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An Interview with Jodi Spargur

July 19, 2017

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October 17, 2017

An Interview with Jodi Spargur

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Originally from South Dakota, Jodi Spargur lives in Vancouver, BC (a city on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations). Jodi has an MDiv degree from Regent College in Vancouver and currently runs Healing at the Wounding Place, a movement seeking to catalyze justice and healing between church and Indigenous peoples. She formerly pastored God’s House of Many Faces, a church with a large Indigenous population. During the 2017 Summer Conference of the BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz, we interviewed Jodi about her work alongside Indigenous people.


BPFNA: You are originally from South Dakota. What took you to Canada?

JS: I went to Canada for seminary, and then various opportunities opened up that caused me to stay. I thought by going to Canada I was going to a kinder, gentler world than the US. I was wrong. The violence in the States is straight up and in your face but in Canada it is hidden and sometimes worse.

Racism is built deeply into the system. In Canada there are more children in foster care right now than were students at the height of the Residential Schools. So we’re still removing children from families and culture, still devastating families and communities. Canadian stats are even worse than in the US on incarceration, especially women. Incarceration rates for Indigenous women are 20 times higher than the general population.

BPFNA: Tell us about your education.

JS: My undergraduate degree is from South Dakota State University. I did all my degree work at Florida International University in Miami. I studied International Relations with a focus on faith-based resistance movements, so the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s was my area of study.

BPFNA: What made you decide to go to seminary?

JS: I felt a strong sense of calling to pastoral ministry on my life for a long time. I was drawn to Regent College, particularly because it was the only seminary I knew of at the time that was not primarily for people who were going to be working in churches. Its emphasis was on lay people, and I wanted to be educated as a clergy person in that context and also in the context of a secular university. The University of British Columbia is where the seminary is located.

The implications of colonization are still manifested today. Canada is currently going through a Truth and Reconciliation process, but the effects of colonization are still happening around us. So I’m going to Truth and Reconciliation hearings during the day, and I’m coming home at night, and I have a child who lives with me because he moved himself in because he wants to finish high school. Neither his father nor grandfather went to school because of the intergenerational impacts of the Residential Schools. His grandfather was abused horrifically in those schools, so he didn’t send HIS son to school, so then there’s nothing good about education in his mind to encourage him to send the next generation to school.

This is today. These are third graders who stopped going to school, and their parents have no reason to tell them to go because education is still a healing journey for Indigenous people in Canada. It is not a means of betterment like it is for so much of the rest of the world. It’s just how do we get back to baseline? How can I see education as a positive thing?

BPFNA: Can you talk more about the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in Vancouver?

JS: There were national events in seven communities and there were smaller community hearings. They tried to get into as many communities as possible so more stories could be collected from Residential School survivors. As the commission went on, there were an increasing number of non-Indigenous voices, both in terms of presence at the hearings and participating by telling their own stories.

This is one of the criticisms of Indigenous people of the process is that yes there is value in telling their stories but they also want to know “Where were you?” Did you know this was happening and what did you think about it?

I heard very powerful testimonies from Residential School officers whose jobs it was to go get kids who ran away from school and bring them back. And for them to be able to say “This is what I understood at that point in time, here’s my current understanding, and here’s what I’m committed to do as a result.”

It was also important to them to hear stories from teachers. Nuns were really the only teachers willing to tell their stories; none of the brothers or priests told their stories, or even very many other teachers, but nuns are the ones who said most loudly and most fiercely “I participated in this.” That’s a big deal, to look at your whole life’s calling and say “My calling was in the service of something evil.” That doesn’t make what they did evil necessarily, piece by piece, but it’s really important to say, “What I participated in was no good.”

The violence of removing children from their homes and abusing children—using that as the tactic to conquer people—is insidious and so gross and ugly. And it’s couched in the language of faith. We are going to Christianize, we are going to kill the Indian in the child and save the man. All couched in salvation language. The church was the hand of the state in carrying that out.

BPFNA: How did this become your passion?

JS: I was part of planting a church in the inner city of Vancouver. We thought it would be a multicultural church, but when we started, it was Indigenous people who came, and they invited their friends. For me, moving into a mostly Indigenous community, my experience has been totally altered. I’m in the exact same city, ten blocks from where I’ve lived before, but I’m walking with different people and having completely different experiences.

So very rapidly we became a church of 75 who were all Indigenous and I had no idea what I was doing. But I had a strong enough sense of contextualized gospel to say, “How do we do this well?”

This was happening on the one hand, and, at the same time, the Truth and Reconciliation process was starting in Canada. I was invited by my Baptist denomination to sit at a table that was half First Nations—survivors of Residential Schools, and actually the original five who brought the Truth and Reconciliation process forward.

They were convinced that, for real reconciliation, for real healing and justice to occur, people of faith needed to be a part of that conversation. They see this work as spiritual work. So they invited denominational leaders to sit with them. We sat together for three hours once a month for five years in preparation for the Vancouver Truth and Reconciliation work. It was a really powerful experience.

Both of those were huge learning curves of total immersion into a different worldview and understanding the history and perspective and implications on the lives of people. Those two things came together and then the Truth and Reconciliation commission ended. We had final recommendations going forward.

Then Chief Bobby Joseph, who was one of the survivors, asked me personally, “Would you help people who pray continue to be a part of this conversation? As we’ve come through the Truth and Reconciliation process, it seems that the general culture is opening up to this conversation, but people of faith don’t know their role and their place, and if people who pray aren’t there, then we can’t actually get to that spiritual healing that we need.”

So he said “Jodi, would you do this?” and I’ve learned that, when an Elder asks you to do something, you say “Yes” and try your very best.

There was another invitation that was really important for me. I was talking with some colleagues from the United Church and the Anglican Church and they were saying, “Why are you here as a Baptist? You didn’t even run schools, and it really sucks to be here as a Church representative in the first place. Why would you choose to be here?”

So I was talking eloquently about “sharing in the body of Christ” and “carrying each other’s burdens” and someone came and said, “Hey, Jodi, there’s someone here from the Baptist Residential School, and she wants to talk to somebody about it.” And I said, “What?!”

BPFNA: So there was a Baptist Residential School?

JS: There was one! It ran from 1950 to 1966. Basically, no one has claimed this school. It was called the Baptist Indian Mission. So a woman named Adeliene Webber said to me, “I understand that no one is legally responsible for this, but, in order for those of us who went to this school, and in order for our community to heal, we need two things. First, we need photographs like everyone else who’s here—”

(Photos were a big part of Truth and Reconciliation. The archives had been released so people could go online and look at pictures from their childhood, which they had never seen before, because they had all been held in church archives.)

So Adeliene said, “We know there are pictures. We remember them being taken, but we have no pictures of our childhood. And, second, we need people with whom to be reconciled.”

BPFNA: Does nobody know who the organizers were?

JS: Yes, we do, but it was a Baptist missionary from Seattle who was supposed to go to Alaska. He was an independent missionary. At that time, all Baptist work in British Columbia was run out of Seattle. There have been splits that had happened since then, so how do you trace those lines? Who ends up with that responsibility?

As I tell these stories to other Baptist churches in Western Canada, many respond by saying, “We want to be this face. Can we do that?” That’s important and powerful.

Also, it’s my experience of pastoring a church that, for so many people, it doesn’t matter what label the church had that ran the school, the reality is that people who look like me came in the name of Jesus and did horrible things.

As a church, we met outside. There were lots of people who, in the winter when we had to move inside, would never come in with us, because they felt that was violating the memory of a loved one. But, if they could be outside on the land, they were very attracted to the person of Jesus and the message of the Gospel.

BPFNA: Tell us about your other work.

JS: The other work that I do, what I like to call Healing at the Wounding Place—and it always gets misnomered as Healing at the Wounded Place because we still have a sense that we’re more comfortable being wounded than being perpetrators of any kind of violence. This owns that the site of the church has been a place of wounding of Indigenous folks in Canada and enables us to say that over and over and over so that the healing can come.

A large aspect of my work is to help non-Indigenous communities learn from Indigenous leaders who already know what is best for their communities. They know where healing is needed, they know where practical work is needed, where solidarity is needed. I try to gather Indigenous leaders in particular communities and then local churches, and say “How can we make churches ready to be good partners in solidarity with you?”

We’re working to give theological construct for why and how it is that we actually embrace our identity as perpetrators. That is the place where we need to find mercy. The church that’s now awakened to these realities has real things to do on the ground. The question is, will we show up to those things?

BPFNA: To confess our sin?

JS: Exactly. This is our foundation, but we’ve gotten our audiences wrong. We’ve preached repentance to Indigenous people, and we have not done it ourselves. It’s time to turn that around. And Indigenous people already have this message of hope and grace and mercy that is really powerful, and they will offer that before we can demonstrate that we’re worthy of receiving it. But it’s a powerful, powerful thing and a privilege to bear witness to.

So I try to create an environment where this conversation can happen. I think it’s deep and good healing for all peoples. As non-Indigenous people learn to be good guests, Indigenous people already understand themselves to be guests—guests of the land, guests of God.

We need to recover the idea of being a good guest, and it has implications too for how we welcome the strangers who come by migration as well. The Indigenous communities in Canada are receiving refugees and welcoming them into communities that don’t even have access to drinkable water. They are welcoming refugees and showing these beautiful ways of continuing to be places of welcome and hospitality.

BPFNA: How can BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz assist you in your work?

JS: The sharing of resources and the sharing of connections between Indigenous communities is huge. I think the advantage of this network is that it could also facilitate the making of connections. For example, it would be amazing to go under the umbrella of BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz to Chiapas with some Indigenous folks. A cross-pollination of Indigenous communities directly would be really exciting. And I think it would benefit us all. Some people think we’re separate in our work, but actually when we do this work well it bleeds out into all these other aspects of our lives and theology and our frameworks.

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