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    Indigenous and Christian

    Three Salvationists share how their heritage and faith work together. June 21, 2016
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    Altogether One Heart


    by Damian Azak, Corps Leader, Gitwinksihlkw, B.C.

    Damian AzakI am a Nisga'a from a small community, Gitwinksihlkw, B.C., in the K'alii Aksim Lisims. I was raised to take care of the people, the land and the animals. I was raised to honour my mother and father and to respect my elders and all people. I was raised to help those in need and to pray and read my Bible.

    In 2002, I gave up alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana and became a soldier in The Salvation Army. My grandfather always said that God and our culture go hand in hand. They are both important. What joins them together? The answer is Jesus Christ.

    As a Nisga'a and a Christian, I believe that my culture and faith work together. What other Christians call God, we know as K'amligiihahlhaahl (which translates, the Great Light that surrounds us, everywhere). K'amligiihahlhaahl has been here since the beginning of time. My ancestors knew of him long before the missionaries came to Nisga'a lands. They praised and thanked him for the sun rising each day. They praised and thanked him for every event that happened. Whenever we gather together—whether it's a big gathering, such as a feast, or a Nisga'a government meeting—we pray before we open the gathering and when we close it.

    When The Salvation Army introduced the vision “One Army, One Mission, One Message,” I knew that I could serve under it because the Nisga'a are raised to live in the spirit of Sayt K'il'im Goot (which translates, Altogether One Heart). This was an easy vision for me to identify with.

    About a year after signing the Soldier's Covenant, I struggled with the contents of it and I told my grandmother. I was seeing it as a list of rules that I had to conform to. My grandmother showed me that it is about Christ and the Word. Since then, I have been living my life the way I interpret Mark 10:43-45—I am a servant. As a leader, I believe that my greatest message should come from what I do and how I live my life. When I took an official title within the Gitwinksihlkw Youth Council, an elder in the community spoke to me and taught me that my life needs to be like a glass house. I should never try to hide anything because it always surfaces.

    I do my best to live out the Nisga'a Ayuuk (Nisga'a laws) and the Word. I find I make the same decisions living according to both of these guides. The Nisga'a laws support Scripture. The Scripture calls us to love God and love our neighbours (see Matthew 22:37-39), and that is how I try to live. I do that in how I serve as a corps leader in Gitwinksihlkw, with my wife, Erica, in all that we do—whether it's with the Food Share, Kids Club or everyday living.

    Being a Nisga'a and a Salvationist is who I am. God created each culture and they work together because he is a good and perfect God.




    A Place to Belong


    by Lieutenant Crystal Porter, Corps Officer, Labrador City/Wabush, N.L.

    Crystal PorterIf you have ever questioned where you belong, you're not alone. For me, it has been a lingering issue, one that ultimately comes down to asking, Who am I?

    I am Crystal. I am a Salvation Army officer. I am a wife, daughter, sister and, most recently, a foster mom. For as long as I can remember I have been a part of a church family, which has reminded me that I am a child of God. I am also Aboriginal.

    My grandmother was Mi'kmaq, but as a child I rarely heard her speak about it. For her, being Aboriginal was not something to be proud of and our family never embraced that part of our heritage. It would take a long journey, countless people and many prayers for me to come to a place of confidence and peace with my Aboriginal identity.

    When I graduated from high school, I moved to Winnipeg to attend a discipleship and mission program at Booth University College. In Winnipeg, I learned more than I could have imagined. At Weetamah Corps, I was immersed in Aboriginal culture and worshipped with people who were willing to be real before their Creator and others. Slowly, my thinking began to shift as I realized my worth in the Creator's eyes.

    Many years would pass and more learning moments would take place, preparing me for last year when I attended a Salvation Army Aboriginal roundtable and a symposium of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies. Through those gatherings I realized my own hesitations. Like my grandmother, I was reluctant to embrace my Aboriginal identity. I knew the stereotypes, I heard the nasty remarks, and I worried that those same words would be directed at me. Yet as I listened to those around me share their stories, I realized I was not alone. God used those moments to reveal my insecurities, and he used beautiful Aboriginal Christians to bring healing.

    After that, I committed to learn more about my heritage. I began to see God as an amazing Creator who speaks creativity and beauty into our world and my life. I began to realize that this learning was a gift from the Creator himself. God was working in the smallest details of my story.

    I am thankful for my journey because I can see how each step has encouraged me to realize my identity as an Aboriginal Christian. At this point, I cannot imagine one without the other.

    I just finished teaching a beading class at the local Aboriginal Service Centre. I reminded the women that as we bead, we thank the Creator. We take time to pray to the One who gives us the creativity and patience to finish our task. I offer a silent prayer of thanksgiving as I remember the One who speaks purpose into my life.

    With each bead I string, I pray that God will keep me connected. I pray that our relationship will continue to grow into something beautiful.

    With each beat of the drum, my soul praises the Creator. Its rhythm reminds me of who I am, and with quiet confidence I hear him whisper, You are mine.

    The God who created me knew that it might take me a while to embrace who he created—but in the end, he knew I would find my place to belong.




    Not Ashamed


    by Sylvia Thorburn, Swift Current Community Church, Sask.

    Sylvia ThorburnI grew up on a First Nations reserve about 500 kilometres northeast of Swift Current, Sask., with a family of nine sisters and five brothers. I was raised Roman Catholic, but I also grew up with First Nations cultural ceremonies and I participate in them when I go home to visit. It is normal for me to be a part of the ceremonies. I am not ashamed of my heritage; to turn my back on it would be to deny who Sylvia Thorburn has become. I embrace and accept it as part of who I am.

    My grandparents prayed often, with both Christian and Indigenous practices—my grandmother would burn sweet grass in the mornings, and she would also say the rosary. My parents were devout and we attended church and prayed regularly.

    In our culture, we are taught to respect our elders and follow their teaching. Still, my parents taught us to be independent thinkers. They didn't impose their religious beliefs on us; we were allowed to find our own value system. This made becoming a Salvationist much easier. Nevertheless, it wasn't an easy decision—I had to wrestle with my upbringing and my cultural background.

    I was introduced to The Salvation Army in 1998 when I was hired as a clerk at a thrift store. The staff at the store prayed on a regular basis and I began to notice that often their prayers were answered. That caught my interest and I wanted to know more. The captains at the time invited me to events and encouraged me to volunteer, but I still wasn't sure of the organization. It was a slow process. Over time, I decided that this was something I wanted to embrace and so, in 2002, I started attending the church and, in 2003, I became a soldier.

    Even still, I had doubts—being a First Nations person in The Salvation Army was not the norm, but since then I have found myself placed in the path of my people many times. I believe that God opened a door for me and, under the leadership of former corps officer Captain Michael Ramsay, I grew into this new role. Captain Ramsay showed me that if I allowed God to guide and help me, he would use my cultural background to help other First Nations people. God would show me how I could help other people who were trying to understand their value system, to help them find a path toward embracing both their cultural heritage and way of praying, and find peace in the direction they want to go. I don't think rejecting your culture is the answer; rather, it's identifying the parts that work for you. At the end of the day, it's an individual choice. I know that the Army is where I can be the most effective, being a First Nations person, and it's an honour to work for the Army in Swift Current.

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