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This article was published 10/8/2018 (560 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Steve Heinrichs won’t be available for meetings in his Winnipeg office for the next few days. He’s in jail.
The official for Mennonite Church Canada was sentenced Wednesday to seven days for protesting against the Trans Mountain pipeline. He’s behind bars in Coquitlam, B.C.
His jailing is the latest development in a saga that has been the subject of fierce debate in the Mennonite community in Manitoba and across Canada.
Actually, in re-reading the sentence above, it's inaccurate to call it a "fierce debate." Mennonites strive to be peaceful and loving, and are seldom fierce. And instead of debating, they disagree in polite conversations that, to outsiders, can seem excessively lengthy and inclusive to a fault. If a custodian happened to be cleaning a room in which Mennonites were discussing an issue, he would be welcome to speak.
But in their exceedingly respectful way, Mennonites across Canada disagree about the social-justice actions of Heinrichs, who can now add jail inmate to his resume as pastor, author and trusted friend of Indigenous people.
First, some background: Heinrichs’ job with the national body of Mennonites is to be a point person on the issue that in modern jargon is called settler-Indigenous relations. He works at the head office in Winnipeg, but spends considerable time working behind the scenes with First Nations.
Non-Mennonite Winnipeggers might recognize his name as an organizer of public events. A recent one, on March 5 at Canadian Mennonite University, was about how an urban reserve at the former Kapyong barracks will fit with its neighbours. It was billed as a public conversation, of course, not a debate.
His personal social action has included walking more than 600 kilometres in a group to support the rights of Indigenous people, and fasting for two weeks in solidarity with Canadians without a safe water supply or a secure food source.
He has also curated books of essays by people across ethnic and religious divides, on topics such as healing historical wounds of racism, stolen land and tough Bible passages that have been misused to exploit people.
So, how did such an ethical guy become a convicted criminal?
On April 20, he was arrested on the West Coast for protesting against the proposed Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and charged with contempt of court. He told the Vancouver Courier newspaper he risked arrest because he was concerned Indigenous people weren’t adequately consulted about the pipeline and they have rights to "free, prior and informed consent."
His arrest was reported in the national Canadian Mennonite magazine, but not everyone in his church body considers him a social-action hero. The protest that got him arrested was criticized by many Mennonites, particularly those geographically situated on the business end of the pipeline.
The magazine reported how Pastor Will Loewen of Trinity Mennonite in Calgary listens to trains carrying oil rumble past his church building every day: "I am proud of the devotion my church members have at their jobs in the oil economy. Using their God-given gifts and personal passion to make improvements around efficiency and the environment as a part of their faith is what we ask of all people in professions in all industries."
In a May 20 sermon at Edmonton First Mennonite, speaker Donna Entz noted Heinrichs "stands in solidarity with the Indigenous people protesting the pipeline. But here in Edmonton, I walk with a neighbour, who for three years, is not yet out of financial hole… since the downturn in the oil industry. What might justice look like for him?"
Although many Mennonites disagree with Heinrichs’ choice of social action, most will admire that he has the courage of his convictions, although, when they see him again, they won't praise him too much because that could swell his head with harmful pride. Humility is another Mennonite aspiration.
Ann Heinrichs issued a statement on their Facebook page on Wednesday, thanking politicians and church officials who attended the court proceedings.
She wrote: "As his partner, I have the inside scoop on how light a sleeper Steve is. Over the next seven days, I’d love prayer on his behalf for good sleep in an institution where bright lights don’t go off and noises can’t be buffered with earplugs. I hold him close in my thoughts and thank you for doing the same."
Despite their differences on the pipeline issue, most Mennonites will heed his wife’s call and pray that Heinrichs sleeps well in a cell.
Mennonites have a history of keeping their faith despite persecution. They will respect a church brother who kept his faith despite prosecution.
Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.
Senior copy editor
Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.