On July 23, in an extraordinary moment in the history of The United Church of Canada, Rev. Carmen Lansdowne became the first Indigenous woman elected to serve as moderator. The Heiltsuk First Nation member — who was officially installed at Canadian Memorial United in Vancouver on Aug. 7 — is also the first Indigenous woman to lead any Christian denomination in Canada.
Rt. Rev. Lansdowne begins her three-year term as the United Church is grappling with reports of unmarked graves at the sites of former church-run residential schools, and preparing to embark on a new relationship with the Indigenous Church. In her moderator’s nominee message, delivered via video to a virtual Council, Lansdowne said, “There is still much to do as a country and as a church when it comes to reconciliation.” In a message that she shared after her election, she named reconciliation as a top priority.
Born in Alert Bay, B.C., the new moderator attended her first United Church Indigenous ministry consultation when she was only a child. Her parents, who are retired fishers on the Pacific Coast and keepers of the waters, wanted her to be exposed to the church and its justice issues from the start. “My parents played a huge role in my life and taught me my strong work ethic,” she told Broadview.
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Lansdowne’s Indigenous name, Kwisa’lakw, means “woman who travels to places far away.” From her time as a flute student in Texas to her work with the World Council of Churches in Geneva, the 46-year-old — who lives with her partner and two children — has travelled widely. She has also made a significant impact as the executive director of the First United Church Community Ministry Society in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, serving clients in Canada’s poorest postal code.
Despite her many achievements — including a PhD from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. — Lansdowne’s path hasn’t always been an easy one. She struggled with addiction and lost an older brother to suicide before experiencing a strong call to ministry at age 26.
In the face of such challenges, she has remained steady in her commitments to Indigenous justice, environmental sustainability and creating a future together as a church in a time of crisis.
Rev. Debra Bowman, a longtime friend, says that Lansdowne’s work, particularly at the helm of First United, has been extraordinary. “She helped to transform that organization and is building a whole new $65-million facility,” she says, referring to Lansdowne’s leadership on a renovation project that will expand the non-profit’s ability to serve its low-income, underhoused and unhoused clients.
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Very Rev. Stan McKay, who was the first Indigenous moderator of the United Church from 1992 to 1994, agrees that Lansdowne is the right person to be the denomination’s next spiritual leader. “She has the capacity to see new possibilities for the church beyond our current model,” he says. McKay adds that he has “longed for a time of true ecumenical co-operation, and with her experience with the World Council of Churches, [Lansdowne] can lead us into that place.”
Those who have met Lansdowne — who was the sole nominee for the position in a historic first — remark on her gifts as a deep listener and observe that she reads widely, is constantly learning and approaches life with a sense of humour.
Rev. Jim Sinclair, a former general secretary for the United Church, calls her one of “the most evocative leaders that the church has ever had” and says that she is “filled with a great sense of joy, a lightness that inspires other people.”
“She is a God-given gift to us with everything happening in our world today,” he adds.
The United Church has a new moderator with the capacity to speak clearly in the public square, include the voices of the most marginalized in our society, and bring her Indigenous perspective to her faith and the issues of the day. For a denomination wrestling with the legacy of colonialism and seeking to fulfil its promise of reconciliation, she is an exciting and transformative choice for leader.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that Carmen Lansdowne was the first Indigenous woman to lead any religious denomination in Canada. She is, in fact, the first to lead a Christian denomination in Canada. This version has been updated. It has also been updated to clarify the sources of Lansdowne’s wording about reconciliation.
Rev. Christopher White is in ministry at Kedron United in Oshawa, Ont.
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Paddling Vintage Sunday School Teacher says:
To "Woman who travels to places far away", I do that too, with my paddle on the shining waters of the bay.
Jesus addressed the people, " I am the light of the world. No follower of mine shall wander in the dark: she/he shall have the light of life."
The light of life and healing, that all of us need from sea, to sea to sea, is in the loving hands, skillful feet, kind hearts and brilliant minds of the Women of the United Church of Canada. Woman who travels to places far away, mobilize your legions of carers, growers, facilitators, nurturers, teachers, planners, brainiacs to provide programs, sunday school, bible studies, small and large groups, face to face interaction with each other all across turtle island. Focus all this energy, vitality, holy spirit on love in and through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour, our Redeemer and God's only son. Do this in honour of all the children who didn't come home and the love of Alberta Billie who spoke to us from the heart and the love of the Holy Spirit. Paddles up!