Regional churches of Mennonite Church Canada call for prayer

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As rallies and protests continue across the United States and Canada in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, the five regional churches of Mennonite Church Canada released a statement yesterday asking congregations to set a specific time of prayer this coming Sunday, June 7.

The statement asks congregations “to join our sister churches in Mennonite Church USA as they lament the injustice and violence suffered by people of colour in the U.S.”

It is signed by the executive staff group of MC Canada, a group made up of the head of each regional church as well as Doug Klassen, MC Canada’s executive minister. 

“This nationwide call to prayer is a call for the church to boldly stand against racism that rips apart the social fabric of both of our countries,” the statement says. “As a church, we speak for a God who made all persons in the image of the Creator’s likeness. We are called to raise our voices and prayers and denounce the evil that racism inflicts upon our fellow human beings.

“In our regional churches across Mennonite Church Canada, many of our congregations are made up of people of colour. We stand in solidarity with them during this troubling time and choose to confront the ugly underbelly of racism among us. We recognize that many of us within the church are not fully aware of our complicity in systemic racism. We ask that those in the dominant culture acknowledge white privilege and what are feeble efforts to support brothers and sisters of colour in the church and in larger society. As we confess our sin, may God grant us courage, wisdom and boldness to speak truth both to ourselves and to those in power.

“We share the words of Glen Guyton, executive director of Mennonite Church USA: ‘I am calling on all MC USA congregations to have a time of prayer on Sunday, June 7, to lament the violence, pain and injustice that is plaguing our country. I ask that you pray for compassionate and wise leadership for our country during this time. … The violence and unrest that is happening now is not an accident; it is what the system is designed to do, and it jeopardizes all of us, not just people of color. Stand with the marginalized in your communities. If you have the power of privilege, use it as a shield to protect people of color who don’t have it. Use your voice and your power to prompt action from local government officials. Create spaces for reconciliation, healing and hope.’

“As people of God’s peace, please join in prayer this Sunday, June 7. Pray for God’s peace and justice in our communities, for an end to discrimination and violence, the championing of human rights, just political leadership, the humility to confess our individual and social sins and a willingness to repent and to boldly embrace the peace of Jesus Christ. Pray that the Holy Spirit might heal and renew our personal lives, the church, and the social fabric of our two countries. Please use the worship and prayer resources listed here and share your own with your congregation.”

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Canadian Mennonite staff posted a news article on June 4, 2020 in conjunction with Mennonite Church USA, inviting the regional churches of Mennonite Church Canada to a day of prayer against racism, stating that “as rallies and protests continue across the United States and Canada in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers,” congregants should set aside June 7, 2020 as a day of prayer in order to “boldly stand against racism that rips apart the social fabric of both our countries,” and to pray for an “end to discrimination and violence, (for) the championing of human rights, just political leadership, the humility to confess our individual and social sins and a willingness to repent and to boldly embrace the peace of Jesus Christ.”

The CM call for a day of prayer primarily targets those “racists” in the USA, somewhat removed from the churches of southern Manitoba, where the “people of colour” are less represented in our pews on a given Sunday morning. Not many black, or African American, or people of colour in my community. Perhaps more Indigenous folks than African American, however there seem to be few Indigenous folks in our pews on a Sunday morning.

As a southern Manitoba Mennonite Canadian, I think that a “day of prayer” could be a useful action, however the context of the call in response to racism against African Americans/Canadians is less specific to my immediate environment than say the relationships we have or don’t have with Canadian Indigenous groups. It is with Indigenous peoples that western Canadian Mennonites have a long (since 1873) and not so positive history.

The people of colour that I mostly am connected to are Indigenous folks, Anishinaabe, Cree, and Dakota, yet MC Canada’s call for a day of prayer is largely silent on including Indigenous folks in our opposition to the perils of racism. Racism becomes generic, large and distant, over in some other country, less applicable to my own situation here in Manitoba, Canada, where there are few efforts being made, few calls to “march for Indigenous rights,” and no calls from Mennonite Church Canada for a day of prayer to stop racism of white Mennonites against the Indigenous peoples of this land.

I think it is useful to be at least somewhat informed as to how racism reveals itself in the context of the life we live as white, privileged, Canadian Mennonites. A cursory exploration of the Internet provides much information as to the spectrum of racism and how it manifests itself in society. Systemic or institutional racism is racism which results from policies and practices in the institutions of our society which generally advantage the white majority and disadvantage minorities. These institutions include policies and practices in government, policing, healthcare, employment, education, housing, etc.

At this point in time, policing seems to be at the forefront of anti-racism efforts in North America. In Winnipeg, Manitoba the three Indigenous persons, Eishia Hudson (16 yrs), Jason Collins (36 yrs), and Stewart Andrews (22 yrs), were killed by Winnipeg Police in a span of 10 days in April of this year. On June 04, 2020, Edmunston, New Brunswick police shot and killed an Indigenous woman Chantel Moore (26 yrs). These are just a few recent examples of police violence against Indigenous persons in Canada. Of course, each incident has its own context, each its own extenuating circumstances, and each action its own justifications for the taking of Indigenous life by police violence. We generally accept the explanation for the violence and move on.

Healthcare is another institution whereby Indigenous folks in Canada are disadvantaged. A Wellesley Institute study published findings in a 2015 report “First Peoples, Second Class Treatment,” noting the “alarming disparities in health status … between Indigenous populations in comparison to non-Indigenous populations in Canada,” citing social determinants of food security, housing, income, employment, and education as determining factors.

The Province of Manitoba has just recently reneged on its promise to stop the Child and Family Services practice of “birth alerts,” whereby expectant mothers “at risk” are identified prior to the birth event so that when the baby is born, the child can be immediately apprehended and registered with the foster care system. Ironically, many of the “at risk” factors a mother might experience are due to a lack of support and resources which would reduce the risks of a child born into a specific situation. Instead, the child is put into foster care, which requires a $42,000.00 annual investment to foster a newborn, $42,000.00 annually would go a long way to support an “at risk” mother so that the child can stay with the parent. The majority of the children apprehended in Manitoba are Indigenous children, and 87% of the total children in care in Manitoba (10,328), just “happen” to be Indigenous children (CBC News Nov/18). Statistics Canada indicates that 18% of the population of Manitoba is of Indigenous origin.

Other examples of institutional bias/racism towards Indigenous peoples in Canada include the ‘60’s scoop, whereby Indigenous children perceived to be at risk in their home environments were “scooped” out and redistributed across America and the world. Mennonites played an unfortunately active role in much of the ‘60’s scoop effort, from adopting Indigenous children into Mennonite families, to engineering policies and practices in social service systems to facilitate the removal of Indigenous children from their homes (Saskatchewan 1967/69).

The systemic racism of poverty identified by recent Canadian Poverty Institute findings, indicate that 25% of Indigenous adults and 40% of Indigenous children live in poverty in Canada, a country in which the Indigenous population comprises only 4.9% of the total population.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015) came up with 94 resolutions of healing in response to the crisis engendered by the residential school system, an effort to control the Indigenous race through religion and education, an effort in which Mennonites played a significant part (Cristal Lake, Stirland Lake, Poplar Hill).

The on-going saga of violence against Indigenous women, known as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), identifying thousands of Indigenous women and girls missing or murdered, has tremendous racial overtones, and has been labelled as “part of a Canadian genocide” (CBC News May/19). This violence against Indigenous women would never be tolerated if the victims were non-Indigenous.

Beyond the institutional/structural racism of our society lies the interpersonal racism of our everyday interactions with Indigenous folks. These interactions occur in our stores, businesses, places of employment, public transit, or even through social media. In general, they involve distrust, stereotyping, and disparaging verbal exchanges, or at times physical and even violent responses.

An Anishinaabe friend of mine, says she hesitates to go into stores and public places in Southern Manitoba. She says invariably a store employee will shadow her movements. She indicates that a primary reason she avoids these public places, is that she feels that the non-Indigenous persons (often Mennonite) within these places look at her with disgust for being Anishinaabe. As Mennonites, we often identify Indigenous persons as the “other” through the stereotyping and distrust we associate with being “Indian,” this racism exists despite the disclaimers of how welcoming Mennonite churches are on an any given Sunday.

Recently (March/20), two Metis hunters (Jake Sansom 39 yrs, and Morris Cardinal 57 yrs) were shot and killed in a dispute with a non-Indigenous man, near Glendon, Alberta. In August of 2016, Colton Boushie (22 yrs) of Cree Red Pheasant First Nation was shot and killed by Gerald Stanley, a non-Indigenous farmer near Biggar, Saskatchewan. It seems Indigenous life is expendable and can be taken through violence, when Indigenous persons seem to be infringing on our perceptions of our rights, or on our perceptions of private property. The life of an Indigenous human being means less than private property.

Epistemic racism. Beyond the institutional racism of the society we are a part of, and beyond even the interpersonal racism we contribute to, beyond these is an aspect of racism which is to my mind the root of the problem of white Mennonite racism towards Indigenous peoples, namely the racism which is epistemic in origin. Epistemic racism insidiously infects the foundation of our ontology (way of being) and theology (beliefs). Epistemic racism includes the core belief by Anabaptist Mennonite Christians that our way of being and our belief systems are superior to those of Indigenous cultures.

We arrived to stay in southern Manitoba in 1874, with an explicit understanding that we were a people of God led to the “promised land.” We arrived with the expectation of “terra nullius,” the empty lands there for the taking, that these lands were unused or at least “underutilized” and that we, through God’s grace would improve upon the lands. Implicit in the improvement of underutilized lands, was the notion of the “doctrine of discovery,” which implied that the Indigenous and the Metis, the “heathen,” were not making good use of the land anyway, our relationship to the land was superior to that of the Indigenous people and their relationship to the land. So, in effect, we stole the land, with justification. We were and are a superior people, and our God is superior to the Indigenous god. We were and are justified in our epistemic racism, a foundational racism which leads to interpersonal racism and institutional racism.

Mennonite Church Canada is right. There is much to pray about, there is much we are accountable for. If racism remains some generic notion in a not too distant land, then perhaps one day of prayer will be sufficient. However, if we perceive racism as foundational to our white privilege, then perhaps one day of prayer is not enough to repent from the racism we take advantage of on a daily basis. Perhaps if we continue to beseech God for understanding of our deep complicity in racism, if MC Canada calls on multiple, frequent, on-going days of prayer to turn us from the depths of our racism, then perhaps we too will be healed.

Yes, so much for pray for in these troubling times. May I suggest one more item? That God's wisdom and guidance will reign over our police forces. Pray that cool heads will prevail and that there won't be indiscriminate defunding of police services, which can only lead to loss of protection services for everyone.

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