The Anglican Church of Canada’s new reconciliation animator, says the church needs to see reconciliation as a “gospel imperative” that transforms how the church operates.
“I believe that reconciliation needs to become a spiritual practice, so that…it becomes part of our day-to-day thinking and the way that we approach everything that we do in our work and in our social time,” Melanie Delva said in a news release announcing her hiring.
Delva has worked extensively on reconciliation-related issues throughout her 12 years as a church archivist for the diocese of New Westminster and the ecclesiastical provincial synod of British Columbia and Yukon.
She was involved in the pilot project for document collection, in which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) worked with a select number of church entities (including the diocese of New Westminster and the Anglican Church of Canada) to explore how it would manage the collection of documents related to the Indian residential school system from church archives.
Delva has also presented papers on reconciliation and Indigenous-rights related issues in Canada, the United States and Europe, according to the press release.
Despite the Anglican Church of Canada’s official apology for its involvement in the Indian residential school system, and its stated commitments to pursue reconciliation, Delva told the Anglican Journalshe anticipates resistance in some parts of the church.
“In some areas of the church, I think I’ll still kind of bump into the ‘well, the TRC is over, we gave them the money, why do we still have to do this?’ ” she said. “I think there’s a lot less of that [than there was five years ago], but I think that there is a little bit of that still.”
Delva’s role will involve implementing the national church’s response to the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action, working to ensure the church honours the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and supporting the reconciliation work of local congregations and Anglican groups.
The position was created following Henriette Thompson’s stepping down as the national church’s director of public witness for social and ecological justice in March of 2016.
Thompson’s work had involved co-ordinating the church’s environmental, social justice and reconciliation efforts at a national level, but with the position empty, national church leadership decided to split the role into two: a lead animator of public witness for social and ecological justice, and a reconciliation animator.
The decision to use the term “animator” reflected a shift in emphasis from a top-down policy approach toward empowering the work happening at the local level, said Archdeacon Michael Thompson, general secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada.
While stepping into a newly-created role comes with the freedom to shape how it evolves, Delva is also aware of just how broad her brief is.
“Trying to kind of narrow down the priorities and decide where to put energy will be a huge challenge,” she said.
She said her first priority will simply be creating an inventory of the work that is being done at the parish and diocesan levels across the country.
“A lot of it, to begin with, is assessing where we’re at,” she said. “And then seeing, what are the ways that General Synod can support grassroots initiatives?”
She also plans on spending a lot of her time paying attention to the concerns and issues facing people doing reconciliation on the ground.
“I think better outcomes come out of taking time at the outset to really listen and hear,” she said, noting that Western institutions often want to tie employment positions to clear sets of “deliverables,” which may not be appropriate given the complexity of reconciliation work.
“It’s hard to peg deliverables around something that really has a spiritual, emotional, cultural and sociological component to it,” she said.
But though she is excited to begin her new role June 1, she is not starry-eyed about the realities of reconciliation work.
Raised in Manitoba, Delva knows first-hand the obstacles to reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people that exist in some parts of the country.
“I grew up surrounded by really racist attitudes, and in my work as an archivist, I really went through a personal transformation,” she said, explaining that working with hundreds of residential school survivors, whose files she had to review, opened her eyes to the extensive mistreatment Indigenous peoples have faced at the hands of church and government.
A key part of her own journey, she said, was being adopted into the Grizzly Clan of the Lytton Band of the Nlaka’pamux First Nation, and having Coyote Terry Aleck, who was one of six residential school survivors of St. George’s Indian Residential School in Lytton, B.C., who sued the Anglican church and the government, become her clan father.
Despite the fact that Delva was raised to think of Indigenous peoples through a narrow lens of racist stereotypes, and that Aleck’s treatment at residential school made him “really angry” at white people for a long time, that they are now family gives Delva faith in the possibility of reconciliation.
“That is the gospel incarnate,” she said. “We’re kind of a micro level of reconciliation. And that consistently gives me hope that reconciliation is possible at a macro level.”