A Blessing for Pilgrims for Indigenous Rights

Friends, I was asked to provide a blessing for some pilgrims walking from Kitchener to Ottawa in support of Bill C 262, which requests the implementation in Canada of the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for truth and reconciliation, as per the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s report. This pilgrimage has been organized by the Mennonite Church Canada. My blessing followed upon a traditional sending by Myeengun Henry, an Ojibway elder in our city. The text for it follows:

God bless you in this journey of justice and peace.

May your feet feel each treaty
Holding you as you cross its reach,
Sustaining you as you walk in a good way.

May your ears be ready to hear
The stories sown in the territory you
Traverse step by step.

May your hearts beat in time with
Our Mother, the Earth
Who watches over you
In love, in delight.

May your minds be as one
In the community you are
On the way to truth and reconciliation.

And may you know

That your knowing is first being known.

And your loving is first being loved.

And your passion for justice and peace

Is first and finally God’s Reign in your midst.

God be above you, below you , behind you, beside you, before you and within you – as Holy Flame; as Sacred Word.

Pilgrim Moves

Earlier this week my Dean popped by and asked if I might like to join him and another colleague for a little stroll, to our new digs for the next 14 months. At the end of April we empty our building, and the insides of this 55 year old building will get a major overhaul. It is badly in need of the same, with asbestos here and there, and everywhere a dearth of electrical outlets. Other issues abound and we look forward to a rejuvenated building. The plans for the renovation look stellar, and while we look forward to the move back in, we also know we are about to begin a bit of an institutional pilgrimage.

Our interim offices are on the top floor of an early 70s residence – repurposed in the manner of converting bedrooms, dining rooms and living rooms into offices. I have the happy pleasure of inheriting a living room that is larger than my current office, and so have been allotted the kind of space that admits the dangerous temptation of adding bookshelves, and so more books. Pray for me since I will return to a smaller office.

Our chapel will be an “L” shaped room that eats up the better part of a former quad, and will do quite well for our weekday prayer services and our weekly Communion. For special services, the just off campus Roman Catholic parish, St. Michael’s, has agreed to make space for us and Inshallah, the seminary and community global music choir conducted by our Dean of Chapel Debbie Lou Ludolph, which will meet there late Tuesday afternoons. Classes will be spread out across campus by the fiat of the university allotment system, but the powers that be hope to keep us in common corridors.

All in all, things seem to be coming together.

Still, by all accounts, a pilgrimage remains a pilgrimage. It involves a wager that the journey is worthy of the costs. The costs, in this instance, are not insignificant and risks are clear: how will we keep the community connected without the our building playing host; how will worship work without the familiar spaces that facilitate our experience of the holy; how will we be in a new location since we both shape and are shaped by the places we go; will all the fund fall in place?

Scholars of pilgrimage speak of the role of narrative in the ritual of pilgrimage. Holy journeys draw upon stories of travel and trial – stories of manna and water from a rock, and they create stories that feed the future. I have no doubt that when the history of our school is told to subsequent generations, this will not be an insignificant marker in the history that we are becoming. Pilgrimages hold great possibility: dislocation allows a fresh appraisal of identity and provides opportunity for both the retrieval of lost or forgotten resources and the arrival of possibilities that cannot be imagined in the comfort of well-trod trails.

Only time will tell what will be told about the years 2017-18, but I am sure of one thing: grains of sand will reckon in the accounting, and these will be reminders of both irritants to pilgrim feet and the accounting of Abraham’s blessing.

On our Way to Wawa

A certain Zen attends this most
non-pedestrian of affairs.
I am behind the wheel –
this circle, this eternity –
that unveils the truth
it is: what goes round is first
found in You, Point
of departure,
of arrival,
of travel.

This, my peregrination to points
last seen two decades ago, may
or may not be pilgrimage.
How am I to know? My
not-knowing is a hard truth.

But this too is true:
I cannot
take a step,
drive a kilometre,
sail a nautical mile or
traverse the continent without You
upending each ending and
bending each first.

Pilgrimage and Presence

“It’s sad to leave the people you travel with.
How much moreso those who remind you of God.
Hurry back to the ones protecting you.

On every trip, have only one objective,
to meet those who are friends
inside the presence.”

(excerpt from Rumi’s “A Pilgrimage to a Person,” The Essential Rumi)

I am just back now from a trip to Kingston, Ontario with Inshallah, the 100+ voice choir I have enjoyed for 8 years or so. There we joined Open Voices, a community choir in Kingston with similar numbers. Between the two choirs, we were 170 voices strong, and performed a concert in support of Kingston’s Interchurch Refugee Partnership.

The event was spectacular indeed. It was a rich experience to sing with another choir, with two different directors and two different cultures. It truly was an opportunity “to meet those who are friends.” I like the way Rumi puts it: to meet those who are friends rather than meet those who will become friends. This presence he speaks of seems to reference a place and way of being where we are drawn into relationships that almost seem to have been prepared in advance: a feast awaiting our taking place at table.

I had the happy opportunity to be fed by and billeted with Open Voice chorister Stewart and his lovely wife Aileen. They were consummate hosts, a description that befits Open Voices. As we gathered around a programme featuring music both familiar and not, each choir had the challenge of learning to sing together, a process expedited – I think – by the realization that we were there together for the sake of refugees coming to Canada from Syria. They framed “presence” for us in their permanent pilgrimage.

But it wasn’t only the concert and cause that made “presence” real. The trip to and from Kingston on the bus, too, was a gift with much laughing, a bit of napping, some rich conversation and that sort of small talk that builds bridges and opens doors. I have been learning a bit about pilgrimage these last few years, and have discovered that leaving allows you to return to a part of you that might well be buried below the busyness of the everyday. I think this truth obtains for communities as much as for individuals. As a group we experienced ourselves anew, and this was a gift. And so it was so very poignant to come home and pick up my volume of Rumi and read that “it is sad to leave people you travel with.” But sadness is tempered by the memory that together we entered the presence, and were therein gifted.

Some Kind of Walk

I am now a week back from walking the last third of the Northwest Mounted Police Trail. My wife and I walked about 110 km of a 300 plus km trail. The trail runs from Wood Mountain Park to Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills. It was established by the NWMP in order to keep the peace in an area frequented by “Wolvers” from south of the border in the late 19th century in what is now southern Saskatchewan. These folk were known by this name since they killed bison, poisoned the meat and then collected the hides of wolves who ate this. They ran a booze business on the side, selling to Native Americans who were in the midst of losing a way of life as the bison disappeared from the land, and as the Canadian government waited upon them to starve, until they finally agreed to sign treaties in a desperate attempt to find a way in this new reality. This patrol trail across the praire is wet with tears.

How is it that I found myself on this trail? My friend Matthew Anderson, a theologian and documentary producer invited me and my wife and we said yes. You can learn more about this at Matthew’s site. Matthew is a scholar of pilgrimage and was piqued by the observation that people who research pilgrimage often write and research European trails, but seemed little interested in North American sites. He grew up in southern Saskatchewan and so knew of this trail and of its significance. He thought it especially important to visit in light of the recent report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which speaks of the continuing need for First Nations and Settlers to work toward renewed relationships of truth, accountability, justice, and concern for the land.

I learned much on this walk. We arrived on a non-walk day. In the evening, the author Candace Savage spoke to us of the sad history of this place. I bought her book and asked her to sign it. She did and wrote “welcome home” above her signature. This was a bit odd, since I am not from Saskatchewan. I grew up in central Alberta, in what is called “parkland.” But as I walked across this bald prairie, replete with breath taking coulees, horizons that spoke of the Creator’s breadth of fierce mercy, and a sky that glistened with the stark clarity of a diamond, I found myself breathless. Every now and then I would stop, and look, and find myself with hands on my hips: just looking. It reminded me of my dad, raised on the prairies, who would do this from time to time on our farm. We would be on our way to look at the cows, or check the grain, or whatever, and he would stop – like a man with all the time in the world – and look to the horizon with hands on hips. And here I was, reprising his posture, a posture formed in his southern Alberta by like surroundings. And then Candace’s note rang true. This was a homecoming on foreign territory.

All territory is foreign to us. We experience it as a home-becoming when we walk it. Walking is a holy venture: prayer on feet trod with attention to the marvel and miracle walking is. Children who first learn to walk and people who have lost their ability to walk know so very well that walking is a wonder. Walking is wonder-ful. As I walked this trail I found myself over and over again. I saw myself in my fellow pilgrims who both looked forward to a day’s end while they wished it went on forever. I heard myself in the Swainson hawks who prayed us across the prairies. I sniffed out myself in the sweet sage that bore witness to hope on hard ground. I felt my skin as I caressed teepee ring rocks, reminders that this land that has adopted me is my elder, my mother. I tasted myself in fresh bread made by farmers who invited us in, with prairie hospitality. As an ancient sage noted: we are grains of wheat, crushed, wetted, fired and broken to become food for the hungry.

I have walked for a time. I have walked with others, with the land, and by myself. I am richer for it, and now wonder how to best invest what I have accrued from this time. I am confident that a pathway will open up, as pathways do: mysteriously.

IMG_2719 (1)

Thanks to Matthew Anderson for this photo!

Step by Stop

I’ve been walking to and from work these days, a practice that will likely continue through summer. That isn’t an especially intriguing boast. Many people walk to work and back. I suppose I could brag about the distance: just shy of 7 km each way. But people the world over walk this kind of distance out of necessity. I walk it by choice; enjoying the luxury of an hour or so of nothing to think about other than how to stay in the shade. I’m enjoying an increasing familiarity with the twin cities I call home Kitchener and Waterloo. I’m starting to recognize people on the street; the odd “Hi!” punctuating a passing by. In some ways this is an extension of the St. Olaf’s Way pilgrimage that I finished with my wife and four other fellow pilgrims a month or so ago. My walk replicates that sweet feeling of the brain emptying and the soul filling as foot follows foot repetitively; prayer in motion. But in other ways, this daily journey is altogether different. The pilgrimage was a “what’s around the corner” kind of venture; not knowing what our sleeping quarters would look like; not knowing what we would next eat, etc. My daily walk, by contrast, is rather repetitive, same streets, same businesses, same route. I am not charting new territory. I’m taking time to chart the familiar. The other day, for instance, I discovered Budds on my path.

Budds is a Kitchener institution. It is an old fashioned department store. The women’s wear is on one side, the men’s on the other, bargains are in the basement: everything in its place. The men who helped me wore dress shirts with ties and seemed to exude that measured ease of knowing how to make a sale: not too much help yet enough at just the right time. The store is 86 years old. For some reason related to parking I have never been in it. It has been in the same location since 1926, when it opened. I needed some new socks, and thought that this was a fine task to break up my walk home.

As I paid my bill, I noticed a pair of water-pipe-like tubes beside the till. “For water, perhaps?” I asked the sales clerk. He explained that they have been here for 86 years. When the store was built, the sales staff would write up the sale on a sheet of paper, add the cash rendered to the bill and put the two into a cylandrical container, which would then be deposited into what I discovered to be a “vacuum tube.” This bill and the accompanying bills would then be whisked away to the office in the back, where change would be made and returned in like manner. I asked how many years this system was used. “86” was the answer. I looked curiously at the gentleman. “It still works?” I asked. “Yes, it’s a back-up system we would not be without. It is a part of the heritage of the building and business” he said, as he gave me my change the new-fangled way. I was dumbstruck, and left the cool store to step out into the sun, reeling with the realization that there was a place in town that was not absolutely dependent on the good will of the world wide web.

I made my way home with my socks in tow and my thoughts on the past and future: what was the store like in its heyday? How often is the tubular till used? Will future owners respect this bit of the past? I was intrigued, but soon my feet found their rhythm and once again I entered that sweet trance, feeling rather like a tubular container being swept down a now vacuous King street; glad for the opportunity to have this one thing to do in this moment: to make my way home and to know it to be enough.