This week Pope Francis offered a sweeping apology to Indigenous people on their native land in Canada for the sins of the Church against the Indigenous peoples. For decades the survivors of church-run residential schools that became gruesome centers of abuse, forced cultural adaptations, cultural devastation, and death for more than a century have been demanding apologies from Christian Churches.
He said, “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.” He also said he was “deeply sorry for the ways in which many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples.”
While he was speaking as a Catholic representative for the wrongs of the Catholic Church, his apology was for the sins of those who claimed to know what is best for others. In the name of saving the Indigenous children from their native cultures, the Christian Church beat them, raped them, humiliated them, and dehumanized them. All in the name of Jesus.
These acts of atrocities are not just limited to Catholic Church, but they were committed in every Indian residential school, both Church-run and government-run. In most cases, the sins committed at the church-run schools exceeded those of the government-run schools. While the government-run schools were just committing cultural genocide, the Church-run schools also added religious genocide. In the name of “Christianizing the heathens,” young children were disconnected from their family, faith, and community.
Right after college, I lived in the area of South Minneapolis where the largest number of urban Native Americans lived in the U.S. Many were survivors of the residential schools and, without exception, told me that their experiences made them feel “hollow.” One even took on the nickname “scarecrow,” as he described himself as a man without a soul.
As the English-speaking pastor at a Korean church in Twin Cities, I built a partnership with the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The only difference was that we were invited by the tribal council to come and minister to the people. We were awarded the tribal flag and each year was recognized at the local pow-wow as honored guests of the tribe.
Over the years, people asked me how I was able to get their invitation. The answer was simple; I went to serve the people. I first went out and met with the people of the community and gave them an opportunity for them to know me. After a while, they asked if I could return with a mission team. I said I would if they invited me. Since it was their home, without their invitation, I would be intruding. Over the next several months, I had several phone calls with the tribal representative, creating scholarships at the local college, a program to help families in need, and supporting a children’s program, all upon request. The following spring, the tribal council invited my church to come and run a program of painting homes for the elderly and run a children’s program at the community center. We also put in a basketball court with lights, so young people had a place to go after dark. To this day, 30 years later, this is the only place for young people to gather after dark. The program is also continuing today.
While the mission schools were intended to “evangelize” the heathens, our mission was to “elevate” the people and their culture. We did not go with the plan to “convert” the unbelieving, but we went with the intent to “commune” with the people. We did not go to “save,” but we went to “serve.”
As I read the Pope’s apology, I wonder if he would have had to apologize if the Church simply lived among the people and served them.