Last month, the bodies of 215 children were discovered at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada. The remains were discovered by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, who are investigating the deaths of residential school students in Western Canada. These residential schools populated Canada from 1874 until 1996 and were designed to assimilate Native Americans into Canadian society.
Indigenous people have borne this horrible truth for decades: many of their children who passed away were put in unmarked graves, and the bodies were never returned to their parents, whether the death was due to natural causes, disease, or neglect. These missing children are a painful reminder of the decades of mistreatment and authoritarian control of indigenous people by the governments (in this case, Canada) and churches that ran these schools.
State and church neglect and abuse
Toward the aim of assimilation, the schools taught students French or English, punishing them when they spoke in their indigenous languages. Approximately 150,000 children from the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples went through the program, across 130 schools. Attendance became mandatory in the 1920s, and parents faced potential imprisonment if they didn’t cooperate. Many of these children were forcibly separated from their families.
The state partnered with various denominations of churches, though most schools were run by the Roman Catholic Church. Students were forced to convert to Christianity. The housing conditions were often overcrowded and underdeveloped, with minimal spending the government’s main priority.
In 2015, it was estimated that around 6,000 children had died while at these residential schools (though some estimate over 10,000) and at least 3,200 of those died amid abuse and neglect. According to reports, the death rate for these children up until 1945 was five times as much as the national average. Verbal and physical abuse were commonplace.
Harvey McLeod shared his story with CNN, relating the sexual and physical abuse he experienced while at the Kamloops school.
He says, “Seven of us went at the same time, same school that my mum and my dad went to, there wasn’t an option, it was a requirement, it was the law. And I can only imagine what my mom and my dad, how they felt when they dropped some of us there knowing what they experienced at that school.”
This paints a grim picture of Canada’s approach to the multitude of nations that constitute the Native American people. The United States used similar strategies to assimilate Native Americans into Anglo culture. Of course, while some of the schools provided a good education, it’s clear that the treatment of Native Americans was broken and destructive.
Regardless of the school’s conditions, which were normally underfunded and overcrowded, consider the principles of the state’s treatment.
Imagine your children being taken away to a government-run boarding school. There’s no option here; you as a parent are required by law to send your child to this school. The teachers discipline your child to forget their native language, force them to convert to another religion, and try to eradicate your family’s culture from their lives. Regardless of the conditions of the school, that practice is unjust, and it’s no way to present the gospel.
Most of these schools trace their roots back to European missionaries. Many of these missionaries sought to spread the gospel with good intentions, and many Native Americans came to follow Jesus. Others took the story of Jesus and added Christianity into their religious beliefs in a form of syncretism. Still others rejected the message of the gospel, often because they were facing violent persecution from “Christians” who were really there to secure earthly power and riches.
The complexity of cross-cultural evangelism
Engaging with multiple cultures is complex and fundamentally difficult. As humans, especially if you constitute a majority culture, one may easily fall into viewing other cultures as inferior simply because they are different.
Consider the story of the exodus. When the ethnic group of Israelites were living in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh and the Egyptians eventually enslaved them. When the Egyptians began to fear the Hebrew people, they attempted to stifle it through infanticide and strict oppression (Exodus 1:8–14). This tendency toward fear and groupism is a part of sin nature.
The temptation of “my group is better than yours” was a prominent threat to the early church.
Jesus, in his commission to his followers, said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20). This “all nations” was important because the mission of Jesus’ followers was not to huddle up in their Jewish community. Instead, Jesus makes it clear that he, the Messiah, came for all peoples of all nations.
It was difficult for the first Christians, who were mostly Jewish, to grasp this. Peter came to terms with this calling through a vivid vision (Acts 10). Paul later made it one of his chief missions to bring Gentile and Jewish Christians together (Galatians).
Bridging the gap between cultures can be complicated and fraught with emotions—especially when one person from one culture presents the gospel to someone from a different culture. Patty Lane’s A Beginner’s Guide to Crossing Cultures is an approachable book that gives practical steps to crossing those borders.
Bottom line: it can be complicated to cross cultures with the gospel in a meaningful way.
Renewing our mission and mourning
I don’t know the best way to share the gospel with Native American nations. I am confident, however, that state-enforced residential schools, which often instigated physical and sexual abuse, as well as neglect, are not the best way to spread the gospel.
What started as a mission under the pretenses of education and spreading the gospel has turned into mourning. Hundreds of families lost their children in a far-off school because of a fundamental lack of empathy and misplaced desire for assimilation by the church. When the 215 bodies were discovered, many Native Americans from across different tribes left out pairs of children’s shoes as memorials to those children whose names were lost.
How deeply wretched to consider the weeping of people hurt by abuses of the church.
Did some children come to Jesus because of these schools? Probably.
Are presentations of the gospel always going to be imperfect? Definitely.
But Christians can learn from the mistakes of the past.
Cru has an excellent article on one missionary group’s endeavor to learn about the Native American culture and regain trust with people who have been burned in past centuries by the church. One of the key takeaways was to listen and mourn alongside them.
Self-sacrificial love, acts of kindness, and empathy are crucial to overcoming cultural barriers. Guidance from the Spirit and humble love will ultimately bridge the gap between sinners. And God’s love will draw people from all cultures to himself.
The good news is for all peoples and all nations.