The report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was released in the week Christians were preparing to celebrate Pentecost. At first glance, it may seem like an odd juxtaposition. On the one hand, there is a report about a hugely significant issue that identifies a “race-based genocide…which especially targets women” in Canada. On the other hand, you have a holy day often known as “the birthday of the church.”
But as I sat in church on Pentecost, I thought the two might not be so far apart. On Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fell on Jesus’ followers and they began preaching in many languages, the Bible tells us that many people were “perplexed” (Acts. 2:12). How could it be that this confounding thing was happening? Some people had a ready answer. They sneered at the Jesus’ followers and said, “They are filled with new wine” (2:13). In other words, they’re drunk.
Fifteen years ago, I moved to the small town of Nome, Alaska to work as a reporter at a radio station. When I arrived, there was a single major news story that dominated conversation: the trial of Matthew Owens, a 28-year-old Nome police offer, who was accused of murdering Sonia Ivanoff, a 19-year-old Alaska Native woman. Owens was convicted and is currently serving a 101 year prison sentence.
Prior to Ivanoff’s murder, Nome had dealt with what were called “missing persons” on an ongoing basis. Alaska Natives would come to Nome from outlying villages and disappear. The FBI investigated. It received the tabloid treatment. A feature movie was even made that tied missing persons to UFO abductions. As I learned about this issue, I remember hearing divided opinion. Alaska Natives would burn with anger and resentment that so many people had gone missing from Nome and so little had been done to address it. Non-indigenous residents of Nome would often say that people went missing because they came to Nome, got drunk, and fell into the ocean. In terms Jesus’ followers might understand, “They are filled with new wine.” On this view, the deaths were a tragedy, sure, but not one requiring systemic change.
Then Sonia Ivanoff was murdered, and by a police officer at that. It changed the nature of the conversation in a hurry. People who may once have dismissed the issue of “missing persons” were forced to confront the reality that things might not have been as simple as they once believed. People who had felt their views were disregarded and their anger unheeded could now say, “See what we have been saying? Why did it take the death of a teenage girl to get you to pay attention?” In hearing the testimonies of Canadians whose mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, cousins, or friends are counted among “missing women,” I hear that same emotion I heard when I arrived in Nome.
Unlike the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in Canada, the calls to action in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report do not appear to deliberately name the church. It might be easy, therefore, for church members in Canada to let this report slide by. I hope that doesn’t happen. As Pentecost reminds us, Christians know what it is like to be dismissed out of hand, to have our words greeted with perplexity, to be accused of being drunk when all we are trying to do is tell the truth. For those people who actually listened to Jesus’ followers on that first Pentecost, their lives were transformed. Perhaps if Christians can truly listen to the testimonies of those who have lost friends and relatives, we too can continue to have our lives transformed.
The Rev. Dr. Jesse Zink is principal of Montreal Diocesan Theological College.