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Finding truth on the fringe

Cree elder and United Church minister finds middle ground between faith and ecology

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Steve Heinrichs is organizing an assembly at CMU July 28-31 that will focus on ecology and spiritualism.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Steve Heinrichs is organizing an assembly at CMU July 28-31 that will focus on ecology and spiritualism. Photo Store

These days, Rev. Stan McKay is happy to be on the fringe.

Partly because he's enjoying retirement, and partly because that's where the former United Church of Canada moderator finds important discussions about faith and ecology.

"Conversations and stories on the fringe lift up the possibility of perceiving things that might be lost in the protection of truth," says the Cree elder in a telephone conversation from Petersfield, 55 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

As the keynote speaker with the opening and closing addresses at the upcoming native assembly sponsored by Mennonite Church Canada, McKay hopes to continue those conversations about ecology and spirituality, especially from the aboriginal perspective.

"I think there's an awareness of our philosophy having some connection and value to the Christian church," McKay says of how aboriginal perspectives can inform Christian faith.

Running Monday, July 28 to Thursday, July 31 at Canadian Mennonite University, this biennial assembly brings together aboriginals and non-aboriginals, Christians and non-Christians around the theme of ecology and spiritualty, says organizer Steve Heinrichs.

"Let's put it in the form of a treaty relationship. It's about both sides stepping up and living in this relationship," he says.

"We are making forays into having discussions that are decolonized."

The formal title of the conference is Ears to Earth, Eyes to God, based on the biblical book of Job.

Expected to attract about 300 people from across North America, Heinrichs says this is the first time this assembly has been held in an urban context.

In addition to workshops and speakers, conference goers can choose to tour The Forks, downtown museums and the inner city to learn more about the life of aboriginals in Winnipeg. Aboriginals make up about 15 per cent of the city's population.

"I think this assembly, more than others, is connecting with the community where people are living," says Heinrichs, who lives in the West End.

That connection extends to how people live on the land, whether in cities, reserves or rural areas, adds organizer Melanie Kampen, who will give an address based on the theme of the assembly.

Too often, Christians see their role as one of dominating the natural order, instead of listening to the Earth and learning from it, says Kampen, who recently completed a master's degree in theology.

"You are put in creation to learn from the rest of creation and you can see creation as a site of the Creator's knowledge."

That's been the edge McKay has perched on for decades since his ordination as a United Church minister in 1971. He's disturbed that established theological traditions rarely address environmental concerns, and he's convinced aboriginals can offer insights to the Christian church, no matter what denomination.

"Ecology doesn't have to be outside the sacred or spiritual journey," says McKay, who concentrates his energies on cross-cultural dialogues.

"I think being caught up in the politics of denominations can be limiting and I think being on the fringe gives you some perspective on the holistic journey for truth, journey for justice, journey for peace."

brenda@suderman.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2014 D15

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