Mike Hogeterp was riding in the back of his softball coach’s pickup truck when he joined in yelling racial slurs at a group of Indigenous men standing outside a bar in a rough part of Saskatoon, Sask.
Only years later, while attending university, did he realize how wrong he’d been.
“That’s when, as a student, a passion for social justice was stirred in me,” said Hogeterp, chair of the Doctrine of Discovery task force and director of the CRC’s Centre for Public Dialogue. “This included some learning about the history of the oppression of Indigenous people and recognizing the racism in my own heart and experience.”
In June 2012, Hogeterp attended a national event of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, held across the street from Bethel CRC, Sask., where his parents had served during the late 1970s and early ‘80s.
“In that town hall event, with the relationships and convictions I developed over the years, I felt prompted to publicly confess my sins of racism as a preteen and teen in the streets of Saskatoon,” he said.
“After I sat down, a First Nations Elder offered me forgiveness . . . a pretty moving experience.”
Hogeterp said he has come to realize that lasting forgiveness only comes over time, as the process of reconciliation unfolds among people.
First, people must confront and understand the past, which he said is one of the goals of the task force report.
“We hope the church recognizes that the Doctrine of Discovery and its legacy is something in our history that requires continuous discernment and response,” he said.
‘History Has Implications for How I Live’
Calvin College student Tonisha Begay says she often feels torn as a Navajo woman in a mostly white world.
Begay grew up in the Christian Reformed Church in Gallup, N.M., and attended Rehoboth Christian School.
“It was a huge culture shock when I came to Calvin,” said Begay, a senior majoring in sociology. “Having been at Rehoboth, I thought it would be easier.”
She said many of her teachers at Rehoboth were from West Michigan. They were mentors and helped to develop her faith.
And while she has learned a great deal and grown as a Christian at Calvin College, she has needed to do it among people who generally know very little about what it means to be Navajo.
“I have had to ask questions about my own identity as a Navajo woman in a school where only three other students were native,” she said.
She also found it hard when she returned home, where people wondered if she had adapted to the white world, leaving her Native heritage behind.
She said the Doctrine of Discovery task force report has helped her sort through how to live in both worlds. By learning the history of relations between the white and Native American worlds, she has been able to gain a better perspective.
“The report talks about a lot of the trauma and separation that happened to my people over the years,” said Begay.
“We see that the church had a hand in that history. I’m trying to understand how that history has implications for how I live today.”
Stories Can Bring Healing
Harold Roscher said that listening to Indigenous people describe how they were abused as children in church-run boarding schools in Canada was profoundly disturbing. “There are times where you are boiling mad over what happened.”
As chaplain and director of the Native Healing Centre in Edmonton, Alberta, one of three Aboriginal ministry centres the Christian Reformed Church supports in Canada, Roscher attended many of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s hearings at which Native people shared their stories.
He also helped to prepare the Doctrine of Discovery report that will be going to synod this year.
“Thinking about the commission and the Doctrine of Discovery becomes hard,” said Roscher, a Cree who was adopted and grew up in the home of a white CRC family.
But he said the power of people telling their stories can help to bring healing—both for the teller and for those who hear the story.
He said he hopes that people in the CRC will read and discuss the task force report and allow it to reshape their view of history, even if it means stirring up intense emotions.
“It is okay to be in turmoil over this,” he said. “As we live into this report, we remember that Jesus is the only answer, and the work Christ did on the cross is the crucial tie that binds us together.”
Blanket Exercise ‘a Mind-Opening Experience’
Caleb Dickson, a Nez Perce American Indian and pastor who serves Naschitti Christian Reformed Church in Naschitti, N.M., says that participating in the Blanket Exercise at Navajo Ministries, a nondenominational center in Farmington, N.M., was “a mind-opening experience.”
“I wasn’t totally surprised by the things that they talked about during the exercise, but the depth and extent of what happened (to the Indians) did startle me,” said Dickson.
“Clearly, we weren’t viewed as people. We were seen as heathens, as less than human to the extent that we were people without rights.”
In the exercise, blankets are spread on the floor. As people walk on the blankets, someone reads a narrative of the wars, broken treaties, epidemics, and other ways in which Native Americans were removed from their ancestral lands.
Slowly people are asked to step off the blankets, illustrating people dying or being forced to move. At the same time, blankets are taken away until only a small square of cloth and a few participants remain.
Different versions of the Blanket Exercise are used in the U.S. and Canada.
Dickson said he hopes that CRC churches and members will consider taking part in a Blanket Exercise.
“This could help get a dialogue going, just like the Doctrine of Discovery report, I hope, can do,” he said.