Reconciliation on the Front Lines
The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) has supported urban Indigenous ministry centers in Canada for more than 50 years. During the second day of the 2023 Canadian National Gathering, attendees spent an evening hearing from the directors of these centers as well as from a participant about what has been happening in their ministry and how the church can continue supporting them.
Edmonton Native Healing Centre (Edmonton, Alta.)
Harold Roscher is the director of the Edmonton Native Healing Centre. As a child of the Sixties Scoop, Roscher was raised by adoptive parents in an ethnically Dutch, CRC community. Roscher learned Dutch phrases and terms and attended Christian schools in his childhood. It wasn’t until he became an adult that he sensed God calling him to explore his Indigenous heritage and get involved in ministry.
At the age of 35, Roscher became a registered Indian with the government of Canada. He also began working at the Edmonton Native Healing Centre, a place that had helped him on his own journey to discover his Cree heritage.
“The journey has been really cool,” said Roscher, who feels blessed at being able to work at what he says is an amazing ministry. The center provides lunch on Mondays and Wednesdays, offers counseling, a collective kitchen, a foodbank, and more.
“You’ve heard some of the stories – about residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, and families being broken apart. I am so happy that this denomination has a ministry that allows me to be placed where I can be a balm of Gilead to people who come in the door – where I can take that hurt and pain and give it to God. The person in front of me might not be healed instantly, but it is the beginning of a journey,” he said.
Roscher also said that the journey of exploring his Indigenous identity has helped him learn to be a better witness of Jesus’ love. In the past, he said, he had served as an elder and as a deacon in his local church but had never shared the gospel with anyone. After recognizing his Indigenous identity, that has changed.
“I can and will share the love of Jesus with anyone because I now know who I am,” he said, adding that, having learned to be OK with who he is, he is now better able to walk alongside the Indigenous people who come through the doors of the Edmonton Native Healing Centre and are struggling with aspects of their own identity.
“Please continue to be prayer warriors for us as we minister to people who are broken,” he said. “Hopefully they see God in us and meet Jesus through how we work.”
Indigenous Family Centre (Winnipeg, Man.)
Shannon Perez said she sees similar things in her role as director of the Indigenous Family Centre (Winnipeg, Man.). During the panel discussion at the Canadian National Gathering, she read from Romans 12:6, which explains that “we all have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.”
“My gift is to be available, in whatever way that might mean, in regards to what I can do to help,” she said. “Sometimes all [that the visitors to the center] want is a listening ear. Sometimes they want updates, or help with filling out forms or faxing. It seems simple, but in the lives of these community members, simple acts of kindness and help go a long way.”
Perez is a member of the Sayisi Dene First Nation. She served as the CRC’s mobilizer for Indigenous Justice and Reconciliation for several years and as a key developer of the Hearts Exchanged program before becoming the Indigenous Family Center director in the past few years.
She said that her own experience as an Indigenous woman helps to inform her work. One experience in particular, she said, has been especially impactful. About a year ago, in a case of mistaken identity, Perez’s brother-in-law was killed by a couple of Indigenous youth while he was out for a walk one evening.
“As I sat in that courtroom on the day of sentencing, I couldn’t help thinking that three lives were taken that day,” she said. She also explained that she couldn’t blame the two shooters. They were the product of racist systems and policies in Canada. They had both been raised in the child welfare system, were failed by the education system, and struggled with addiction and alcohol abuse. Now, as criminals, they would be sent to prison for the next 20 years.
“Yes, they are violent men, but they were taught this,” she said. “I am able to sit with people every day who have been through similar situations.”
The experience made her wonder what justice should look like: Does it consist only of dispensing punishment for individual action, or does justice require larger, communal changes to systems?
“One way to turn toward justice,” she concluded, “is to be a safe, welcoming presence in the community.”
The Indigenous Family Centre offers residents of Winnipeg’s north side a kids camp, after-school programs, beading circles, worship times, sharing circles, and more.
Indigenous Christian Fellowship (Regina, Sask.)
Since 1993, Bert Adema has been encouraging Indigenous people to claim, develop, use, and celebrate their individual and cultural gifts. As director of Indigenous Christian Fellowship (ICF), he collaborates with Indigenous staff and community members to develop and deliver activities that serve the spiritual and social needs of Indigenous people in Regina.
“Our program is to help with all kinds of requests when people come in the door,” he said. “We are here to help people do better with their lives, and so we have for many years.”
Sometimes, he said, that means simply offering a space where people can hold a funeral or memorial service. In the surrounding community “we have a lot of deaths – too many deaths, and too many young people dying,” he said. “I have always aimed to provide hospitality [at such times] – even if sometimes all we do is provide the space.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, said Adema, hospitality called for making public bathrooms available to people who were houseless. ICF also regularly provides soup and bannock on Wednesdays, talking circles, smudging prayer gatherings, and family breakfasts.
Adema says he sees his role as a midwife or a coach as people strive to reclaim a healthy way of living. Sometimes this involves offering encouraging words, but it can also include reality checks and tough conversations.
“When you come to ICF, you are required to practice respect for the Creator, for others, for yourself, and for creation,” he said.
Adema added that he feels humbled and blessed to be able to serve in this role on behalf of the CRCNA. “One of my boasts at the ministry is that there are prayers being lifted up in Christ’s name for the work of the ministry day after day, and I thank you for that,” he said. ”
One Woman’s Story
Adema noted that it can be even more important to have an opportunity to hear from someone who has experienced the life of Indigenous Christian Fellowship. So he invited an ICF participant to share her story at the Canadian National Gathering.
Tiffany Keewatin is from the Peepeekisis Cree First Nation. (Keewatin’s cultural name is Spiritbird.)
“My life, at the beginning, wasn't all that good,” she said. “My family was dysfunctional. My mother was an alcoholic, and so was my father. Growing up in foster homes, I kind of picked up some traits from them. I also ran to alcohol when I was 13.”
In the midst of that, however, Keewatin was also exposed to Indigenous Christian Fellowship. She described it as a little, white house with green trim in north-central Regina that her mother would take her to for food, church, and other support.
“My mom tried so hard. She never gave up, and that,” said Keewatin, was a crucial example to follow.
Keewatin explained that her mother was a residential school survivor, and that the effects of that trauma continued throughout her life. “They took the parenting out of my mom,” she said. “They tried to take the Indian out of the child. They tried to break her spirit. But my mom was a strong survivor. She made it through. She never gave up.”
Despite trying hard to live a good life and provide for her children, Keewatin’s mother struggled with alcohol, and Keewatin and her siblings were forced into foster homes. In addition to taking up alcohol herself, Keewatin said, she became involved in crime in her teens and did some time in juvenile detention.
“There is one thing my mom taught me,” Keewatin repeated for emphasis, “and that was to never give up. I lost my own kids once to foster care, but I got them back within three months, and they never went back.”
Throughout all of her own challenges, Keewatin recalled, she witnessed her mother continuing to turn to ICF again and again. And that made her curious.
“I thought, ‘Oh, she’s going for food again, and we don’t need food in the house,’” said Keewatin. “So I started to go with her. She was going to prayer ceremonies in the mornings. My mom was dedicated to that place. She used to pay cab fare in the morning just to hear the Word of God and to smudge, so that she could be who she can be. And when I saw that, I thought to myself, ‘Hey, I can smudge here. I can be me. I can pray to God. I can pray to my Creator.”
Keewatin said that brought her to a turning point in her life. Today she is a mother of eight children and a grandmother of 13.
“I am actually proud of who I am. I can actually say that I have my kids, I have a home, I have a vehicle. I worked hard, I prayed, because of ICF,” she said. “If it wasn’t for that place, I don’t know where my family would be right now. I am so very grateful to Bert Adema and ICF for never giving up on me and my family.”
Keewatin added that ICF has also allowed her to be a role model to others.
“My siblings are still struggling, but they can see me. Tonight they are all sober. I got a hold of them, and I told them that Bert [Adema] asked me to talk here, and they said that if I was going to be talking, they would stay sober and they would pray,” she said. “And I’m very proud because they are watching me the way I watched my mom.”
Adema thanked Keewatin for sharing her story and thanked everyone in attendance for listening.
“The ministry in Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Regina is done in Christ’s name,” he said. “I just want you to know that what we heard [tonight] is what you make possible with your prayers, ministry shares, and support. The parable of the good Samaritan includes an innkeeper. We are the innkeepers. Thank you for your support. May it continue. And may you continue to be a blessing to the Indigenous communities through your prayers and support.”
To support these ministries, visit crcna.org/Indigenous/donate.