New Siloam Mission CEO Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud grew up with a father who was a United Church minister, and her husband is a member of Sioux Valley Dakota Nation
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This article was published 06/11/2021 (507 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud looks forward to starting her new job as CEO of Siloam Mission, she knows that she and the organization are in the spotlight.
Indigenous people will be watching to see if Siloam will live up to its commitment to meet the spiritual and cultural needs of people who use its services.
But Siloam’s core support group of evangelical Christians, many of whom live in rural Manitoba, will also be watching.
Blaikie Whitecloud, 33, is well suited for the challenges.
The daughter of well-known former Member of Parliament and United Church of Canada Minister Bill Blaikie, Blaikie Whitecloud grew up in a home where “core Christian convictions of loving and serving neighbours and challenging the systems that caused them to be needy,” were things taught around the family supper table.
At the same time, she learned “faith was something not only to be lived on Sundays, but every day of the week,” she said.
A member of Transcona Memorial United Church, she was nominated to become moderator of the United Church of Canada in 2018.
In her presentation to be moderator, she saw the church as a place that lived out “social action as sacrament” by providing shelter for the homeless, clothing those who are cold, feeding the hungry and advocating for a society where “God’s children are not left vulnerable to the elements and hunger is no more. This is what being Christian means to me.”
At the same time, she said, “We can share the Good News that we all deserve love and are created in love… I see opportunity when we recognize Jesus in one another and treat each other accordingly.”
She also has a personal bridge to Indigenous people through her 2015 marriage to Hanwakan Whitecloud, a member of the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in western Manitoba.
In that tradition, he would normally take her name, she said, but the couple compromised by adopting both.
Among other things, she is learning the Dakota language. She admits she’s still a “toddler” when it comes to speaking it.
“I can say I’m hungry, name the colours,” she said. “It’s slow.”
While looking forward to engaging the Indigenous community, Blaikie Whitecloud is also eager to reach out to Siloam’s core evangelical supporters.
Like them, she believes God loves everyone, “and we are to see everyone as loved by God,” she said, adding this especially includes “people who are vulnerable and marginalized.”
These people “have a special place in God’s heart, and Christians have a special responsibility to serve them,” she added.
While wanting to build on the strong support that comes from evangelicals in the province, Blaikie Whitecloud is open to addressing any of their concerns.
This includes questions such as those raised earlier this year when Siloam was heavily criticized by former staff and others for its failure to meet the spiritual needs of its primarily Indigenous clientele.
When the ministry, which is part of the Church of the Nazarene, indicated it was taking those criticisms seriously, some evangelical supporters expressed worries the organization was losing its faith perspective or compromising its Christian witness and principles.
For Blaikie Whitecloud, helping people in the context of their healing journeys — whatever those are — is not a compromise of Siloam’s mission.
“We won’t pressure anyone into accepting Christianity to get services,” she said, noting that is already the way Siloam operates.
For her, Jesus set the example she wants to follow, “serving and healing both those who accepted and followed him and those who didn’t.”
While excited about the new opportunity at Siloam, the first thing she plans to do when she starts her new job is listen. “I want to hear from staff, supporters and volunteers,” she said.
She also plans to hear from Siloam’s “guests,” the word she prefers for those who use its services.
“That is in the Christian tradition,” she said. “People in need are our guests, and we are to provide them with food, shelter, clothing, medical aid. That word encapsulates Siloam’s approach for me.”
She also plans to spend time talking to other organizations doing similar work in the North End; too often, she noted, groups end up fighting each other for limited resources and duplicating services.
“I think the pandemic helped with this. It brought groups together to help each other,” she said, adding maybe Siloam can work with other organizations to solicit major donations or combine fundraising efforts with other groups.
Looking ahead, one story that summarizes her approach, and the work of Siloam, is the parable of the Good Samaritan.
“It’s about crossing religious and racial boundaries, not just providing emergency aid, but looking after long-term needs,” she said. “That’s what Siloam does.”
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John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.