A settler’s reflections on the (Ancaster) land.

A picture of the community’s anger after the Brandon House (1867)
in Ancaster was demolished.

Recently I watched the video of 26 year-old Indigenous man, Seth Cardinal Dodginghorse, eloquently interrupt the ribbon cutting ceremony of the new southwest perimeter highway in Calgary. The highway is built on Tsuut’ina First Nation land, part of Treaty 7 (1877). The saga of that highway’s development has been ongoing for years — almost 70. It is not an unfamiliar story in Canada. It goes like this: City needs land, land belongs to First Nations, a tumultuous and controversial process and deal is completed, city gets land. In this case it was to build a highway. In other cases companies need land for pipelines. And as we know well from our own backyard in Six Nations of the Grand River and the town of Caledonia, it is for housing developments.

Dodginghorse remarked, “Today is not a good day.” He spoke of how his ancestor’s home was now pavement. He remembered the trails, trees, and the paths he used to know by memory — all gone. Concluding his speech in a moving gesture of mourning, agony, and respect for the land on which he stood and remembered, he cut his long dark braids off, leaving them lying on the freshly paved road. “We lived here, we grew up here, we touched this land.”

As I listened to Dodginghorse remember the land on which his mother, grandmother, and great-grandmothers were raised and led their families, only to see it paved over in the name of “progress,” my mind went to Wendell Berry’s quintessential 1968 essay entitled, A Native Hill. Berry lives, writes, and farms in Kentucky, still opting to use horses in his fields instead of tractors. Much of his writing is deeply rooted in the land: soil, trees, rocks, and streams.

In the essay Berry reflects on the seemingly unexplainable connection humans have to their home, their land. “Why should I love one place so much more than any other? What could be the meaning or use of such love?” But he notes great tensions as he reflects on his ownership and love of his land. 

I am forever being crept up on and newly startled by the realization that my people established themselves here by killing or driving out the original possessors, by the awareness that people were once bought and sold here by my people, by the sense of the violence they have done to their own kind and to each other and to the earth, by the evidence of their persistent failure to serve either the place or their own community in it. I am forced, against all my hopes and inclinations, to regard the history of my people here as the progress of doom of what I value most in the world: the life and health of the earth, the peacefulness of human communities and households. And so here, in the place I love more than any other and where I have chosen among all other places to live my life, I am more painfully divided within myself than I could be in any other place.

As I read the essay I picture Berry standing at the edge of his field, gazing over what was once untouched and in an almost mystical way, pure. His reflections continue.

The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around. A road, on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste. Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so fas as possible to go over the country, rather than through it; its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge; its tendency is to translate place into space in order to traverse it with the least effort. It is destructive, seeking to remove or destroy all obstacles in its way.

The tension of his love for the land and his recognition of what once was reads like a haunting love story, of sorts. “The thought of what was here once and is gone forever will not leave me as long as I live. It is as though I walk knee-deep in its absence.”

All of which takes me back to Dodginghorse’s words.

I remember the day I saw all the trees knocked down. These were the trees I played in, that my Tsuut’ina grandmothers played in. I knew all the trails and all the animal trails…Have you ever felt upset in your local community when one of the trees was knocked down near your house? Have you ever felt upset when one of the houses was knocked down? Now imagine your home and your history being knocked down in the name of progress…This is something that effects my family, and I need you to know that.

As I said earlier, this story of land negotiations, treaty rights, deals, and controversies is not new. It is a broken, shameful, complicated, and oft-repeated part of our colonial-settler history in this country. Again, it rages right now only a few miles from my home in Ancaster. But my intention in this writing is not to discuss who is right and who is wrong in these particular disputes, but rather as a way of reminding myself and hopefully challenging all of us to reflect and learn about these important issues. Whether settler or Indigenous, we are all treaty people.

Much space has been taken recently in the Ancaster News calling to attention the need to preserve and protect Ancaster’s history. I applaud this endeavour and those working tirelessly in support. The church which I lead contributed financially to the restoration of the Hermitage; I believe these things matter — that history and our stories matter. I, too, was upset when the Brandon House, built in 1867, was demolished. I am the chair of Ancaster Heritage Days, for crying out loud. I want to see Ancaster’s history preserved. But I cannot help but connect this issue to those similarly raised by our Indigenous neighbours. When history is erased, whether haphazardly or in the name of progress, we hurt. We get angry. We feel loss. It does not matter if you are a settler or Indigenous, we all carry with us a connection to the land, our history, and our stories. Yet for me and my fellow settlers, we too often forget that our history is not the first history here. And that our development, even back in 1867, was made on someone else’s land. Treaty 3 (1792) land, to be exact. The agreement in that treaty, which stands still today, was that the king’s subjects would have free unhindered travel and be able to make roads through this territory. And in knowing that I cannot help but hear the words of Berry and Dodginghourse. I do not think it is a stretch to say that we have built considerably more than just roads. And so it is that Indigenous peoples on these lands have lived through generations of watching trees cut down and land developed, and each time I know a little bit of their history is erased — the connection to the their land severed.

As we work to remember and safeguard the history of Ancaster, let us not forget that we should owe the same commitment to our Indigenous hosts. Let us commit to learning about our treaties, land claims, and the tensions which exist today. And let us build bridges with our Indigenous neighbours, working towards reconciliation and justice. Their story is deeply connected to ours. And we all share this land.

Rev. Aaron D. Gerrard

Settler & Pastor, Ancaster Village Church

Reflecting on our little church


This Christmas my wife, three kids, and I travelled to Southern Manitoba. In fact, all of my family travelled to my sister’s home in Morden. My parents, siblings, and all the kids. Sixteen of us in all. While the “City” of Morden may boast many things, tropical weather over Christmas is not one of them. There were a couple of days that registered at -40c with the windchill. Over the radio on New Year’s Eve came the words, “Happy New Year! Don’t leave your house if you don’t have to; you may freeze to death.” You might think the voice was joking. I did not.

The extreme temperatures had one benefit, however. They kept us all close together in the house. I love my family and we have a good time together. It’s a bit chaotic at times with kids running everywhere and me acting like I’m 13 again, but there are lots of laughs, games, and priceless times with great conversation around great food. We value these times together, especially because they don’t happen too often as we’re spread out around the country.

My family is not perfect. We bump heads now and again (Lord knows I’ve caused my fair share of tears). But they’re my favourite people. I’m proud of them. We can get deep and we can also get the giggles over the stupidest things. We support each other as best we can, and without a doubt we know we can lean on each other.

Yesterday, now back home and back in my office, I came across a quote from the late Eugene Peterson, a pastor hero of mine. I’ve seen it many times before and you may have seen it, too. Several years ago, at the age of 81, Peterson was asked what advice he would give to young Christians looking to grow in their faith. He responded:

“Go to the nearest smallest church and commit yourself to being there for six months. If it doesn’t work out, find somewhere else. But don’t look for programs, don’t look for entertainment, and don’t look for a great preacher. A Christian congregation is not a glamorous place, not a romantic place… the smallest church; the closest church; and commit to staying there 6 months.”

Peterson lived his advice. He was a part of a small community church, despite his worldwide fame. He would often speak of the beauty and opportunities found within such an “insignificant” and imperfect place.

Almost a decade ago my wife, kids, and I moved from the West Coast to Hamilton. We landed in a beautiful little area of the city called Locke Street which was within biking distance of McMaster Divinity College, the reason for our big move. Very intentionally we wanted to invest and participate in a church that was local, small, and different. Having grown up and worked in evangelical churches of decent size, my wife and I were looking for something a bit different. That’s when we stumbled into St John’s Anglican Church: “The Rock on Locke.” While our time living in the area and attending St John’s was only two semesters long (8 months), that experience forever shaped our understanding of church and my ministry.

At “The Rock” we found a small church of kids, adults, and seniors who immediately welcomed us. Inside that beautiful old building was a family of people who genuinely cared for each other and worshipped Jesus together. While they deeply cared about their neighbourhood and were always thinking about ways to demonstrate service and love to the community, people were not flooding through their doors asking to be baptized. The sound system made funny noises. Polished, entertainment, and performance were not words I would use to describe the gatherings. It was not a perfect church. It was not a “full-serve” kind of place. And while my family didn’t experience any drama during our short time there, I think it’s safe to assume that doesn’t mean it didn’t or hasn’t existed. But what it was, was beautiful. The priest, David, was a warm, intelligent, thoughtful, soft-spoken man who was influencing the church to become those same characteristics simply by being himself. He was a gift.

We went on Sundays. We went to the potlucks. We helped where we could. We had a great time at the winter retreat watching everyone perform in the talent show. My one year-old daughter was baby Jesus in the Epiphany pageant. It was family. And I am so grateful for how that church cared for my family, let us serve, and shaped us.

For whatever reason, seeing that Peterson quote took my mind to our experience at St John’s and my experience over Christmas. The unifying image being a small and intimate family. And that makes me smile. Here I am now, seven years into starting a new church and honoured to be its pastor. And as I think about Peterson’s quote, Christmas with fifteen other family members in the house, and my experience at St John’s all those years ago, I realize how blessed I am to be a part of a church that reminds me of all those things.

My church is not glamourous. We’re small. We’re chaotic. We’re not polished. We’re “insignificant” by a lot of metrics some might use. But I love us. I always look forward to us. In our diversity, relationships, conversations, eating together, laughing together, crying together, working through tensions together, we’re experiencing the church in all her beauty. I count everyday I get to serve this church as a gift.

So cheers to all the little churches out there. You are extremely significant.

And cheers to families that get the giggles together. And all the younger sisters that put up with older brothers.  😉

It’s more than a sign: ecumenical reflections for today

Church Sign

We put up this sign a while ago.  It tells all those who drive by that Ancaster Village Church gathers at 5pm on Sunday evenings in St John’s Parish Hall.  But for me it represents so much more.  I see it as a reflection of something far greater which is on the move these days.  In simple terms our church rents this space from St John’s Anglican Church.  But for both of our churches this is more than just an exchange of money for the use of space.  We see this as hope and mission.

This afternoon I spent an hour in prayer with the priests of St John’s Anglican.  Praying for this great city with them is positively inspiring. The comedy of me, a sacramentally deprived rebellious Protestant, being welcomed into relationship with them is why, in the words of the Roman Catholic JMR Tillard, I believe, despite everything.

There is something in the ecumenical air these days.  I’m hearing more and more stories which confirm this.  We — as in the Church — are finding partnership, relationship, common purpose, worship, and mission around the highest common denominator.  This is different than my understanding of some past ecumenical dialogues where the commonality was found in the lowest common denominators.  Where the conversation was once founded on the understanding that we couldn’t agree on the big things, so instead we’d look for unity in the small things, we are now realizing that it’s in the biggest thing (person) where our unity is found.  We’re standing around the Table of Bread and Wine with a look in our eyes that says, “this is all we’ve got.  Him.”  In some cases we’re still not comfortable enough to break the bread with each other, but we’re looking at all of those things that exist around that Table of Bread and Wine with a different, more gracious, understanding of each other.

My hunch is that the fall of Christendom has graciously led us to this place.  For that reason, among many others, I welcome our place as the church in exile — the church on the fringe of culture.  Exile helps us remember who we are.  And as we’re remembering who we are, we’re looking around and realizing that we have so many sisters and brothers who might dress a little differently but are on the same team.

A few weeks ago I was honoured to lead communion/Eucharist for a group of ministers and church leaders who reflected at least a dozen different denominations and traditions.  It was Ephesians 4 in real life.  It was beautiful.  We came to the Table together, prayed for each other, and were sent out in mission together.

In three weeks I will once again administer the elements alongside my Anglican friends in their gathering to which they invite our church.  We find commonality at the Table.  It’s incredible.  All of our respective bells and whistles, although they matter and are (mostly) beautifully unique and distinctive, are simply reflections of the one who brings us together and unites us.

There are few things these days which excite me more.

We’ve got a ways to go.  Lord knows there are those within my own tribe who think we ought to tighten up the ecumenical guidelines lest we get too comfortable with those guys.  But whatever.  Redemption is here.  Redemption is coming.  And I’m convinced that one of the greatest ways this world will experience hope is through the church, in and with all her different flavours, coming together as one.

There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.