Advent Hope: Oji-Cree translators make church language their own

During Advent, a season of hope and expectation, features weekly stories about Anglicans sharing Christ’s hope with the world. Each story connects with a Mark of Mission and includes a giving opportunity through the Anglican Church of Canada’s new gift guide, Acts of Faith.

In most Anglican churches, the word “warden” refers to a parish leader, but in Oji-Cree the word “warden” doesn’t exist. When a group of seven Oji-Cree speakers gathered to translate the Diocese of Keewatin’s church regulations and laws (canons) last September, this was one of the many obstacles they encountered.

“‘Warden’ is often translated as ‘church police,’ in Oji-Cree” laughed Bishop Lydia Mamakwa, who led the process. “How do you explain this when many of our churches don’t have wardens?”

Bishop Mamakwa is working through these challenges as she helps the northern Ontario area mission become a self-determining Indigenous church within the Anglican Church of Canada. The area mission covers the northeastern swath of the Diocese of Keewatin and includes 16 mainly Oji-Cree communities, most of which are only accessible by plane.

Translating church law is one important step on the way to self-determination-the vision that Bishop Mamakwa’s elders had over 30 years ago, and a vision that motivates her today.

“We have been led by white missionaries and ministers for over 100 years,” she said. “Our people have learned a lot from the ministers who were placed in our communities. The teachings and trainings they go on, but our people felt too that they were ready to take more ownership and to have more of a say.”

For most of the Diocese of Keewatin’s history, church law and procedures were only available in English. This meant that Indigenous Anglicans did not always understand the rules that governed them, nor could they follow all of the process and changes that were made at diocesan synods. The first draft of church law and regulations in Oji-Cree was produced about five years ago.

Yet to nurture a truly Indigenous church, translation must go deeper than words. The translation group noticed that church laws were written for an urban European context and did not describe northern Indigenous communities. Laws that refer to clergy housing and clergy stipends, for example, are irrelevant in an area where none of the 40 clergy has a clergy house or receives a stipend.

The Oji-Cree translation group will work on these issues and present solutions to Keewatin’s diocesan council in 2011. They hope to walk forward in partnership with the Diocese of Keewatin, and by doing so they will be living out the fourth mark of mission, “to seek to transform the unjust structures of society.” (The Marks of Mission were developed by the Anglican Communion and are a priority for the Anglican Church of Canada.)

Bishop Mamakwa emphasizes that these structural changes will also serve a bigger goal: sharing God’s love with the Oji-Cree, Cree, and Ojibwe people whom she serves.

“Our people have suffered much through the abuses at the residential schools and the Ralph Rowe [sexual abuse] victims,” said Bishop Mamakwa. “Our people have turned away from the church or want nothing to do with the church, but now they see what our church leaders are doing in the area mission. One of the goals is to have a healing ministry for these residential school victims, and this has a positive effect on our people.”

“Gradually, in a small way, I feel like we are seeing hope for these people, that there is a light coming, a light starting to shine for them. That’s the central message that we need to tell people who have been hurt by the church: there is hope in Christ, that he brought light to us.”

Help support this work of self-determination through the Anglican Church of Canada’s gift guide, Acts of Faith.

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