Canadian Mennonite
Volume 10, No. 06
March 20, 2006


Speaking what we have seen and heard

Ray Aldred presented this address at the joint Mennonite Church Canada/USA assembly in Charlotte on July 9, 2005. He is a member of the Cree Nation, serves as director of the First Nations Alliance Churches of Canada, and lives in Regina.


At the end of the book of Acts, Luke writes that the gospel has been sent to the Gentiles and they will listen. The nations are listening, but we must continue to speak because every 30 years the whole task of evangelism and discipleship must begin again. We never arrive until the final culmination of history in Christ’s second coming, but until then we proclaim what we have seen and heard.

What if our picture is too small?

I am a product of western theological training, with a bachelor’s degree from Canadian Bible College and a master’s degree from Canadian Theological Seminary. But I found this level of theological discourse was not adequate. I came to believe that Jesus was bigger than my doctrinal statements. While pastoring an aboriginal church, the answers to too many of my questions could not be found in my training.

There were aspects of aboriginal Christianity that did not find a place in western evangelical theology. If theology is words describing God, then the western evangelical picture was not big enough to do justice to all of what God was doing in the aboriginal church. I found a bigger picture of Jesus by looking through the eyes of my ancestors—the Cree people of northern Alberta, the Cree people of the plains of Saskatchewan, the Mohawk people of the east. In a sense, I had lost touch with the gospel story, but I heard it again when I looked through aboriginal eyes and listened with aboriginal ears.

North American evangelicalism is in need of a bigger picture of Jesus. If we want to proclaim the gospel, to share with boldness what we have seen and heard, then we need to encounter Jesus in and through God’s Word. The Holy Spirit will teach us, bringing to mind all that Jesus has said. But what if we don’t know what Jesus said—or what God said—because we do not read or listen or see or touch or smell the gospel story?

The West evaluates the gospel according to a scientific worldview and cannot evaluate its scientific worldview unless it hears the gospel told from other cultures. In order to tell what we have heard, we need to listen. But the West does not like to listen. We tend to think that we have arrived, just like the religious leaders thought they had figured it out. They had made relationship with God into a set of rules, but missed Jesus in the whole process.

Some people say, “If only God would send revival and make things like the way they used to be.” But I am part of a group who were systematically persecuted in the name of Christ and the church. I don’t want it to be the way it used to be.

Conservativism and liberalism never saved anyone

Two dominant movements in modern western theology are the fundamentalist movement and the liberal movement. As they attempted to make the gospel relevant to the cultural climate of their day, the gospel story was lost. It lost its authority in the evangelical church because Christianity has become synonymous with western culture; it no longer calls western culture to conversion.

The fundamentalist movement, believing in the whole rational process, thought it could state truth once and for all in the form of propositions. There is value in doing that, but it is not enough to contain all the truth of God. The centre of authority was moved away from the gospel story and into a set of propositions. This leads to ongoing reductions of the gospel story to a bumper sticker or a caption on a cartoon.

The other theological movement is liberalism. Wanting to show that Christianity was palatable to those who had given up the idea of God’s transcendence, many tried to show how their experience was really what everyone had always felt. The call for conversion was lost because everyone already had God present, working in his or her life; it was a personal kind of faith. Liberal theology could not call a culture’s way of looking at things into question because it equated each culture as being good enough. If each culture is already good enough, there is no need for conversion and no need for the gospel story, or to proclaim what we have seen and heard. For, you see, the gospel story calls every culture to radical conversion.

Western evangelical Christianity has lost touch with the gospel story, either by replacing it with a set of fundamentalist propositions or by privatizing faith into some kind of Carl Rogers gospel message of “you’re okay, I’m okay.” Either Jesus and the gospel story are reduced to a set of pithy statements emblazed upon a T-shirt or to an “ooshy” feeling. I am not against doctrinal statements on T-shirts or “ooshy” feelings, but neither is sufficient to call western culture, or other cultures, to a radical conversion.

Relearning the gospel story: Indigenous theology

I was out there trying to bring people the gospel story, but I had lost touch with it. However, God used my aboriginal people to inform my theological training. One gift to me, and to the church in North America, was their understanding of communal identity. We can relearn the gospel by being in community with people who are different from us. Peter and John and the followers of Jesus were ordinary people who had been living the gospel story. If we are going to relearn the story, we need to listen to the story being told back to us from other peoples.

We know that the gospel has passed on to another group when we dislike what it looks like. But we need to listen, so we can talk about what we have seen and heard.

In storytelling, the teller of the story is never the individual autonomous author. The idea of copyright is a western idea. For example, I was taught that when you speak about wisdom, one should not say, “I know,” because it conveys arrogance, that knowledge originated with me. Instead, one should say, “I understand.” Knowledge and wisdom did not originate with me; I merely moved into a river of understanding that was flowing from the Creator and had flowed through many others before me.

Thinking about how stories work in aboriginal culture also showed me that my western theology had a bent toward arrogance. Western society says we have to be in control and we have been arrogant enough to believe that we are the first people to ever get this Christianity thing right. Since the time of the early church, every new denomination or every new church thinks they are the first ones who have gotten it right. We have forgotten, as missionary and theologian Lesslie Newbigin puts it, “that the church is a body of sinful men and women who falsely identify their grasp of the truth with the truth itself.” We in the modern western church have been trying to close the door on other cultures, contextualizing the gospel by reducing the gospel story to a set of platitudes or personal experience.

An effective storyteller is not in control of the story, but is controlled by the story. A story goes where it is supposed to go. The story is not mine to make it say whatever I want it to say; I must be faithful in the telling of the story as it has been told before.

At the same time, I can be creative; the story does not have to be exactly verbatim every time. One can embellish the story, use a little bit of poetic licence. Jesus used hyperbole, or at least we all believe he used extreme exaggeration, to make a point, or we would all be walking around with one eye and no right hand.

The writers of the gospels gave us four different stories. No, we have one story told by four different storytellers. The picture we have of Jesus is greater because we read all four. The differing details in the gospel story do not undermine the story, but serve to enhance it. The story controls the storyteller. Throughout Scripture, there are images repeated, always shaped by the authors or editors, but always controlled by the Spirit, and always we have the same story.

In almost any culture, stories have a certain integrity that is non-negotiable. Certain phrases can function as shorthand for the story. I believe that is what is going on when New Testament writers allude to a verse or phrase from the Old Testament. This is not the same as proof-texting. As I tell my homiletics students, if in your study of Scripture you arrive at an interpretation that no one else has ever arrived at, think about that. We are storytellers; we are called to be faithful, not original.

Liberalism came up with the idea that when you are telling the gospel, you don’t have to use the name of Jesus. The name of Jesus just gets everyone upset, so instead of using “Jesus,” use another word that is more comfortable for everyone. So we use “higher power,” or “God,” or another reasonable facsimile.

As I thought about how the gospel story works, and about being a storyteller, I remembered something. When my children were little they used to sit and listen to books on tape. We would read the classics to them, the Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, Wisakishak and the Ducks. The kids would want my dad, their grandfather, to read stories to them.

Well, my dad would start reading the Three Little Pigs, but he didn’t like to read the words, so he would tell the story. “There was this wolf that wanted to eat these pigs, so he goes to B and E this one house. Since he couldn’t get in, he says, ‘Let me in, you crazy pigs!’ The little pigs yelled back, ‘No way are you gettin’ in here!’” At this point, my kids would say, “That is not how it goes, Grandpa! The pigs say, ‘Not by the hair on my chinny, chin, chin!’”

Even a little kid who knows the story of Jesus can turn to a liberal theologian who is saying “higher power” instead of “Jesus” and say, “That is not how the story goes. That is not how I heard it; that is not how we understand it.”

Peter and John proclaimed what they had seen and heard and touched and smelled. They proclaimed the Old Testament mixed with their personal experience with Christ, and this produced the collection of books and letters that was canonized and became the Bible. As we take in the Bible, and as it takes us in, we proclaim what we have heard and seen. But we must place the gospel as the first thing—not our theology, not our individual experience—but the gospel story.

The gospel story is the first thing. It is the gospel story that I had lost in all my education. The need is to tell the gospel story and to let the story control us, not us control the story. You see, the story shapes us. God uses his spirit to shape us in the midst of the community of faith.

We have each been shaped by the story. If we want to proclaim that which we have seen and heard, then we need to listen, to see and hear the gospel story told and retold. That is what changes people. There are new things happening; the gospel is continuing to go out. People are being changed and encountering Jesus, as the story goes out.

—Ray Aldred

Cree theologian explains cultural misunderstandings

Langley, B.C.

About 20 students stand in a circle listening to a familiar song, sung in a different language, led by a small, soft-spoken woman wearing a fringed shawl, beating on a painted drum. The students are from Trinity Western University (TWU) taking part in a cultural communications class; the song, “Amazing Grace” is sung in Cree. The woman is Mary Fontaine, a Cree theologian with a vision.

Darryl Klassen, coordinator of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Aboriginal Neighbours program in British Columbia, puts the class into context when he explains the circular set-up. “In aboriginal communities, the circle is very important,” he says. “In the circle, everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner; all are equal.”

To put the class in further perspective, he shares the story of standing in the middle of a clear-cut with an aboriginal elder who sang a song of lament and then said, “God was here before the white man came.”

“We think of the biblical story as being focused in the Middle East alone, forgetting that God was in the whole world from the beginning,” Klassen says. “In that sense, we can think of aboriginals as Old Testament people and ask them to ‘tell us what you know about God.’”

Fontaine then introduces the class to some of the misunderstandings that come when different cultures meet. As she shares her vision, Fontaine also shares her personal journey of growing up in a Cree Christian family that attended a Presbyterian church and practised as much of their culture as they were able. For years, aboriginal celebrations like the Sun Dance were outlawed, but her parents managed to keep their culture and language alive for their children. Fontaine accepted Jesus Christ as her personal saviour, and although she was “walking the walk and talking the talk, and experiencing joy,” there was still something that was missing for her.

After working in Alberta and moving to B.C., Fontaine began Hummingbird Ministries, to bring aboriginal people and others together, and to overcome misunderstandings as they journey with the Creator God. The hummingbird symbolizes the “Legend of the Hummingbird and the Crane” given to Fontaine by Steve Greymorning, an Arapaho man. The legend affirms the need for people to help one another.

Sitting out on the “table of thanksgiving” are the symbols of her life: a red and black button vest with a hummingbird on it, made by a Tshimshian First Nation family; the painted drum made for her by Tshimshian artist Mike Dangeli; a beaded buckskin vest given to her by her brother; beadwork; her Cree hymnal; an eagle feather; a burning candle; a glass with water; and an oyster shell bowl with a braid of sweet grass and prayer ties.

“In the circle, we understand that the Creator is at the centre,” she explains. “The circle represents humility, equality and respect.”

Another gift that aboriginal culture brings to Christianity is a focus on the visual. The smoke of burning sweetgrass creates a sensory symbol of human prayers: as the smoke rises, prayers rise up to God. “As we smell the smoke, we ask God to cleanse our minds so we can discern, our eyes so we can see the truth, our nose so we can sense the truth, our mouth so we can speak the truth, and finally our hearts so we can respond in love,” she says.

As the eagle feather is passed around, each person in turn shares what he or she found significant.

“I appreciate the circle and that in it we are all equal,” says John Butler, a graduate music student who is now in the TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) program. “I appreciate that about the Cree people. We could learn a lot from that.”

Another student points out that in western society people sit in rows, focus more on their own strength and self, and are more private. “I like seeing faces, rather than the back of heads,” the student says.

An Asian man comments on the fact that the class has given him a new perspective. “I am Chinese and this experience has challenged me to see God within my own culture,” he says.

Fontaine ends the class by singing a haunting prayer that reminds listeners of the need for balance in their lives, the need to slow down and find a quiet place.

—MCC B.C. release

New aboriginal minister shares his life story


Osler, Sask.

In an effort to connect with the aboriginal community in Saskatoon, the Mennonite Church Saskatchewan Ministries Commission recently decided to hire Ray Dumais to begin a house fellowship in city.

During his six-month contract with the conference, Dumais works two to three days a week building friendships with the community of mostly Cree-speaking people whom, he says, do not trust white people easily.

At the MC Saskatchewan annual delegate sessions in Osler, Dumais shared his story with 25 workshop participants who came to hear him. Like many other aboriginals who have found their way to God, Dumais said his life took a few rough turns first. In fact, his life sort of happened without much thought. But along the way, to his relief, God intervened and set him on the path to healing.

Dumais was in his early teens when his family of 14 siblings broke apart. Being a child of mixed ancestry, he didn’t fit in anywhere. With only one Cree parent, he didn’t feel at home in his First Nation community.

In the city, it wasn’t much better. “There, I was just an Indian,” he said.

A life on the streets forced him to reach up and God began to answer. “That’s when I said my first prayer from my heart,” he recalled. “I prayed, ‘God if there is another way, please show me what it is.’”

Dumais first became exposed to Mennonites when he met Reuben Block, a Mennonite Brethren pastor working in a drop-in centre in the inner city. Now, having overcome a host of barriers, the short, stocky Metis Christian can talk about his vision and the work he feels called to.

“I’d love to see an aboriginal faith community here,” explained the father of seven. At the end of his talk, the soft-spoken Dumais said simply, “Now you know my story. I want to know yours.”

That, he believes, is how strangers become neighbours.

—Karin Fehderau

Native Ministry magazine strives for national audience


Intotemak, meaning “my friends,” has been a staple in the outreach plan for Mennonite Church Canada’s Native Ministry since 1972.

With a complete re-design and plans for increasing national exposure, Edith and Neill von Gunten, the new Native Ministry coordinators, now hope to reach more readers with a newsy approach to the Intotemak newsletter that also highlights a variety of available resources. Readers will also be able to browse back issues online.

The quarterly newsletter seeks to reflect what is happening in communities, provinces, and on the national scene, as congregations and individuals interact with their aboriginal brothers and sisters.

The editors welcome articles and pictures about relationship-building, events of interest, and issues that help natives and non-natives learn more about each other as “friends.” Comments and further suggestions are welcome.

To subscribe to Intotemak, contact the Native Ministry office at 600 Shaftesbury Blvd., Winnipeg, MB R3P 0M4, or e-mail The cost is $12 for four issues per year.

—MC Canada release by Dan Dyck

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