Tribe House Blog
It’s not always bad to meet a bear
Posted : January 31st, 2012 by Graham Ord
A very poor bedraggled man knelt on the cold floor in front of me, hanging onto a makeshift altar as if he were clutching a tree root to prevent his fall from a cliff. His bent back was shaking as he sobbed out his broken prayers. When he finally looked up it was hard to see whether his matted long hair had been soaked by the rain in the downtown Vancouver streets or by his desperate tears falling from eyes that had seen far too much pain. It was in this unassuming first floor room they called a church, located in the poorest area in all of Canada, that I first met Cheryl Bear. Cheryl and her husband Randy Barnetson together with a small band of volunteers cared for the precious people of the streets in this place, feeding both the spirits and the bellies of hundreds of disenfranchised people every single day of the year. For me, just being there helped me find perspective in my own comparatively trouble-free life.
From the moment I met Randy and Cheryl I realized that they are a unique couple, deeply spiritual yet unpretentious, and refreshingly unreligious. They are both very well educated (in fact Randy often jokes that since Cheryl graduated he gets to play doctors and nurses ‘for real’) yet despite the fact that their experience and education could easily enable them to settle for a nice middle class gig in the suburbs, they chose to spend well over a decade pastoring among the poorest of the poor in downtown Vancouver BC. Randy told me that during their work there on Main and Hastings Streets, Cheryl had written some songs which deeply resonated with the street’s residents. One evening I heard Cheryl singing these songs with the people there. The songs were really raw, so passionate and heartfelt, she pounded her guitar while others joined in with frame drums and rattles, and though it wasn’t polished, it was incredibly powerful and deeply spiritual. After hearing and experiencing the impact of this music, I agreed to help Cheryl record her songs, and within a year or so she released her first self-titled CD. Ironically the CD received several music awards as it resonated with a broader audience than just the streets.
Oh for a thousand reserves
Since that time Randy and Cheryl and three of their boys (the little Bears) have made it a goal to perform in the 1000 Indian reserves in North America. So through ice and snow, wind and rain, and sun and heat they have attempted to bring renewed hope through their own story to the various First Peoples of Canada and the United States. To date they have visited 500 reservations and all this while living in their small camper van.
A brave heart
Cheryl has now recorded three CD’s. Her latest, A’BA, has just been released. She describes it as a collection of songs of prayer, pain, and purification. The Pow Wow drum and the Native flute feature prominently on this recording, along with Cheryl’s beautiful haunting vocal chants and melodies. I have now had the joy of producing all three of Cheryl’s recordings and it has been inspiring to watch how she has developed as an artist. It takes tremendous courage to open up your heart and tell your story, especially when your story is filled with so much pain and hardship. Cheryl’s heritage is Nadleh Whut’en from the Carrier Nation in Northern British Columbia, Canada, and like all First Peoples the road has sometimes been very hard for her people. Attempts to systematically wipe out their culture in past generations resulted in the tragedies of many broken treaties, the residential schools, and the destruction of lands and livelihoods which have combined to result in relational carnage. Cheryl has had the wisdom to sing about these things in a way that is unflinching but also that brings healing and hope rather than bitterness and isolation. Halfway through the recording of A’BA I recall her expressing some concern that a few of the songs might be too raw. “Perhaps they are too dark,” she said. And it’s true that among the many lighter songs on this recording there are some very emotional, grieving songs. One such song, “That Cold Day,” speaks of the devastation that suicide brings to a community. “Remember My Name” is about the adverse effects that addiction can bring. Thankfully Cheryl was brave enough to tell the whole story and not just the sanitized parts. Like her, I believe that these songs need to be sung and they need to be heard. It is in the telling of the whole story that renewed hope can emerge.
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Bottega Festival July 17th and 18th
July 17th - 18th
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