Church launches virtual bookclub on Indigenous justice

The Christian church has an ugly history when it comes to relationships with Indigenous communities. It is complicated, and long, and often marked by a possessive, colonial mindset.

But this mindset is slowly changing. As many individuals and communities within churches pivot to recognize this past and their places in it, they seek to understand big ideas of truth, justice, and reconciliation and apply them to their own lives. Such change does not always come about on its own, however: often, someone steps in to help it along.

This shift towards reconciliation is something Victoria Veenstra and Susan Sperez, who work with the Canadian Indigenous Ministry Committee of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), work to support. For Veenstra, the Justice Communications Team coordinator, faith and the pursuit of reconciliation and Indigenous justice is intertwined.

“One of the things that motivates me, personally, for reconciliation is my faith is the understanding that we want justice in the world, that we want shalom— God’s peace— to be in every facet and area of life.” She said.

According to Veenstra, this work is about “connecting these dots for people, asking: “how does reconciliation connect to your faith walk?”

One of the newest tools provided to help people connect these dots is a virtual bookclub presented by the CRCC. Launching in early March, the club is based on Thomas King’s An Inconvenient Indian and aims to provide a resource for church groups looking to engage with reconciliation and Indigenous justice.

Thomas King’s An Inconvenient Indian is a creative and non-conventional account of Indigenous history in North America, told with wit and gravitas. King reviews a variety of Native-non-Native interactions, including treaties, removals, residential schools, and relocations, and concludes that these were all ways to shuffle the “inconvenient Indians” out of the way of European settlement. King argues, overall, that the place of Indigenous people in North American history has been one of massacre, assimilation, and dishonesty since the beginning of colonization— and that this continues today.

Victoria knows that there is incredible weight and responsibility in this topic when it comes to the Church— particularly when it comes to residential schools. “We obviously can’t get very far in reconciliation and not have some knowledge of that.” She said. She and her team hope that this book provides background and new perspective to their predominantly Christian audience.

“We’re hoping that prompts like this can get the groups discussing this to peel back some of the layers. That’s part of the reason for the format. You’re meant to discuss, debate, pull it apart, and ask what you can do with that information.” She said. “We hope that people in their groups can start to engage with some of that difficulty.”

The virtual format of the bookclub is designed to be used nation-wide. The idea to use video was “percolating before COVID” arrived, according to Susan Sperez, the Justice and reconciliation mobilizer with the CRC’s Indigenous Ministry Committee. When virtual events became the norm due to the pandemic, the virtual bookclub was well-positioned to continue.

The virtual club was inspired by the success of an in-person club Sperez ran in her hometown on King’s book. “But we can’t ship Shannon around the country to host all these bookclubs,” Veenstra explained. The question then was: “how do we get someone who knows Indigenous justice to facilitate bookclubs happening in local communities?”

Though an accessible virtual format, Veenstra still imagines people gathering to view the videos together. If the group is small enough and the pandemic restrictions in their area allows it, “there would be something warm about that,” she said.

The body of content is simple: there are four short, accessible videos that provide an introduction to each section of the book by a Christian engaging in reconciliation: two Indigenous christians, and two non-indigenous Christians. Then, the videos pose questions connecting the speaker’s story and the book to relate the Christian experiences of the audience with those of the Indigenous experiences King describes.

“It’s one way people can be introduced to the conversation.” Victoria says. Sperez agrees: "One way we try to work with people is we try to meet them where they’re at. That way they can take a resource and use it on their own time and dive deeper into it with conversation.”

Though the videos are made with the audience of the Christian Reform Church in mind, the videos will be free and publicly available on YouTube. Sperez is excited to watch the project bloom: “we welcome anyone who’s in their journey of reconciliation to join with us in this.” Sperez said. “Everything is pulling for our time and… [it’s] so important to learn about Indigenous people’s lives, and to still have these conversations.”