Since 2005 Brian Thorpe has served as a minister at Dunbar Ryerson United Church in Vancouver. In 1994 he became the Executive Secretary of the BC Conference. During that time the church’s response to the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools System became one of the most critical issues facing the church. In 2000 the General Council of the United Church asked Brian to work exclusively in this area. One of the primary foci of this work involved the development, in partnership with survivors of residential schools and the Canadian government, of an alternate dispute resolution project in the Gitxsan Nation in northern BC.
In 2013, thousands of people walked through the streets of Vancouver and across the Georgia Viaduct to signal their commitment to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission was in the midst of a major event in Vancouver during which survivors of the Indian Residential School system told their stories. For the members of the four Christian denominations involved in the system, participation in the walk was an important act of repentance and of seeking new ways to be in relationship.
In 2017 the organization Reconciliation Canada, which had its birth organizing the first walk in 2013, decided that it was time to take to the streets again. In their call to walk they spoke of the importance of sharing stories among the diverse peoples – indigenous and non-indigenous – who share the land we call Canada. My home church, Dunbar Ryerson United, knew that it was important that we walk to renew our commitment to the work of reconciliation. On a brisk fall morning we joined thousands of others on Georgia Street. And congregation members who couldn’t walk with us joined in via Skype. At an assigned moment in the worship service that morning we were able to not only to walk in the midst of the worshiping congregation but, also, to reflect on what the walk meant for us.
Those of us on the walk spoke of the experience as being that of pilgrimage. Most pilgrimages have as their destinations sacred sites. This pilgrimage, however, had as its goal right relationships.
Reconciliation Canada described the walk as a time in which we might share stories. Hearing this, I was reminded of the words of a former Moderator of The United Church of Canada, the Very Rev. Stan McKay. Stan went to a residential school in Manitoba. Long after his time there he spoke of the pain engendered by the fact that no one was willing to listen to his stories as a young Cree boy. The walk, for us, was an opportunity to open our ears to the long ignored stories of the first peoples of this land.
I was also reminded of two walks from our tradition. The first is the forty year walk of the Hebrew people out of slavery. The second is the walk that dispirited disciples took following the crucifixion to Emmaus. In that walk they were joined by a stranger who told stories. When, over a meal, they were awakened to the fact that the stranger was in fact the risen Christ, the walkers recalled that their hearts burned within them as the stranger told stories on the road.
In our walk this year, stories were shared and in the midst of our collective shame as a church for our complicity in the colonization of First Nations, and our hearts burned with the hope of new ways of truth telling, justice and new relationships.