by Shula Mulenga-Brown
Shula is a Zambian serving full time with her husband, Joel, among the Indigenous population of Canada.
I hesitated to write about my experience, as it means touching on the subject of Canada’s painful and complicated history with its Indigenous population: the First Nation, Métis and the Inuit peoples.1 Would I, a Zambian, write in a way that honoured the people God called me to love, even before He brought me into this country? Knowing well that this is one perspective in a sea of many, I share my story with a deep love for marginalised Indigenous children and youth, with much humility and a desire to see them come to know the Saviour.
What’s in a name?
My birth certificate simply says Shula Mulenga. I have often been asked if I had a second ‘Christian’ name. The question became more common when my family moved to live in Zimbabwe and then Mozambique. In the early 80s, when I was born, a quiet revolution was happening among a number of young Christian families in Zambia. Instead of choosing an English ‘Christian’ name for their children, they decided to give them a name from their own language, something that was not the norm in their Christian circles at that time. It was a subtle way to express that they were proud of who they were as a people and that not everything about their language and culture was wrong.
The Call, the Wait
I was 17 when certain chapters in Isaiah spoke powerfully to me. I had grown up as a child of mission workers but never thought that one day I could be one too. These verses changed my outlook on life. God awakened a passion in my heart for those who had not heard of Him or experienced His love and saving grace. It took five years of praying almost daily for God to answer my question of ‘who?’ At the age of 22, I was introduced to a people group I did not know still existed, the Indigenous People of the Americas. Naturally, I thought I would go in a matter of weeks, but God had other plans. It took seven years before God opened the door for me to leave Mozambique. To be honest, when He did, I was not impressed. I much preferred the idea of working in warm Latin America than in the frigid cold of Canada. But when God speaks, it is best to obey.
God awakened a passion in my heart for those who had not heard of Him or experienced His love and saving grace.
Years of waiting came to an end in 2014. I was introduced to Colleen, who lives and works on a remote Reserve2 in northwestern Ontario, Canada. She strongly believed in my calling and convinced the leadership to help me get my work permit, even when I did not have anywhere near the financial support needed. I arrived in Canada in April 2014 with C$700, and the blessing of my parents and church in Mozambique. I did not know how I would live in Canada but I was confident that God would provide, and He did. When I finally arrived in Pikangikum, after a three-day drive from Toronto and a 20-minute flight, I lacked nothing.
Pikangikum First Nation Reserve
With the invitation of the chief and council, I was allowed to work alongside Colleen in the local school as a Christian Education teacher. I spent most of my free time visiting homes, making friends and learning.
The Ojibwe of Pikangikum First Nation Reserve are often quiet and reserved. At first, I thought they did not want me there, but I soon learned they appreciated my visits, even when not much was said. Although a lot of their cultural identity has been wiped out, a few things have remained – such as their love for fishing and hunting. My friends have taken me fishing many times in the summer and winter, although I am not a fan of ice fishing! I have often experienced their generosity. When a local friend learned that I did not come from a church that could support me financially, she began to support me herself: first by sharing the meat and fish her husband caught and then with monthly gifts.
In time, through various friendships, my eyes were opened to understand why so many struggled with addictions. As people warmed to me, they started to share their stories. Sometimes people asked what my name meant because it was so unique. Often my story had a profound effect on them, walls came down and they were eager to share their lives with me. I was an outsider who had personal experience of what it feels like to struggle against the idea that everything about my culture is not good enough or compatible with my faith. One particular story has stuck with me.
When I first met Curtis,* a man in his fifties, he had a steady job at the local school but by the end of my first two years in Pikangikum, he had lost his job and drank constantly. One afternoon, I sat beside him by the roadside and asked how he was. He reeked of alcohol and in-between quiet sobs he shared his story.
From around 1831 until the late 1960s and perhaps into the 70s, the government had a policy of forcefully taking Indigenous children away from their parents. The police raided homes and whisked children away to boarding schools. This happened to Curtis. He spent his childhood and teenage years there and faced sexual abuse from Catholic priests for years. Statistics of thousands of children who died at these boarding schools were gradually shared. The government’s partnership with many churches, in a policy intended to wipe out all traces of Indigenous culture and language from these children, had devastating consequences that are still felt today. Curtis saw his friend die from abuse while he was there. The memories of what they did to him, and others, constantly plagued Curtis and caused him to drink in the hope that it would help him forget.
Sometimes after hearing such stories, I would go home and just weep. As I learn, I understand better why there is such a high level of alcohol abuse and suicide, and why there is open hostility towards Christianity in many Indigenous communities. So many atrocities were committed in the name of Christ.
Hope in Jesus
In the five years I have lived in Canada, I have had the joy and privilege of making friends, not only with those struggling with addictions but with those who have found peace in Christ. Some of these friends are my co-workers in Christ, who have risen above pain from the past and have an undying hope that someday loved ones bound to addictions will find healing in the Jesus of the Bible.
…it is only in His Name that we can find true reconciliation and grace to accommodate our differences.
Indigenous churches are having to deal with big questions such as: ‘Can we be Indigenous and Christian?’ And if so, ‘How does that affect how we do church?’ Pray for wisdom for Christian Indigenous leaders as they navigate for themselves, and those they lead, what it means to be a Christian Indigenous person in Canada today.
It is now five years since God brought me over 8,000 miles from Mozambique to Canada. So far, I have encountered many cultural differences. However, grappling with the challenges of reconciling our culture with our faith and finding our identity in Christ have been the same. Pray that as I navigate these challenges with my Indigenous friends, we do not lose sight of what is most important: it is only in His Name that we can find true reconciliation and grace to accommodate our differences.