The small church where I pastor, Grace Mennonite Church in Prince Albert, Sask., is probably not often accused of being “high church.”
A few weeks ago, the service began with a worship leader wandering distractedly between his seat and the pulpit, wondering out loud whether he should shed his tools before the service began. Finally, he left his wrench at his seat but blurted stoutly, “I’m keeping my pliers!” He is a much loved member, and the congregation was charmed.
Some time ago, I sat over coffee with my congregational chair to discuss future church directions. The chair offered to arrange resource people to bring us a “blanket exercise,” a creative method of opening our eyes and our awareness to the struggle of First Nation folks from the time settlers walked onto what we now call Canada. My input was to suggest that this exercise would be more than an educational event in the Sunday school area, but rather an experience of worship in the sanctuary. The pain of God’s people is everyone’s pain.
On that Sunday morning, I arrived early and moved pews to the sidelines. I discovered that church pews are heavy. My lower back sulked for days afterward. Then the presenters began appearing, and soon our sanctuary carpet was covered with colourful blankets. The only time I considered calling a halt to these goings-on was when a few Toronto Maple Leaf blankets appeared right in the worship space!
We had spent energy encouraging congregants to risk a different worship experience and needed to widen the circle to make room for more. We are not many, but everyone was encouraged to invite guests. It was a varied group, including a homeless fellow who stopped by in the hope of scoring a bite.
We were invited to step onto the blankets. One person donned a top hat to represent the political might that Indigenous folks have encountered at every turn. Another strapped on a collar and became the church. As the narrator began taking us through the historical experience that his people had endured—the diseases, the firewater, colonization, treaties, the schools—the power person swept among us, chasing some off blankets, forcing others to inhabit much smaller spaces. And always, the power person was followed mutely by the person representing the church, folding and removing blankets, and responding however the top-hatted person directed him.
Soon, there were few left standing. As the narrator drew the exercise to a close, it was already noon, high time for the potluck portion of the morning to proceed. We Mennonites don’t wait so graciously for our casserole!
But we were not yet done with the sanctuary space. Our leader suggested we go around in a talking circle, sharing our experience of the exercise. Tears were shared, stories were shared, including the homeless fellow, who grasped the microphone and told of hard chapters in his life of being a wanderer.
When my turn came, I could only express my remorse at the role of the church in this broken history, the church that took its orders and its plunder from the powers of the day, mixing colonizing with converting in some of the saddest chapters of that history.
We were an hour late before we could tuck into our repast. The only prayer of the morning was in Cree, asking for blessing on our food. Laughter rang out often. Phone numbers and addresses were shared. Folks hugged. And worship happened.
Ed Olfert (firstname.lastname@example.org) continues to find awe in every direction, even in the absence of casserole!