In northern Canada these days, a valiant Indigenous community near James Bay has declared a state of emergency.

Canadian churches through the KAIROS coalition are supporting the community’s plea and have issued an “urgent action” appeal for letters of support.

Attawapiskat Students - Photo: Phil Fontaine

With winter setting in and more than 100 people living in tents—and scores of others crowded in poor-quality houses—Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation, asked the federal and Ontario governments to consider a temporary evacuation of the community, and to reach agreement on the funding needed to build housing, supply clean drinking water, and build the new elementary school that has been promised for years.

“All Canadians support the basic human right to safe housing, health, education, and clean water,” says KAIROS. “Currently the people of Attawapiskat lack all of these. KAIROS believes that as a society we have more than enough money to ensure that all people’s basic needs are met. The real issues are the funding choices we make, and the continued lack of self-determination and access to their traditional lands that face the vast majority of Aboriginal communities.”

From Patagonia to Nunavut, Indigenous peoples are among the most marginalized groups, facing higher risks of illness, violence and imprisonment than dominant populations—and in many places, they struggle against incursions by mining companies, ranchers and loggers. While Indigenous people in Colombia face much higher levels of violence, the systemic justice issues they face are not that different from those faced by communities in British Columbia, my home province.

To work for justice in one place is not to ignore justice issues in another.

Smoldering anger and a call to conversion

In the 1990s, I worked in Mexico with the Cuernavaca Centre for Intercultural Dialogue on Development (CCIDD). I used to accompany groups of people from Canada and the United States on visits to communities where people struggled for justice and for life. One of the places was Tlamacazapa, a Nahua Indigenous community located near Taxco in Guerrero state.

Like many Indigenous villages in central Mexico, Tlamacazapa’s economy is organized around production of a single item: in this case, baskets woven from palm leaves. Tlamacazapa’s brightly-coloured baskets can be found in tourist resorts from the Yucatan peninsula all the way up to California. Tourists will pay up to $100 for a basket that would have taken a woman four days to weave. But she would receive only a few dollars for her labour and creativity: intermediaries who buy, transport and sell the baskets make more.

One of the people we visited often was a middle-aged woman named Sirenia. After one of our group visits, I noticed Sirenia was sitting alone on the large rock in front of her house. I went back and sat with her for a few minutes.

Her eyes were on fire. Smouldering anger, yes, for Sirenia had just told yet another group of foreign visitors that it is very difficult for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God. Her challenge to us was the same one made by Jesus 2,000 years ago—and she knew that. She also knew, through television (not that she owned one), something of how we live and that we are not doing enough to end her poverty.

I found myself thinking that most of us in wealthier places just want the easy parts of Christian religion: the non-threatening baby Jesus at Christmas, not that political and religious outlaw later executed on a cross. To talk with Sirenia at that moment, after her encounter with the group, would have been like trying to talk with Job on his dung heap. I could only watch and pray, and I thought of the English religious educator John Hull who says that many of our churches remain committed to teaching “a religion of deceit:” that Christianity is just about love in a very abstract sense, that following Jesus will make you feel good.

But Jesus said take up your cross and follow; he proclaimed food for the hungry and release to the captives. He said love one another. He said he could not tell us everything because we could not bear to hear it, but then he promised us his spirit to accompany us.

Those proclamations and promises should inspire us to action—at least to send a letter in support of the people of Attawapiskat.

This week, Fr. Michael Lapsley was in Toronto. Fr. Michael, who now works with the Institute for Healing of Memories (IHOM) , said that guilt is misunderstood and under-estimated. In his case, it moved him to join South Africa’s liberation struggle as a chaplain to the African National Congress.

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