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Oil on Braced Baltic Birch 35” x 24” x 2”
For years I have been struck by Canadian impressionist painter Emily Carr’s iconic work Indian Church (1929). [i] Regarded as her best painting, the work depicts a coniferous forest contrasted by a soaring white chapel, built by the First Nations Yuquot community. This church on Vancouver Island embodied a unique blend of Christianity and Indigenous culture.
Similar to how Carr was moved by Native spirituality, I too find much common ground with the Indigenous worldview: the Creator’s immanent presence in the natural world, the intrinsic value of animals, and the spirit of reciprocity. While most western cathedrals omitted animals as subjects, I decided to include stained-glass ‘creaturely saints’ like the Humpback Whale and Orca, called back from my previous paintings. In the central rose window a dove symbolizes the Spirit ‘hovering over the earth’, as expressed in Scripture. Scholars believe that the creation narrative in Genesis chapter 1 and 2 poetically alludes to God’s wise construction of the heavens and the earth as a cosmic temple––“a sacred realm for God’s dwelling and rule in which all creatures (human and nonhuman) are called to worship their creator.” [ii] Emily Carr likewise painted the Canadian West Coast rainforest to express “God in his woods’ tabernacle.” [iii]
In Braiding Sweetgrass, author Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as “the younger brothers of Creation.” Humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn––we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way they live. They’ve been on the earth far longer that we have, and have had time to figure things out.” [iv] I resonate with this in my own religious tradition. According to the order of creation in Genesis, plants and animals come before humans, and unlike man do not fall into rebellion. The wise sage Job compels us to “ask the animals, and they will teach you, the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you, and the fish of the sea will declare to you.” [v]
Despite the First Nations’ valuable ecological wisdom, early settlers to North America colonized the Indigenous people and stripped them of their land. While painting, I reflected on the outcry for justice in response to recently discovered unmarked graves of First Nations children forced to attend residential schools funded by our government and managed by the Church. This rocked our nation. [vi] While many Canadians expressed righteous indignation at this atrocity, dozens of churches were burned or vandalized by vigilantes. Although divisions between our First Nations and the Church still exist, a Canadian census found that more than 60% of Indigenous people in Canada call Christianity their religion, many of whom hold church leadership positions like Terry LeBlanc (Mi’kmaq-Acadian) disentangling their faith from the “white man’s religion.”
As Qohelet and his companion, Brother Wolf, stop to ponder the scene, the chapel doors swing open. A blue light beckons the sojourners to enter the Divine mystery. Perhaps inside they will find resources for healing a country in need of genuine “truth and reconciliation.”
[i] In 2018 the painting was renamed to Church in Yuquot Village
[ii] Richard J. Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 48.
[iii] Emily Carr, Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr.
[iv] In 2021 archaeologists discovered 215 unmarked graves at Kamloops Indian Residential School, sparking a mass uncovering of graves across Canada.
[v] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 23.
[vi] Job 12:7-8
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