Indigenous Native Priest reflects on first year

Posted on February 6, 2018

By Stuart Mann

To gauge the Rev. Chris Harper’s level of happiness and fulfillment, you have to check the length of his hair. In Plains Cree culture, he explains, long hair is a symbol of patience, identity and wisdom, as well as a powerful connection to your ancestors, the Creator and the land.

The Rev. Chris Harper speaks at a vigil and lament for water at Holy Trinity, Trinity Square on Jan. 17. Photo by Michael Hudson

Mr. Harper, who is the diocese’s Indigenous Native Priest, used to have two long braids stretching halfway down his back. He had to get them cut off when he went to school – a devastating experience, he recalls – and kept them off as a parish priest.  

But his hair is getting long again, enough to make a ponytail – a sure sign that he is settling into his new life and ministry in the diocese. “I’m walking an amazing path where I am allowed to be who I am for the first time,” he says. “I’m relishing every moment.”

Mr. Harper admits that he was “terrified” when he started the job a little more than a year and a half ago. Coming from a parish in Thunder Bay, where he was the incumbent, he didn’t know what to expect. His main task was to serve as a pastor to the diocese’s Indigenous population – a tall order by any means. The City of Toronto alone has about 60,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit people, and about half of them are Anglican.

He was also starting during a watershed moment in Canada’s and the Anglican Church’s history. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2015 had released its final report into the history and legacy of Canada’s residential schools. Included in the report were 94 “calls to action” urging governments and institutions to address the harm caused by the schools and move forward with reconciliation.

His first priority was to “get the lay of the land” – meeting people both in and outside the Church, to discuss whatever was on their minds. He says it has been a journey of discovery and revelation.

“I’ve seen it all,” he says. “One of the most wonderful things has been to see the amazing diversity of the Church, from people who are willing to embrace new thoughts and ideas about Indigenous peoples, to others who are in outright denial or think that Indigenous peoples don’t even exist.”

He has visited 36 parishes and is already booked into November. “It’s been wonderful,” he says. “All the churches have been gracious and welcoming.”

When he’s invited to a church, he usually preaches. “I stay true to my calling as a priest – I preach the gospel,” he says. “I don’t preach the gospel of the TRC or the gospel of Indigenous ministry. I try to bring it under the lens of what we can be – how the gospel speaks to all nations and is a hope for everyone.”

He will spend as much time at a church as he is needed, whether for one service or three. He will also speak at informal parish events. “One of the greatest things I’ve been doing is simply speaking with people and answering questions – often questions they’ve always wanted to ask but were afraid to. In those situations, I always say that you can’t offend me, so go ahead and ask anything.”

In addition to parish visits, he has led workshops, seminars and a clergy retreat. “I’ll speak on whatever the organizer is looking for. Usually it’s about what Indigenous spirituality is and what it could be. I’ll also speak about the TRC – what’s been happening and where it is now.”

When he’s discussing the TRC, he often touches other subjects as well, such as Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and the Sixties Scoop, the name given to the practice in the 1960s of taking Indigenous children from their families and placing them in foster homes or up for adoption. “I try to bring everyone into the history of where we have been as a Church and as Canadians,” he says.

He has been humbled by what he has seen and heard on his travels. “I’ve discovered that the people of this diocese live true to their Christian calling – they are a people of hope, and there is the potential for something wondrous to happen. I think what the churches are saying and realizing is that they need to allow the Holy Spirit to move, even when they want to resist.”

A number of churches across the diocese have made efforts to learn about Indigenous issues and respond to the TRC’s calls to action. These have included field trips to reserves, holding a Blanket Exercise, inviting a speaker, joining an advocacy group, visiting a former residential school, donating goods for remote communities, taking part in a demonstration, going on a youth exchange and saying prayers on Sunday.

The Rev. Chris Harper performs a smudging ceremony at the beginning of the sixth annual Keepers of the Water Vigil of Lament and Thanksgiving at Holy Trinity, Trinity Square on Jan. 17. Photo by Michael Hudson

Indigenous spiritual practices are much more prominent in the diocese than they were a few years ago. Smudging ceremonies are increasingly common, as is the practice of acknowledging that a service or meeting is taking place on traditional First Nations land. Clergy and lay people are involved in reconciliation efforts at the national, diocesan and parish level. The diocese recently gave $100,000 to the national church’s Healing Fund.

“This is an exciting time to be in the Church and to see what the Spirit is doing among us,” says Mr. Harper. “Change is huge because it stirs the stagnant water, but it’s also good and I want people to see that.”

Looking ahead, he is excited about the creation of a national Indigenous church within the Anglican Church of Canada, possibly as early as 2019. He also sees the potential for an Indigenous congregation forming in the diocese within the next five years, possibly sharing space with another church or on its own.

“I think people in the diocese are starting to understand that one way of doing things is not the answer for all peoples,” he says. “We have a great diversity of churches, and each one speaks to a certain people. They listen and say, ‘Yes, this is my home.’ Indigenous people have not found that yet within the Church.”

One of the things he hopes to do more of in 2018 is visit rural churches. “I’d like to see what’s going on and help them in their ministries, especially as they relate to the TRC.”

His second goal is to get out on the land, something he hasn’t been able to do much of since moving to Toronto. “I’ve always been in rural parishes and places where I could step out into nature. A city park just doesn’t cut it. I’d like to connect to the land and re-energize my batteries.”

Most of all, however, he looks forward to continuing to meet people. “As Indigenous Native Priest, I’ve discovered that my calling is to work with the churches and to help them embrace diversity and change. I try to get people to see that we don’t need to be held back by fear and trepidation, but that we can walk bravely forward into the future that is in the plan and movement of the Spirit.”

He adds: “It’s all about embracing people around us. We’ve hugged ourselves for too long and it has become a straightjacket. We need to open our arms and welcome others into the Church.”