I don’t know how much attention you’ve paid to the news recently, but more than a thousand unmarked graves have now been discovered at the former sites of residential schools in Canada over the last month. These were boarding schools where Indigenous children were — against the will of their families/tribes — brought to be forcibly assimilated to white culture. That children died in huge numbers at these schools and were unceremoniously disposed of in mass graves is awful yet unsurprising to the Native community, who has long known what really happened at these schools, since they (unlike the Canadian government) actually listened to the survivors’ stories.
Canada’s residential school system was modeled after the Indian boarding schools here in the U.S. My own great-grandfather was a boarding school survivor… physically, but there were many aspects of his personality and his culture that the school successfully killed. My grandma attended an Indian day school, which, though not a boarding school, was still pretty terrible. But at least they survived, and I am here. Countless Native people are not because their ancestors were murdered.
This is all devastating enough for us in the Native community, but being both a Native and a Christian I am finding my pain compounded because the majority of these schools — both in Canada and the U.S. — were Catholic/Christian organizations running the schools as “missionary” operations to “convert the savages.” There are not many Indigenous Christians in this country, and unfortunately, this history is a large part of why. The devastation wrought by people claiming to follow Christ left a wasteland in its wake across Indian Country.
I hear from Natives who did not grow up Christian, who never celebrated Christmas, yet who always had a Christmas tree in the front room of their house, because it was a way of telling the neighborhood, “Please don’t hurt us — we will cooperate with you.” Playing along with Christian traditions was a survival tactic for them, because to fight against those traditions (let alone fight for celebrating their own traditions) often invited swift and brutal punishment. For me, as a follower of Christ, it is heartbreaking to know they experienced such pain and suffering at all, but even more that it was often in the name of what I hold sacred.
An oft-quoted verse from the Bible is Matthew 16:26, which asks, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” In missionary work, people can sometimes twist the basic principle of that quote to argue that if you saved even one soul, it was all worth it, with “it” being anything and everything you did during the mission that saved that one soul. So maybe you got a wicked sunburn and your teammate twisted her ankle, and your group spent about $1000 over budget for the trip overall, but if you saved one soul, it was all worth it.
That’s a tragically short-sighted view of things, however, even coming from a Christian perspective (i.e. a perspective that believes souls can be “saved” or “not saved” at all). Thinking about those “missionary” boarding schools, for example, maybe some of the Native students did genuinely come to believe in Jesus Christ — maybe they did come to be “saved” after all. But how many Native children were turned away from Jesus because of what they experienced? How many could never accept Jesus after what they saw the Christian teachers and administrators doing to their classmates? How many couldn’t even believe in God after helping to dig graves for their friends, knowing that any day one of those graves might be for them?
These kinds of experiences don’t just remain with those who lived them, unfortunately — they roll on like waves through generation after generation. How many, then, of the survivors’ descendants were forever turned against the very idea of Christianity because of what happened at those schools? And how many descendants never even came to be? We can never know, but I imagine the number of souls “lost” because of the actions of those so-called “missionaries” is significantly greater than the number of souls “saved.” If the goal were truly to build up the Kingdom of Heaven, those missionaries picked a losing strategy.
Now personally, I am a Christian because I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe he was really born, he really lived, he really performed miracles — which he could do because he was the son of God — he really died on the cross, and he was really resurrected. I believe those things are actually true, so what I think of other people who claim to believe them is, frankly, pretty irrelevant to my faith. When I come across hypocritical Christians, they annoy me and infuriate me for a whole host of reasons, but they don’t make me doubt Jesus himself.
But for people who aren’t sure about Jesus yet, the credibility of the people talking about him matters. If someone says they love you, but they also hit you, I can see why you might doubt them when they tell you Jesus loves you. If the person telling you about Jesus feeding the five thousand is also withholding food from you, I can understand why you might not want to trust their word. Basically, if the person sharing Jesus is nothing like Jesus, you’re not going to want anything to do with Jesus.
This internal dissonance of what my (Christian) people did to my (Native) people is painful for me to process. But I know that the actual experiences of those children at the schools was far worse. I find myself, more than anything, wishing I could talk to my Grandpa Walter about his time at the boarding school, about what he saw and experienced, and about how incredibly sorry I am that the Jesus he met is not the Jesus I know.