The relationship between culture and faith is intimate and difficult to describe. But understanding that relationship is the first step towards building bridges between culture and faith traditions.
At the annual Building Bridges event on March 16, 2012, 150 people gathered to hear Sister Eva Solomon, Father Francois Paradis and Brander “Standing Bear” McDonald reflect with word and song upon their experiences with that relationship. The event, hosted by Mennonite Church Canada and MC Manitoba at Thunderbird House, Winnipeg, launched the annual Spring Partnership Circle meetings between aboriginal and non-aboriginal church communities.
McDonald, a singer/songwriter of Cree and Scottish descent, grew up in British Columbia feeling conflicted about his mixed background. For a number of years, the current indigenous relations coordinator for MC B.C. worked with Sto:lo First Nations people who had survived residential school experiences. He heard a great deal about Christianity from survivors and discovered something important about their faith. “They [already] had a spiritual system that was forced underground,” he said. “That was a lot like the early church.”
As an institution working with First Nations communities, McDonald said the church “went sideways.” He has since developed his own approach to thinking about culture and faith. “How does my native worldview fit with Christ?” he asked.
Eva Solomon, an Ojibwa and a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., also pointed to the early church for examples of the struggle between culture and faith. “Jesus grew up within a Jewish culture,” she said. “He saw economic, political and religious wrongs and challenged them. The first conflict that came [to the early church] had to do with conflict of culture.” She noted Peter’s struggle with foods that were considered unclean in the Jewish tradition—but not from a Christian perspective—and the argument about whether or not gentiles in the church should be circumcised as Jews were.
Solomon’s father struggled for years with the differences between Western European church culture and his Anishnabe understanding of the Creator and worship. She said that he left the church and eventually began to share the story of Jesus through the lens of his own culture.
As a child going to school in her village, Solomon said she was called a “dirty Indian” by a classmate. She asked her mother why someone would say that. Her mother’s response was simple: They did it because they had not yet had the opportunity to learn otherwise.
For people of different cultures and faiths to truly recognize and appreciate one another, they must be willing to learn from each other. “That makes us brothers and sisters,” Solomon said.
As a missionary oblate of Mary Immaculate and an ordained pastor, Paradis faced his own inner conflict. He left seminary studies full of knowledge and religious rules—only to arrive in the community he was to pastor and discover a sweat lodge. He said he knew it was his calling to find a bridge between culture and faith, but it wasn’t an easy calling. “There was a deep fear,” he recalled. “Am I being unfaithful to what the church is teaching, and even more important, as a pastor am I leading people astray?”
Paradis, like McDonald and Solomon, determined that there was a necessary process to an encounter between cultures. “I have to bring me,” he said. “I have to bring my faith. . . . As you encounter [another culture or faith], you must allow yourself to be open and learn from the other party.”
Paradis encourages that kind of learning between First Nations and the non-aboriginal church through Returning to Spirit, his full-time ministry in Winnipeg that focuses on reconciling the Indian residential school legacy in Canada.
Although Jesus is clearly central to the Christian faith, no one people or culture can claim the absolute truth, Paradis said, explaining, “We each have one vision of it, but it isn’t the whole truth. I believe that God has spoken to all nations from the beginning.”