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Opinion: You vandalized my church. I'm sorry, and I'm listening.

How graffiti can pave the way for reconciliation – if Catholics are willing to heed the call
St. Peter's 8
St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church in New Westminster is one of the B.C. churches hit by vandalism in recent days. It's also where writer Julie MacLellan was married nearly 21 years ago.

The large wooden doors at the front of St. Peter’s Church will always hold a place in my heart.

I walked through those doors hand in hand with my then-brand-new husband way back in August 2000, stepping out of the church after our wedding mass and into the bright afternoon sunshine for the first time as husband and wife.

I couldn’t help but think of that moment on Monday, when I stood outside the church and stared at the paint splatters and orange graffiti: Baby killers. Killers. You’re guilty.

I wasn’t prepared for the way it hurt my heart.

And, no, not because the building had been defaced. Getting rid of paint is a pretty straightforward cleanup job.

The damage to the church building was a surface wound at best. What cuts to the core is the knowledge of all that lies underneath that surface: the injustice and loss and suffering and racism that has been simmering for decades and has erupted over recent weeks in an outpouring of grief and rage.

What’s a little orange paint next to the attempted eradication of language and culture and human life? If you put graffiti on one side of the scale and genocide on the other, there’s no contest which holds the heavier weight.

Yes, I empathize with the shock it must have been for folks arriving for mass on Sunday morning and the hassle it must have been for parish staff. Yes, it hurt to see ugly messages on the lovely old landmark building that’s watched over the corner of Fourth and Royal for so many decades.

But, in the end, paint is paint is paint.

I’ve seen plenty of social media commentary about the vandalism since Monday – much of it revolving around the fact that vandalism solves nothing and that graffiti and violence aren’t the right path to reconciliation.

I agree. But I also feel very strongly that it isn’t my place to preach about it.

Some Indigenous leaders, including those from nine Victoria-area First Nations, have stepped forward to publicly call out the acts of vandalism and burning of B.C. churches. That message is theirs to deliver, not mine.

As a white, baptized, born-and-raised Roman Catholic, the message that is mine to give is a different one.

It’s a message to others like me: non-Indigenous folks, settlers, Catholics, other Christians, anyone whose family was not personally affected by the experience of the so-called residential schools.

My message is this: Listen.

Stop your protestations about violence and vandalism and hear the message that lies behind them. Hear the rage and the anger. Does that anger make you uncomfortable? It should. Because the rage that is being given voice in church-burning and spray-painting is part of the truth we need to hear before we can move on to reconciliation.

Catholics ought to understand a thing or two about reconciliation; it’s a sacrament in our faith, after all. We are taught to step into the confessional only with a true understanding of our sin and with a genuine remorse and desire to change in the future.

Reconciliation doesn’t mean we’re allowed to simply apologize and call it a day. We can not move on without acknowledging – and genuinely coming to terms with – the effects of the wrong we have done.

The “we” here is a collective one. For those who protest, “But I didn’t do it. I didn’t run residential schools. It wasn’t everybody. Not all priests. Not all nuns. Not all Catholics. We’ve already said sorry. What more do they want?”

Just stop. And listen.

I know you didn’t do it. Neither did I.

But neither did I understand.

When I was a seven-year-old decked out in my pretty peach dress with yellow flowers in my hair to make my First Communion, many Indigenous children were still attending residential schools. That was 1978.

Some of those schools were still running through the 1980s, when I was a teenager singing in folk choir at Saturday evening mass. The final residential school in Canada – Gordon Residential School in Saskatchewan – didn’t close until I was 26 years old. I was living and working in Ladysmith at the time, part of a warm and welcoming parish community, helping with the church music ministry and directing the parish kids’ choir. That was 1996.

It was around that time that I first began to learn what residential school had meant for those who were wrenched away from their families. I sat around a fire at a healing ceremony on what is now known as Penelakut Island, listening to the stories of those who had been children at the Kuper Island Residential School.

Yet still I couldn’t comprehend that those stories – that pain, that suffering, that loss – were part of my history, too. I didn’t see that, as a Catholic, their burden was mine to carry.

I could not reconcile the Catholic Church that had stolen childhoods and destroyed families with the Catholic Church that had shaped my own life.

My churchgoing years are filled with nothing but good memories. I have steadfast friends whom I made at Catholic school decades ago. I’ve been blessed to be part of welcoming, inclusive parishes headed by compassionate leaders, both lay and ordained.

And the rituals? Oh, the rituals speak to my soul. There’s a profundity to Roman Catholic ceremony that I’ve never found anywhere else. To this day, the smell of incense transports me instantly to many a cherished moment: raising the rafters in a rousing Joy to the World to end Midnight Mass; trying hard not to burn fellow choir members’ hair as we process with candles in the dark for Easter Vigil; leading the Exsultet and marking that triumphant moment when the Gloria is heard again after the sombre period that is Lent.

It’s all part of me. It’s in my heart and in my soul and I’ll never shake the fact that Catholicism is at the core of who I am.

Knowing all of that makes my heart ache even more. Because the warm and joyous memories I have of the Catholic Church are such a far cry from the ugly reality experienced by so many Indigenous children. And the loving, secure family I grew up in – a family that prayed together, attended mass together, supported my dad on the way to becoming an ordained deacon in the church – is so very far removed from the experience of generations of Indigenous families who have been torn apart in a host of ways by their experiences at the hands of that very same church.

I don’t go to mass anymore.

My reasons are mine and mine alone; they are no reflection on the people of St. Peter’s nor on the many other thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate Catholics I know who are still practising their faith.

I haven’t stepped into a confessional in decades. But I need to find a way to atone.

For the things I didn’t know. For the things I didn’t think were mine to deal with. For the thousands of children who had their clothes taken away and their hair cut and their language – even their names – stolen from them.

For the children who never went home.

Every now and then I will return to the photos I took on Monday and look again at the splatters of red paint and the scrawled orange words that remind me how badly we’ve failed so far – and how long a journey we have to even begin to make amends.

Baby killers. Killers. You’re guilty.

Just listen.

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
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