Like an Iceberg

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

When my children were young and I brought them to the playground, I noticed as a parent I had many levels of awareness. I wouldn’t pretend to not see them. I wouldn’t just sit on the bench and watch them. I wouldn’t just stand there and cheer them on. I was in there with them, walking on a swinging bridge or helping them on a slide. I would get sand in my shoes and would try to keep up with who wanted me to push them on the swing next. It was definitely an event. I didn’t just watch, but participated.    

I have also noticed that as an Indigenous person there are four main areas of life I focus on: the physical, the mental, the emotional, and the spiritual. Within those four areas of life, there are four levels of awareness of the conditions of people around us: apathy, sympathy, empathy, and interpathy.

An apathetic person looks at someone and has no concern for that person. A sympathetic person looks at someone and says this person needs help, but they don’t think they should necessarily be the one to reach out to help. An empathetic person takes on that responsibility, saying they should be the one to help, and then they reach out and help in some small way. An interpathic person has more of a “walking in your moccasins for a mile” kind of connection with other people.

Jesus was always the interpathic person. He was always aware of the four main areas of life—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. He walked in the pathway of others and ate and hung out with them. This is the hardest type of awareness and connection with another person, no matter who they are on the social, ethnic, or cultural scale. It is always easier to judge someone from a distance. Many times when we judge, we have never had to go through what the other person is going through. We just think we know what the solutions are for them.

According to a 2016 survey about Canada’s public opinion on Aboriginal people, males who have higher incomes are less likely to want to understand Aboriginal people and women who are seniors are the most likely to want to understand. To me, this says my fellow males believe that hard work and a great work ethic is what will win the day. Yet they don’t realize the depth of what has occurred in Canada in the past 400 years. Indigenous peoples have had eight generations go through residential schools. This is a dilemma we have here in Canada, and the solutions are complex and will take years to unravel. The issues in the United States are similar.

Where to Begin

There are so many complex issues the average citizen isn’t aware of. When I have studied the worldview of any given people, I was taught that someone’s worldview is like an iceberg. An iceberg has a tip that shows on the surface of the water, but beneath an iceberg lies a much larger picture of that structure. Within a person’s worldview are unseen aspects we don’t understand. With Indigenous people, we have a difference in worldview. This leaves many unseen factors as to why any given Indigenous person might be struggling with certain issues in life. There is no “one size fits all” mentality to understanding anyone, never mind Indigenous people.  

When we are not part of someone’s journey in a participatory way, it’s easy to miss what is really going on with someone else. When we don’t know the behind-the-scenes story, it is easy to misinterpret what is going on. When we look at them, we might only see the tip of the iceberg and not know that there are unseen factors. With many indigenous people and Native North American people, they are more of a communal-type people, rather than individualistic. They are often event-orientated people, rather than time-orientated people. They are often less disciplined with their children, because they have other methods of parenting. They are often less likely to have savings in the bank, because they feel that they should trust God to provide and help others out when they need it.

When Jesus walked among us, he met a tax collector and said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately, I must come stay at your house today” (Luke 19: 5). Then people started to gossip and say that Jesus was spending time with sinners. They thought Jesus had come just for a select group of people. After Jesus spent time at his house, the man turned his life around, gave half of his possessions to the poor, gave back all the money he cheated anybody out of, and said he would pay back four times the amount that he cheated them out of. Then Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”

We can’t save anyone, because only Jesus can save people. But we can make that extra effort to get to know the people around us. Many times, over the years, I have heard Indigenous people say that when they have gone to a mainstream church they have often felt like the missionary project. They felt like people looked at them with apathy, sympathy, or empathy, but not a deeper level of connection like Jesus had with people—interpathy. This is why many Indigenous people only feel comfortable in an Indigenous church or stop going to church. This was also the problem with the early settlers, because the settlers thought the Indigenous people would be lost without them. 

When I was going to the playground with my children, I would not get away with not being an active part of the outing, because of their age and their desire for me to be part of the activity. Often in life, we can be in an observing role in people's lives. We can only see the tip of the iceberg. We haven’t really walked with them to see what is actually going on. We can also spend time with someone because we feel sorry for them and take them on as a project.

Yet if we want to get to know someone, we have to go from apathy to sympathy to empathy to interpathy to know the full story, to really connect and see under the surface of the iceberg. We must go that extra mile, like Jesus did.

We all have much to learn about reaching out to others. None of us is perfect. We can’t always be great at reaching out to others, because it will take us out of our comfort zone. Yet it is like when I used to go to the park with kids. Going to the playground and not expecting to get involved in the process would not have gone over very well.     

As an Indigenous person, this is what I have noticed about understanding my people more, which in turn is a lesson for understanding all people. Jesus spent time with his disciples and the people he encountered, and he knew their backgrounds and their strengths and weaknesses. He got to know them in a participatory way, a “walking a mile in their moccasins” kind of way, and it made all the difference in the world.

About the Author

Parry Stelter is an Indigenous member of Alexander First Nation. Member of Hope Christian Reformed Church in Edmonton. Founder of Word of Hope Ministries and Doctoral Candidate in Contextual Leadership through Providence Seminary and University 

Visit his website at wordofhopeministries.ca.

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