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Set apart for healing and hope

The CRC’s Indigenous Family Centre

This September, the Indigenous Family Centre (IFC) celebrates its 40th year of sharing Christ’s love with the Indigenous people of Winnipeg. It provides an important and unique service not only in the city but also within the church. Michele Visser-Wikkerink, director of IFC, says “we are a Christian organization attempting to take a [unique] decolonized approach to the gospel among indigenous people.”

Originally the Indian Family Centre, IFC started out by addressing the needs of Aboriginal peoples moving to cities in increasing numbers, a trend that began in the 50s and grew exponentially in the decades that followed. Urban Aboriginal people experienced injustice, discrimination, social breakdown and personal struggles with drugs and alcohol in disproportionately high numbers. These challenges are rooted in intergenerational trauma that has its origins in colonialism. And the church played a central role in this history. In Winnipeg, which has a higher than average Aboriginal population, these challenges were more acute and visible.

IFC began as a radical shift in the approach the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) took to Indigenous ministry, a move away from the methodology of European missionaries. Instead of teaching Aboriginal peoples to follow European cultural as well as religious practices and branding the Indigenous traditions pagan, IFC began by looking for points of agreement which could facilitate cooperation and spiritual growth. This came out of a Reformed understanding that God reveals himself to all of us in unique ways; the church’s dogma was tied to cultural baggage and did not point to a truer way to be Christian. Reverend Hank DeBruyn, IFC’s first director, called it “a ministry of presence,” which reflects the fact that living with Aboriginal people is more important than any sermon. This has been the lynchpin to IFC’s longevity and the important role it plays in the life of the Christian Reformed church. The denomination supports similar ministries in Edmonton and Regina.

Mission and role

After five years at the Centre, its current Director, Visser-Wikkerink, is attempting to read the Bible from a more indigenous perspective, assisted by the community at the Centre and Indigenous theologians in Canada. Her goal is to let go of the western European constructs through which most CRC members view the Bible. Specifically, she has reflected on the meaning of miraculous stories. While westerners tend to ask whether this story is true, those at IFC ask, “what does this story mean?” or “what am I supposed to learn from this story?” In many ways, this gets to the heart of the gospel.

IFC staff hold on to this culturally inclusive approach to the gospel because they have seen how Christianity was misused for colonial ends. The gospel is not the problem, but when gospel truths are twisted to force “our” ways on other people – that causes problems.

“If anyone needs to be converted,” Visser-Wikkerink says, “it is us.”

Sharing circles are the mainstay of IFC’s work. It’s a traditional Aboriginal practice of sitting in a circle, entering the ceremony with a smudge and passing a talking stick or grandfather stone while sharing personal hopes, concerns or triumphs. Because IFC is supported by CRC Ministry Shares, the staff is able to dedicate full-time efforts towards working with those in need rather than fundraising, something that has been a tremendous blessing to their work. They welcome all visitors every weekday, hold a worship and sharing circle, advocate against the violence in the north end of Winnipeg, host a traditional drum group and facilitate an annual kids camp. Beyond these regular programs, the staff also works to educate all Canadians by displaying the beauty and the gifts of Aboriginal cultures in Canada broadly and [within or to] the church specifically. To manage its diversity of programming, IFC is currently undergoing a significant building renewal project.

IFC recently changed its name, replacing “Indian” with “Indigenous.” “Indian” has been one of the longest-lasting symbols of cultural misunderstanding in North American history, dating back to Columbus’ confusion. Fundamentally, it refers to Aboriginal people as something they are not, perhaps an appropriate reflection of the often troubled relationship between Aboriginal peoples and newcomers from overseas but still an inappropriate word. Cultural baggage surrounding the term has only grown with a recent upswing in South Asian immigrants to Winnipeg. For example, the Centre began receiving calls asking if they sold samosas – a fried Indian pastry.

The future of IFC has many challenges, but its staff members are excited and optimistic. Generations of racism and abuse are the legacy they confront on a daily basis; in many ways, they are facilitating the CRC’s journey of reconciliation, something that is critical to the future and health of the church and of Canada as a country. They will continue to build a place set apart for hope, healing and reconciliation. Part of this is in developing intercultural friendships, as reconciliation cannot take place without that base of friendship.

The staff is currently revising their vision statement. IFC is a place without rules or limits on how to worship or pray, they reflect; it’s a place for seeking Christ in culturally appropriate ways.

  • Seth Adema is a PhD candidate in the department of history at Wilfrid Laurier University.

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