Preaching in Native American communities responding to generational trauma
Despite his advanced studies in Scripture, it wasn’t until Victor Cancino, S.J., became the resident pastor at St. Ignatius Mission on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Western Montana that he properly grasped the Bible’s deep connections with Native American spirituality and practices. “The Bible is from a tribal world with a spirituality that is as old as the people that I’m living with,” Victor says. “We completely forget that and we think of this Roman-Greco society that looks like us, but the Bible looks a lot like tribal people.”
Victor particularly recalls an insight he had during a retreat with a Native American community in Spokane, Washington, contemplating the disciples’ experience with Jesus on the mountain of the Transfiguration. “It just came to light,” he shares. “They go up a mountain; they have a vision; and then there’s a moment of healing touch for the disciples who are in ecstasy and terrified.” This reflection closely aligns with the Native American spiritual trajectory. “The work of indigenous spirituality is to go on a vision quest and to experience the divine. And this is what the Transfiguration scene is.”
[Do you have a preacher to recommend for Preach? Let us know here. ]
On “Preach,” Victor delivers a homily for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B, focusing on the image of the desert presented in the first reading from Isaiah. The desert is a place of retreat where each one is invited to deep personal honesty and confront reality without distractions, a place to heal from generational trauma and return more hopeful.
In the conversation that follows the homily, host Ricardo da Silva, S.J., and Victor explore how the preacher might respond to generational trauma in marginalized communities, such as the people he works with on the reservation. “I began the realization of all this trauma and generational trauma with my own story, with my own history,” Victor says. “I think doing the work of looking at your own life and your own process allows you to be vulnerable, and you give the freedom to people listening to you to practice the same thing.”
“I think doing the work of looking at your own life and your own process allows you to be vulnerable, and you give the freedom to people listening to you to practice the same thing.”
Scripture Readings for the Second Sunday in Advent, Year B
First Reading: Is 11:1-10
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17
Second Reading: Rom 15:4-9
Gospel: Mt 3:1-12
You can find the full text of the readings here.
Homily for the Second Sunday in Advent, Year B, by Victor Cancino, S.J.
Recently, my life coach/therapist gave me great advice. What, you didn’t think priests need to see a therapist or a life coach from time to time? Trust me, when you work with a congregation like this one before me, you’ll be in therapy the first week on the job. I’ll bet money on it. (I’m just playing with you.) But the truth is, growing up in the Cancino-Maltez household, like my own, provided me with two gifts. First, the gift of a loving, supporting family, and second, years of therapy afterward because of that loving, supporting family.
But going back to what my coach/therapist, his advice to me, he said that life is a conversation. And the more you think about that, I think there’s a lot of truth to that. Both Isaiah and the Gospel of Mark today have a brilliant idea. They suggest that one is to go into the desert, this place of wilderness and uncertainty, and to have an honest conversation with yourself. In other words, go discover what is true in your life right now and what has become false, especially in terms of relationships. We have a name for this kind of conversation based on honesty with God. It’s called prayer. It’s as simple as that.
Learning to live in healthy relationships is hard. For some of us who grew up in what has been called generational trauma, this reality of brokenness along generational lines is a big topic within reservations like the one that we live in. But it also affects so many families, more and more in a society that does not value slowing down, to look at the condition of our hearts.
If Advent is anything, it is a time to slow down and get back to the journey of the heart, back to this conversation—an honest one—to ask ourselves what is true in my life, but also what has become false in my life.
On the second Sunday of Advent, how quickly we are already moving through this time of self-honesty in prayer, preparation, anticipation. On week two, the readings invite us to ask a simple question. Are you finding the peace you need and not the one you want? Do you know how to tell the difference between needs and wants? The people of God from the Bible in today’s readings have found the peace they want living in Babylon, but they haven’t been on the peace they need and are being invited into.
The words from Isaiah repeated in the Gospel today bring encouragement to people invited to rebuild their community, again after so much trauma.Isaiah in chapter 40 is known as a Second Isaiah because the theme shifts to focus on what is called the second great exodus back to Jerusalem, the city of peace. Regardless of what we see in the news and on our television today, it is called the great city of peace within our biblical imagination.
The first Exodus is when the Hebrew people left Egypt, leaving Pharaoh behind and began their march, their wandering through the desert, to a land where they could live true to their faith and culture. But in a different generation of Hebrew families, the people that Isaiah writes to in our first reading today have lived in exile for several decades in the land of the Chaldeans, which is modern-day Iraq and biblical Babylon. And you know what? Life is rather comfortable in Babylon—it’s pretty good. To stretch our imagination a little bit; the schools are great, the buses show up on time, there’s plenty of food and work for everyone. Why on earth would I want to go back to Zion or back to the land of Israel?
Isaiah knows, however, that the beliefs, the gods, the many idols, and the values found in Babylon are false for the people of the Covenant; the people who are in constant conversation with the God of Israel. The only thing the Hebrew people have to do or need to do is look into their hearts to remember what is true. Their faith in the One God and the temple where the God of Israel lives in Jerusalem. Isaiah is basically saying it is time to go back home, literally, to another place. Leave your comforts behind to rediscover another comfort, more honest and truer to who you were always called to be in the first place. This call to come back home is also symbolic for these ancient people, as it is for us. Come to a place in your life where you carry around a greater sense of hopefulness, where your faith is lived out from deep within your bones, becoming living stones from a living, intervening God.
In this sense, the opening lines from the first reading today are soothing and also challenging. “Comfort. Give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak softly to Jerusalem, tell her that her guilt and any wrongdoing are forgiven. Indeed, she has received double the punishment for all her sins; her time to grieve is finished.”
In my own words, it’s like saying that your trauma has been seen. And now it’s time to do the work of healing, prepare the path in the desert, and go. Now, does this sound like a good deal to you? Probably not.
For a lot of us, the desert can seem like a desolate place, a lonely space. But this same desert in Isaiah becomes the flowering desert, where hope is found again. It’s a place and space, just like Advent is a space where you can do the work of healing, where you can journey to those true places in your heart and walk away from the false ones. It’s the space where the words from today’s Psalm begin to make sense in the context of brokenness and healing, where kindness and truth shall meet, justice and peace shall kiss. Where our brokenness and tendency to hurt each other in our relationships are softened by kindness and truth. This is an entirely different kind of peace from the one offered in Babylon.
We can end this reflection with the final question. Do you live daily with a sense of hopefulness? Or do you tend to carry around despair? If you’re not sure, then you definitely need to venture into this desert. I think you’ll have a conversation there with John the Baptist. I think you’ll meet Jesus there, who comes not just with water but with the Holy Spirit ready to heal, ready to forgive. Finally, as my therapist said, if life is indeed a conversation, and if conversation is a kind of prayer, then life is really just a prayer. The desert space is a good place to go and have this conversation. My suggestion and my encouragement for all of you is to keep on Advent-ing. Keep being honest with yourself and with God. “A voice does [indeed] cry out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord.”