2013 20 October

The Battle of the Thames – Moderator Gary Paterson

Posted in Steinbach United

There are frequent requests for the Moderator to preach at church anniversary services, and the greater the age of the church, the more intense the request. But although I enjoy these “hinge moments,” where the past is celebrated, and the future anticipated, only occasionally am I able to say yes.


fairfield1L to R: Kim Logan; Rev. Philip Newman, President of London Conference; and Moderator Gary Paterson. [Photo by James Scott]

However, the first Sunday of October, I found myself preparing to commemorate the 200th anniversary of…well, not exactly a “church” anniversary, but rather, a remembering of the Battle of the Thames. Which for me, at least, meant a quick history lesson. Who knew that in the middle of the War of 1812, there was a major battle where the Americans walloped the British forces, killed Chief Tecumseh of the Shawnee people, and pillaged and burned the town of Fairfield, Ontario? It’s not a story that gets told frequently.

It was questionable, however, what exactly we were celebrating, given that the highlights from that battle were defeat, death, and destruction. However, there is amuseum at Fairfield – owned by the United Church – with a lot of history, and a lot of ancient stories. And there are the Delaware people of the Moraviantown Reserve who have been in conversation with the United Church about the past and the future. It’s a long story; and a hopeful one.

Perhaps the first thing to remember is that the end result of the 1812 war was, ironically, a 200-year peace between Canada and the United States, with the longest undefended border in the world – at least I can’t think of any other border between two nations with that kind of a record! So, despite our constant kvetching about our neighbour to the south, as we worry endlessly about our Canadian identity, there is cause for much rejoicing.


181px-Tecumseh02A romanticized depiction of Tecumseh from c. 1868 [Wikipedia Commons]

This anniversary celebration was also a moment to acknowledge Chief Tecumseh, who was killed in the Battle of the Thames when the British forces under General Proctor folded and beat a hasty retreat, leaving their Aboriginal allies to their fate. Nice to know, I guess, that General Proctor was later court martialled for that action. Tecumseh had a vision, which he partially succeeded in creating, of uniting Aboriginal peoples across North America, despite their different languages and traditions, so that together they would claim their proper place as First Nations who had a 10,000-year claim upon the land. At the time I found myself thinking of Elijah Harper, who passed away last spring, and of his refusal years ago to accept the Meech Lake Accord because it presented the founding of this country as a story about the English and French and, once again, did not acknowledge that there were three nations who, together, needed to be named and honoured!

But there was something even more significant that emerges from this long ago history, a history that lies at the heart of the museum – the 21 years BEFORE the Battle of the Thames. You see, the town of Fairfield had been the home of both the Moravian and the First Nation Delaware peoples, who, from all accounts, had built a life together that was rooted in respect and mutuality.

In the 18th century, the Moravians, an Anabaptist sect from southern Germany (and before that, Czechoslovakia), had come to Pennsylvania, to find their own freedom and to share the gospel with the Indigenous people of that land. And perhaps, because of the way it was shared, some of the Delaware people responded, and together with these newcomers, these “settlers,” they formed new communities, which were committed to radical pacifism and complete hospitality.

But that meant that in the never-ending wars between the English, French, and Americans, with their Aboriginal allies, they were always in danger. Eventually, many found their way to Canada, and built the community of the aptly named Fairfield.

Yes, of course, the passage of the years may have romanticized village life, but truly it felt like something happened back then – a model of cooperation and harmony between and among different peoples was achieved.


fairfield3Worship service marking the 200th anniversary. [Photo by James Scott]

It was that historic dream that we were really celebrating at this 200th anniversary. And as we looked back, we were able to acknowledge our present struggle for right relations with new hope.

The bad news is all around – why, just down the road from where we were gathered in worship was the memorial that marks the site of Mount Elgin Indian Residential School – the only school west of Manitoba that the United Church ran; and we know how disastrously that experiment in brutal, forced assimilation turned out.

As we looked to the future, we named some of the other challenges facing all of us on the tough, long journey to reconciliation – the fact that there are, today, more Aboriginal children in foster care than were ever forced to attend residential schools in any particular year; that the number of First Nations people in prisons is disturbingly high, far beyond what their percentage of the population would ever warrant; that education, health, and social well-being outcomes for Indigenous peoples are frighteningly below national standards.


fairfield2The Moderator greeting Chief Greg Peters of the Delaware Nation, with David MacDonald of the United Church in the background. [Photo by James Scott]

We know all this. But it helps to remember it doesn’t have to be this way; that long ago it wasn’t that way. And it helps to look to a future, locally, right here at the site of long-ago Fairfield, and across this country, knowing there are specific concrete actions that can be taken – steps toward reconciliation.

The sermon that morning lifted up the promise of the mustard seed:

The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

 -Matthew 13:31-32

… small seeds, planted in the soil, and who knows when the growth will take place – it takes time. But the end result is not just the flourishing of the mustard tree itself, but the creation of a home, a place for the birds of the air to build nests; so that the next generation of birds, of people, of all peoples, will find peace and justice; a gathering in the tree of life where there will be much singing, the sound of rejoicing in right relations.