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Pieter VanderLeek, a member of Willoughby Christian Reformed Church in Langley, B.C., loves to walk. But one weekend in June, he walked 40 kilometres (25 miles) for a different purpose. His church, along with other area churches, participated in a “Walk towards Reconciliation.”

Over three days participants were invited to walk all or any of the stretch from Fort Langley, B.C., along the Fraser River crossing over to St. Mary’s in Mission, B.C. St. Mary’s is the site of the nearest Canadian residential school where Native children were sent by force. The school closed in 1985.

Anglican, Catholic, Mennonite, and United church members joined participants from Immanuel CRC and Willoughby in a walk that marks the third anniversary of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The walk combines the Christian tradition of a pilgrimage with the sacred walk of the First Nations tradition. 

For VanderLeek and others, the highlight was the Saturday morning workshops where presenters and survivors told their stories and led tours of the school. Evelyn Bouwman was unable to join the walk but attended the Saturday sessions. “Sitting in St. Mary’s, I was struck by the wonder that this school had been in operation just a few kilometres from where I grew up, and I never knew about it. In fact, I was in my mid-20s when it closed, and I still had no knowledge of its existence,” she said. “That’s a very strange discovery, and it evokes mixed feelings of sadness, disappointment, and collective guilt. Lots of stories [here] of hurt, loneliness, and pain, but also stories of this being the only home the children had ever known. . . . Their only ‘safe space’ which was, for most, not that safe after all.”

First Nations presenters also explained the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. Mike Hogeterp of the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue in Ottawa urged the Canadian CRCs to engage in dialogue about the effects of this doctrine to First Nations communities for many generations. 

Henry Smidstra, a member at Willoughby and a retired CRC pastor, helped to organize and raise awareness for this walk as part of his leadership in Willoughby’s Just Forum and participation in area ecumenical efforts. Just Forum meets on Sunday mornings before worship. Built on the circle model, the group gathers for learning, conversation, prayer, and action around pressing justice and mercy needs such as the plight of refugees and gender orientation and inclusivity.

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