to invite them to learn and grow in areas that they might like to pursue further when they attend college.

As part of the gap-year program, except when COVID-19 restrictions are in place, students travel on three wilderness trips, spend time abroad, visit and learn on the Six Nations reserve, and serve in various placements across the city of Hamilton. 

At the heart of the program is seeking the will and wisdom of God as young people search for what the future might hold for them.

“We want our students to develop an enriched imagination for the kingdom of God and for them to see how this imagination is both shaped by and necessarily translates into how we live our days in our current context,” said Berends.

“As Christians, learning the story and discerning a faithful participation in reconciliation work is part of what needs to be considered. . . . We also want to reengage our students in their places, in their relationship with cities, neighborhoods, the wilderness, and the land.”

Doing this, he added, leads to engaging with Indigenous communities in a range of instances and circumstances “to learn about but also to learn from them — given that Indigenous culture has maintained an understanding of how our identity is connected to the land in ways that many of us in settler communities have lost.”

Berends said that when he and Stover connected, they began talking about their two roles and ministries and discovered that each had a deep interest in faith-filled education for young adults.

“Realizing the CRC connection, it was an obvious fit, given Redeemer's Reformed roots, for us to work together,” said Berends.

Stover offered Act Five various connections to Indigenous ministries through her work in mobilizing communities to seek justice and reconciliation. Meanwhile, said Berends, “Act Five was able to provide a good spot for Cindy to be able to try new modes of engagement because we are small and young in a way that provides a lot of grace to try new things.”

Both agreed to develop the three-week program that focused on connecting with and learning from Indigenous people and leaders — as learning directly from those with lived experience has been an important aspect of the Act Five program during the three years of its existence.

“We wanted the voices of Indigenous people to lead us. . . . Cindy and I agree on much of our goals with this work, so the work has flowed with relative ease,” said Berends.

This year, in addition to readings, activities, and viewing films, the students participated in the KAIROS Blanket Exercise and the Mapping the Ground We Stand On exercise, both of which invite participants to criss-cross blankets or a map of Canada as they listen to and learn about the history of European colonization and the subjugation of Indigenous peoples, which took place over centuries. “These were significant interactive practices for our students,” said Berends. 

In the first week of the program, the students also learned from Bernadette Arthur, a former CRCNA Race Relations staff member and founder of Co: Culture Collective, about ways in which the church has acted in the past toward Indigenous peoples and how it can today assist Indigenous peoples in seeking justice for themselves and their communities. 

As part of the program, said Berends, they spent a morning at a replica longhouse on the Six Nations Reserve that is geared to teaching about Indigenous culture, history, spirituality, and relationships to the land.

They also visited the nearby Mohawk Institute, the oldest residential school for Indigenous children in Canada, which ran from 1831-1970. It is now a museum and cultural center. 

Finally, they visited Manitoulin Island, situated in Lake Huron, and spent time learning about DayStar, a ministry that builds relationships with the First Nations communities on Manitoulin, for which Resonate Global missionaries Anthony and Barbara Pennings, among others, serve.

During their time on Manitoulin, said Stover, they heard stories from members of the Wiikwemkoong and M’Chigeeng First Nations, learned more about the land and culture, and participated in some crafting workshops. They also were able to hear from the Daystar team about how to build and navigate relationships of respect between settlers and Indigenous peoples.

“Through all of these things,” said Berends, “we sought to include listening circles and as many Indigenous voices as possible. Given the deeply broken history between us, this is an important practice for us.”

While connecting with the First Nations on Manitoulin Island, said Stover, “we had the chance to learn about the struggles and the resilience of Indigenous people. Our hope is that through Act Five students can be reflective and curious and gain a greater sense of what their calling is as well as to get a sense of God’s mission for their lives.”

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were limitations to what the participants were able to do and whom they could talk to. “But,” said Berends, “we are hopeful that this aspect — learning about and from Indigenous peoples — can only grow, including what we do together with the CRCNA.” 

Stover said she is grateful for the connections the CRCNA has made with Act Five and hopes that what they do together can expand. “We will have more opportunities in doing justice work by being connected to Act Five.”

Emily Eising said she especially appreciated the three weeks of learning about Indigenous culture. But it also challenged her, she said. Earlier, she thought she knew a fair amount about both Indigenous culture and the struggles of generational trauma, “but listening face to face to Indigenous people tell their stories made it all the more real to me,” she said. 

“There were times during blanket exercises, residential school visits, lessons, and films when I felt heartbroken and hopeless. 

“However, there were also so many times during teachings when I felt really excited that there are so many people willing to teach us about their beautiful culture. Some shared with us the ways in which they themselves and their families are healing. It was beautiful. I feel grateful for these opportunities and excited to keep learning.”