Pastor Sam Cooper and Meadowvale Community Christian Reformed Church in Mississauga, Ont., were honored at an event last fall for their continuing commitment to the Indigenous community on whose historic land they live and worship.
The award was presented to Cooper by the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation band councillor, Cathie Jamieson, as part of Heritage Mississauga’s The Credits awards evening Nov. 8, 2019. The gala is held each year to celebrate members of the Mississauga community for their contributions and achievements in community heritage.
As noted in the program for the event, the Mississaugas of the Credit Cultural and Heritage Award is sponsored by the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, and “is presented to a member from any community who has demonstrated a commitment to awareness and preservation of the Mississaugas of the Credit culture, traditions, community, and heritage.”
The church’s relationship with the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation has its roots in a 1994 church renewal movement in Mississauga, Ont., that saw pastors and church leaders coming together to learn about and bless their communities. In researching Mississauga, a community on the western side of the Greater Toronto Area, they discovered serious offenses against Indigenous peoples in the area’s history. They also learned that the city’s name had come from the local First Nation, the Mississaugas of the Credit.
The “credit” part of this name comes from the Credit River, a local waterway named for the Indigenous people who lived on its banks. Local traders and colonists referred to the people as “the good credit Indians” noting their integrity in business dealings.
Nevertheless, the Mississauga people were dispossessed of their land in 1847 and were moved to their current home, a reserve near Hagersville, Ont., over an hour’s drive from their primary village site at the mouth of the Credit River.
In the mid-1990s the Mississauga area pastors reached out to pastors of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and began to meet with them. In April 2000, Meadowvale Community CRC hosted a conference titled “The Road to Community Transformation,” culminating in a service of reconciliation in which churches in the Mississauga area identified and repented of past wrongs toward the Mississauga First Nations people.
Cooper noted, “Community CRC of Meadowvale understood this as a call to move beyond reconciliation into friendship, honoring, serving, and loving in an effort to receive the gift that the Mississaugas are. All we have ever found is grace among them. From the start, they have welcomed and befriended us. They opened their hearts to us. They are a remarkable people who recognize that they have been given a sacred trust by the Creator to steward this territory, and we are all blessed because of it.”
Since then, the church, led by several members committed to the reconciliation journey, has sought opportunities to be together with the Mississaugas, supporting and attending their public events, such as annual powwows and historic gatherings, and inviting the Mississaugas to events such as the community barbecue at the church.
Meadowvale Community has hosted the artwork of Indigenous painter Ovide Bighetty, and it welcomes Indigenous participation in worship services by inviting singers, dancers, storytellers, speakers, and drummers. They celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21 each year, and they commemorate missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls through the Red Dress Project.
Members of the congregation also attended a number of Truth and Reconciliation Commission events and initiated a community art project to acknowledge, remember, and grieve the pain caused by residential schools. Stenciled illustrations of moccasins on the church sidewalks and in a local park remind the congregation and community that others came before them. In addition, the church supports a YWAM ministry on the Peepeekisis Reserve in Saskatchewan and recently helped to return a small herd of buffalo to the reserve.
Because of the growing relationship between the congregation and the Mississaugas of the Credit, the church has twice been able to facilitate an invitation for a Mississauga chief to welcome Christian Reformed leaders to treaty lands — in 2012 at synod, held at Redeemer University, and in 2019 at a Council of Delegates meeting in the Burlington office of the CRCNA — and to invite delegates to acknowledge the traditional territory of the Mississaugas.
Just inside the entryway of Meadowvale Community CRC is a visible land acknowledgment to remind every person coming into the space that they are on treaty land.
Cooper said the relationship has taught him and members of Meadowvale Community CRC several things. “We have a deeper appreciation for land, for what it holds, for what it carries, for how it is to be stewarded,” he said.
Reflecting on the grace of the Mississauga people in their interactions, he said, “In their hospitality towards us, we have become more hospitable—a hospitality that is in this land and in the heart of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
He said he also sees the church growing in their understanding of the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. He wondered, “What if, when we as settlers had first come to these shores, we came asking, ‘What have you learned about the Creator?’ and sharing, ‘This is what we have learned of him and the Son he sent’?”
Cooper acknowledges that the distance between the city of Mississauga and the reserve where the Mississauga people live today can be a challenge in fostering their relationship. Despite this, there is a commitment to building the relationship.
This includes being a gracious host. “We never invite elders, singers, dancers, or drummers to our community without the gift of tobacco and financial remuneration. In providing honorariums, we actually honor and appreciate those who come,” said Cooper.
For other churches considering building a relationship with nearby First Nations people, he said, “This can not be rushed. This has been a long, slow process. This is about the journey, not about getting some place. . . . Be sincere, be present, be open, be teachable.” He added, “This is about an intentionality that allows friendship and community and love and joy to thrive among us, and trusting Jesus for whatever else may happen!”
Cooper and the members of Meadowvale Community CRC were surprised and moved to hear that they had been chosen by the band of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation to receive the 2019 award. Cooper accepted the award on behalf of himself and the church.
“On the following Sunday, we presented the award to the congregation,” he said. “We . . . knelt together, and thanked God with the words of Isaiah 26:12: ‘Lord . . . all that we have accomplished you have done for us.’”