(Look for this article in an upcoming issue of Church for Vancouver.)
This is the account of a storytelling event that brought together an Eastside Vancouver church and a First Nations community in British Columbia’s central interior. More importantly it’s the account of a ten-year old boy named Graeme who, for a moment, stood on the stage between two culturally and spiritually diverse stories and had the courage to allow each of them to speak to his own.
Graeme is a part of a grassroots performing arts initiative for children and youth in his East Vancouver neighbourhood called Eastside Story Guild. As a program of Grandview Calvary Baptist Church the Eastside Story Guild mandate is to put Bible stories to the stage in way that makes sense of faith in a post-modern world.
In the fall of 2015 the Eastside Story Guild undertook to tell the Old Testament story of Samson, the Hebrew judge of divinely-appointed strength who fell in love with his Philistine adversary, Delilah.
Meanwhile 1100 kilometres away near Smithers, BC the Unist’ot’en camp was entering their sixth winter of holding a bridge at the Morice River crossing. In 2009 Unist’ot’en leader,Freda Huson, established the blockade in response to a proposed pipeline corridor slated to cut across unceded Wet’sewet’en territory. In a second strategic move she invited native and non-Native allies from across the province and around the world to join her in building a healing centre on the GPS coordinates of the proposed pipeline.
In the fall of 2015 none of the Eastside Story Guild participants, Graeme among them, had ever heard of the Unist’ot’en. One of the script writers, however, had participated in two of the Unist’ot’en work camps and he noted some interesting parallels between their story and story of Samson:
- First and foremost, both are stories of a struggle for land – Samson so that his people, the Dannites, would have a place to call their own after 40 years wandering in the wilderness, and the Unistoten so that their descendants would maintain an inherent responsibility to protect their people’s ancient territory.
- Second, both are stories of a minority group taking a seemingly laughable stand against the arrogance of an otherwise powerful political, cultural and economic majority.
- Third, both are stories of risk-taking in trusting “the enemy” – Samson who gave his heart (and with it the secret of his strength) to Delilah, and Freda who risks having non-natives participate in her dream of building a healing centre.
- Finally, both are stories of long hair and the humiliation of having it forcibly shaved from your head – for Samson at the hands of the Philistines, and for BC First Nations people at the hand of the church and government-run residential school system.
So it was that in October, four Eastside Story Guild leaders travelled to the Unist’ot’en camp from Vancouver to meet with Freda and see the camp for themselves. Over two days they filmed her as she told the story of her people’s stand on the land.
Meanwhile back in Vancouver, the script was set into a production called The Bridge Between. The decision was made not to blend the stories as there were too many obvious cultural and theological differences between the two. Instead the stories were to be told interchangeably, with the Samson story dramatized on stage by the kids of the Eastside Story Guild and the Unist’ot’en story told by Freda herself between scenes on large screens that hung from floor to ceiling. The Philistine temple was designed as an industrial oil complex with pipelines running in every direction.
Young Graeme was cast as Shilum, a fictionalized name and character for the Philistine boy who in Judges 16:26 leads the now blind Samson to the temple pillars where revelling Philistines are celebrating his defeat. In the moments before bringing the temple down on the Philistine elite Samson tells Shilum to run and not to look back. In this way Samson saves the life of one Philistine boy even while he takes the lives of 3000 others.
When Samson pushes against the pillars, the pipelines break open and oil covers the stage. This was dramatized through video images on the giant screens together with black cloth carried across the audience by the kids.
In the final scene, the sad reality of the death and destruction settles on the stage. Shilum returns to face the audience and asks what purpose the devastation has served.
Needless-to-say the response to the story of Samson was somber. The bursting of the pipelines was a stark symbol of the powerlessness that Samson and his people felt in the face of Philistine oppression. At the same time it helped the predominantly white, middle-class church-based audience connect with the sense of powerlessness that many First Nations in their own province feel when it comes to deciding their own fate.
As the kids and audience reflected on the tragic outcome of the Samson story at the end of the season Graeme was among the first to pick up on the possibility of a different ending. The Samson story, they all recognized, was history but the Unistoten story was still unfolding.
Graeme expressed an interest in going up to the camp in the spring to help with the construction of the healing centre. He wanted to learn more of the Unistoten story. He wanted to understand the difficult confrontation of industry and the Unistoten land defence.
When pressed he insisted that he was willing to make the 16-hour journey north, to live without running water and flush toilets, to work long days with black flies and mosquitoes at his elbows, and to sit at the feet of First Nation’s guides to in order to understand a story that was so different from his own.
So it was that in the middle of May 2016 Graeme made the long journey north into Wet’sewet’en territory. For three days, together with a group of 17 from his church (aged 8-68), he laid cement and built scaffolding for Phase II of the healing centre, hauled more brush, washed endless mountains of dishes and listened to the stories of the Wetseweten elders as they spoke of their people’s life on the land.
But most of all, if only for three days, Graeme stood shoulder to shoulder with our province’s First Peoples and saw the world through a different set of eyes.