‘Joyful and fun and experimental’: Messy Church program offers new approach to reconciliation education

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Kids at Christ Church in Edmonton learn about Treaty Six during a land acknowledgement. Photo: Contributed

A new initiative in the diocese of Edmonton is helping churches learn about reconciliation through an interactive and intergenerational Messy Church.

Messy Church is a non-traditional church service typically aimed at families. Most Messy Churches meet once a month. The meetings include a craft time, a ‘celebration’ involving story, song, prayer or games, and a sit-down meal.

Fiona Brownlee, Aboriginal and Rural Communities Liaison for the diocese of Edmonton, was approached by a Messy Church run out of St. George’s Anglican Church in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., about the possibility of creating a reconciliation-themed program for one of their meetings. When the diocese’s Archdeacon for Reconciliation Travis Enright heard about it, he decided to make it a diocesan project under the Indigenous Ministries Initiative.

“I was looking for something that was more accessible—and accessible not only to church members or congregation members, but also Indigenous people…in the community,” says Enright. Since the diocese is a “big proponent of Messy Church…[it was] not an uncomfortable place to start.”

“We brought together a team of people—it’s a mixed group of Indigenous and settler folks—and came together to map out how we would do this,” says Brownlee. The group gathered around Brownlee’s kitchen table to “hash it out,” the Rev. Nick Trussell, reconciliation facilitator for the diocese of Edmonton, recalls.

To be a diocesan project, Enright says, the program had to fit the criteria of being adoptable, adaptable and local: something that groups across the diocese could shape to fit their context, participants and churchmanship.

Brownlee says they have since run the program at St. George’s, Christ Church and St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Edmonton, and St. Thomas Anglican Church, Sherwood Park.

The event begins with a land acknowledgement, which is interactive to engage with the children, says Brownlee.

The service also includes crafts related to reconciliation efforts, such as miniature heart gardens and hearts for the Have a Heart campaign—which supports First Nations youth and memorializes residential school survivors—and discussion of the history of residential schools. “There are some wonderful storybooks now that are available to talk to the children about residential school in a gentle enough way that it’s not frightening,” says Brownlee, mentioning titles such as Amik Loves School by Katherena Vermette. “We talk about how kids got taken away. And then we talk about how as a church, we need to say we’re sorry. We then make those hearts, and those hearts are taken into the worship service, and we use them to say we’re sorry for what has happened and that we the church are going to live in a different way.”

The service is followed by a meal of foods traditional to the territory, like bannock, stew or soup and berries. It ends with a four directions prayer, a traditional prayer based on the cardinal directions and colours of the medicine wheel.

“Everything is linked in with the Indigenous experience and how we as a church need to be recognizing [it],” says Brownlee.

Brownlee says she hopes that the Messy Churches that engage with the program continue to incorporate certain elements into their regular meetings, such as a land acknowledgement and lessons that highlight the church’s role in reconciliation.

Each time, the Messy Church is slightly different, Trussell says.

At the event at Christ Church, drum keeper Lloyd Cardinal and a friend were invited to bring a powwow drum and share about its significance. “They smudged and then gave all the kids and all the adults and grandparents teaching about the drum, and then after they had a few prayers and songs for us,” Trussell says. Another attendee, Fred Matthews, a parishioner at St. Thomas Sherwood Park and part of the team that developed the Messy Church program, happened to have his traditional Haudenosaunee flute and joined in a song.

The format differs from other educational tools about reconciliation, Enright says, which can leave participants with a sense of heaviness or rely on residential school survivors sharing their stories, which can be re-traumatizing.

Instead, Enright says, the Messy Church has allowed for joy and awe. “I think allowing people to…laugh and be joyful, but at the same time be at awe of the teachings, is where we should be at in this journey of reconciliation. Where there is joy in what we do, in finding hope again, in finding bonds of love again.”

“It is joyful and fun and experimental, and we get to put our hands on stuff and get a little bit dirty…it’s not simply hearing a story and some facts, but knowing that we’re a part of it, part of what happened, what is happening and what will happen in terms of forming relationships,” says Trussell.

The intergenerational nature of the meetings also provides a unique perspective, Trussell says. “We discover this kind of instant spark for hope that comes from children who hear about the hurt that the church has done. They tend not to hear it with ears of shame or guilt, the way that maybe some of our other members do. Certainly [with] a sorrow. But they hear, more, a call to hope, and that’s, I think, a wonderful gift.”

Having multiple generations in one room is an important part of restoring the generational bonds that were lost when Indigenous children were separated from their parents and grandparents and taken to residential school, Enright says.

“One of the things I honestly believe is that some of our best elders are our children. Wisdom comes from the voices of purity and honesty and respect and hopefulness,” he says.

Brownlee says they hope eventually to create a resource that can be shared widely with other Messy Churches or used by churches as a one-off service.

Messy Church is a missional initiative of the UK’s Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF) and the Fresh Expressions movement.

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Joelle Kidd
Joelle Kidd joined the Anglican Journal in 2017 as staff writer. She has worked as an editor and writer for the Winnipeg-based Fanfare Magazine Group and as freelance copy editor for Naida Communications.

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