‘Never mind decolonization; learn to love yourself’

Tsimshian theologian addresses MC Manitoba church leaders on how to best respond to TRC calls for action

J. Neufeld | Manitoba Correspondent

People who want to love their indigenous neighbours must first learn to love themselves, according to Dr. Patricia Vickers, a psychotherapist and Tsimshian theologian. Vickers spoke at an event organized by Mennonite Church Manitoba on how churches can respond to the calls to action made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. About 50 church leaders attended the event, held at Circle of Life Thunderbird House in Winnipeg on Oct. 17, 2015.

Norman Meade, co-pastor of Manigotagan Community Fellowship, opened the event with a smudge and prayer. “All of you here today are coming with a spirit of listening and questioning, a spirit of love,” he said.

But before Mennonites do the work of righting injustices, they must look deeply within themselves, Vickers said during her reflection: “Christ says not simply to protest injustice and oppression, to demand justice for your indigenous neighbour. . . . He goes further than that. He says to love your neighbour. But don’t you know that in order to love your neighbour you must first learn to love yourself?”

There is no question that justice needs to be done, Vickers said, and there is plenty of work churches can do to help heal the wounds left by colonization and residential schools. The child welfare system, the education system and mental health services all need to be reformed to better serve indigenous people, she said.

But first comes the work of inner transformation.

“I say, never mind decolonization,” Vickers told those assembled. “Why? Because colonization was a spiritual act, and anyone who knows medicine will tell you that a spiritual act can never be reversed. It can only be transformed.”

Vickers described growing up in a dysfunctional home full of abuse and alcoholism—fallout from her father’s and grandmother’s experiences at residential schools. “As a family, we didn’t reverse that,” she said. “What happened is, as a family we turned our hearts and our lives to a God who is mysterious.” For her family, that spiritual transformation included traditional ceremonies such as sweats and fasting.

“The transformation that happens is separate from me and who I am. It’s a supernatural act. I don’t make that act happen. I die,” Vickers said. “I’m looking to the ‘master shape-shifter.’ I’m looking to Christ. That’s how the transformation will happen.”

Vickers also told stories of people she had counselled in her practice as a psychotherapist:

  • The man whose father had thrown him down the stairs because he was unable to talk about his experience of residential school.
  • The man who had grown up in 30 different foster homes.
  • The young mother whose child was seized at birth by a child welfare system that refused to believe she was capable of parenting, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

“They grew up fostered and conditioned by others who did not love themselves and who were conditioned to believe lies about who indigenous people were,” Vickers said. “They grew up to believe themselves devoid of human value—rejects, failures, incapable of grasping goodness.”

So how do people learn to love themselves? By examining their thoughts, emotions and the communication of their bodies, Vickers said: “Those who believe in teachings of Christ must continuously open our hearts and minds to the light of truth. Then you will see clearly what needs to be done to love your neighbour.”

See also:

“What do we take away from the TRC?” Editor Dick Benner considers how Mennonites have shared in the attitudes and actions condemned in the final Truth and Reconciliation report.

“Children taught to hate themselves says TRC report”- Highlights of the concluding document and events in Ottawa surrounding its release on June 2, 2015.  

“Strengthening our connections”- Ottawa Mennonite Church hosted an event of storytelling and worship as a response to victims of residential schools. 

“Kairos hosts Time for Reconciliation”- The ecumenical justice coalition Kairos organized a gathering complementary to the official TRC events happening in Ottawa. 

“We’ve heard the truth. Do we have the courage for reconciliation?” J. Neufeld attended a TRC solidarity event in Winnipeg and reflected on how Mennonites might have benefitted from past mistreatment of their aboriginal neighbours.

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