Workshop on Preaching from the Heart: Reconciliation in a Polarized Society

Workshop summary provided by Lee Ann Pomrenke

When Raymond Aldred visits family, reconnection always begins with the heart. So it is when we are preaching in ways that might reconcile members of our human family with each other. Steeped in stories, preaching from the heart begins with recognizing our own feelings, embracing the narrative turn and orality, and putting at the center what is most important and sacred, that reminds us of the promises made. Here is the beginning of reconciliation. 

Dr. Aldred began his workshop by describing where his mother and he were born, and where each of his children currently lives. Even while introducing himself, he traced his family members’ connections to the land and revealed ways that all relationships can be complicated. As part of the Cree Nation, Treaty 8 in Northern Alberta, Canada, Alfred brings experiences from reconciliation healing processes among First Nations people forced into residential schools. He named two flashpoints in the 1990s that made Canadians, and the world, reckon with violence between law enforcement and First Nations people: the Ipperwash Crisis and the Oka Crisis. When leader Elijah Harper called for a sacred assembly in 1995, out of it came a call for the Canadian government to accept responsibility for injustices committed against them, and to take steps to fulfill its broken promises. Accepting responsibility and fulfilling promises are key outcomes of genuine reconciliation processes, but where do they begin

Cree cosmology begins with knowing that Creation is good, and our job is to restore harmony.  

Alfred names 3 embraces that can help us pursue harmony and reconciliation in preaching:

  1. Embracing the narrative turn, understanding that story binds our universe together
  2. Embracing orality 
  3. Embracing our emotions (which are trying to help us heal) 

Embrace the narrative turn

First, we embrace the narrative turn, understanding that story binds our universe together. The Gospel cannot be found in legalese. Legalese makes “legal” things that we know in our humanity are not right. Instead of worrying about what’s legal, or finding a Scripture verse to make your argument, just ask: How does this fit the story—the Gospel story? The Gospel comes to us in story, because some truths are so big they can only be held in story. We take in the story, and it takes us in. There is also a message here for preachers who may try to parse the meaning of the biblical text: discussion about meaning can eclipse the biblical narrative itself. 

Alfred described when First Nations people gather to discuss serious matters, they gather in a circle, to show everyone’s coming together. Then in the center they will place something that is most sacred to remind everyone of what is at stake and the promises made. Elders who embraced Christianity put the Gospel in the center. 

Raymond Alfred’s move, whenever convening a group for reconciliation, is to invite everyone in the circle into a practice, called in his Anglican tradition “Gospel discipleship”. The practice is to read a particular Scripture multiple times, by different readers, maybe even different versions of the Bible, then to ask: 

  • What do you hear? What is it saying to you?
  • What are you going to do? 

In this scenario, the community itself is preaching the sermon. For polarized communities, start with putting the Gospel in the center together. From the Gospel story, you can move to your own story. 

Embrace orality and our own feelings

The second key move is to embrace orality: which is why there were no visual aids, no slides, just Raymond and his voice in this workshop! For healing, we must learn our own stories, and embrace them. This is done out loud, heard by others, in order to create empathy and change. At the heart of indigenous spirituality is embracing your Creation story, telling how you relate to the earth. The best stories come from your own life, preacher, and they’re not the ones where you are the hero.

Wouldn’t the most effective discipleship be a small group where we share about the small things that make up our lives? Expressing how we feel about them is what makes meaning. While in Northern Ireland on sabbatical, Alfred listened to people’s feelings about all they had been through during the “troubles.” People do self-destructive things out of shame and fear, but telling our own stories can give us the emotional energy to change and remind us that we are true human beings.  

Survivors of residential schools in Canada paid for the truth and reconciliation commission, out of their settlements from lawsuits: so people would hear, so it wouldn’t happen again, and so people would feel the pain they had been part of causing, and change. Restorative justice is another particular example of telling the truth about the pain caused, to change behavior. The telling brings feelings to the surface, and allows the wound to heal, by creating empathy in others and for ourselves. 
Raymond Alfred closed by paraphrasing Dietrich Bonhoeffer (perhaps from his Letters and Papers from Prison): Once you give up your need to prove your own innocence you are freed to take responsibility for the sins of society and work towards healing of those things.

Photo credit: All photos in this post by Keith Andrew Spencer, Festival Photographer.