I rarely go to church but last Sunday in Vancouver I attended the occupation of Saint Andrew's Wesley United Church by survivors of Canada's residential school genocide.
About twenty aboriginal men and women entered the church just as I was sitting down, and lined up in front of the altar holding a banner calling for the return of the 50,000 missing children's remains, and a proper burial.
The church, which had been humming with pre-service chatter, suddenly became silent. After conferring quickly, the minister and one or two other robed officers approached the group and talked with them. For a few moments, the atmosphere was tense and uncomfortable.
Then the minister addressed the congregation and welcomed "our friends" who had a message to deliver. He did this in a superficially friendly and grandstanding way that showed he was on top of the situation and knew exactly how to deal with it.
The native men and women stood holding their banner. In contrast to the minister, none of them were smiling. They looked as if they had just absorbed another insult. No one in the congregation moved or responded. All eyes were focused on the visitors and the minister who stood awkwardly rubbing his hands together in one of those ritualized gestures expressing benevolence and Christian tolerance.
The church seemed suddenly filled with the disappointment and anger of the native people. I felt tears welling up, inside and around me.
When they all slowly turned and began silently filing down the aisle towards the front door, it was as if they had had enough of this place. I felt like running after them, but a family had just sat down next to me, blocking my exit.
Once the natives had disappeared, the minister was all smiles again, calling on the congregation to "wave your hands wildly" and shout requests for favourite hymns. The heavy mood had lifted, and now we were going to be entertained by the Holy spirit. For the next hour, I squirmed in my seat as he nimbly ran through his scripted Sunday routine. First came a children's pantomime about Christ healing a paralyzed man, performed with stuffed bears and children led by the pastor. Next, a sermon about his weekly struggle to make his sermons relevant to parishioners.
At times he raised his arms and threw back his head as if receiving inspiration from heaven. He digressed briefly into a commentary on the "guests" who had interrupted the service, and from there he talked about "illness" and the case of the paralyzed man who was saved by the holy spirit descending through a hole in the roof. He talked about "sin" as the root cause of sickness -- an ancient belief that still has meaning today. Never once did he address the theme of guilt, or atonement for crimes against humanity. The United Church has nothing, apparently, to say about that.
When we were asked to turn to the people around us and shake hands and greet one another in the "spirit of the Lord," I was forced to look into one smiling face after another. As mouths repeated the ritual line, eyes told another story. They were eyes I would instinctively have avoided, filled with coldness, fear, secrecy.
I started to think there was something strange about this church and its congregation. I turned my head once or twice to look at them, standing in their rows, astonishingly alike in Sunday clothes, as if they knew what was expected of church goers. In his struggle to be relevant, the minister seemed almost like a marionnette, calling on us to stand up again and make a "joyful noise to the Lord." It was, he said, our time to "rock." The guitars came out and the middle-aged choir put on a pathetic show of belting out a few "contemporary expressions of faith." The minister joined in the rapture, shaking to the Muzak, letting it all hang out for Jesus.
How people manage to go through these motions week after week without choking, is beyond me. It takes a stronger person than I to take part in an orgy of phoniness, and walk out feeling at one with God's love and light.
By the time it was over, I understood my place in the universe: out on the street with the native people who must know by now to expect nothing from a church that has been taken over by latter-day zombies.