OTTAWA - John Corston recalls growing up in a racist community that looked down on aboriginals like him.
He remembers reading history books that painted a negative picture of native Canadians. "History was telling me I was not a great person," said the founder and executive director of the Ottawa-based Kateri Native Ministry.
"I didn't want to be Indian," he said in an interview. "There was too much hurt. I hid for many years through alcohol and drugs."
In a Catholic setting, God's grace touched Corston's life and delivered him from his addictions and opened his heart and mind to the Gospel.
"I was happy in that world as a Christian, but deep inside something was missing," he said. "I didn't know what it was."
It took a while for him to discover that missing piece. His mother, he said, attended Indian residential schools.
She used to tell him to shut off the television if there were pictures of a pow-wow, but at the same time, she hunted and trapped and hung the skulls of the animals in the trees to honour them. She lived the contradiction that warred inside him.
The grace of God helped Corston make the connection to his nativeness, helping him become "stronger and stronger."
"I like to glorify God. I like to praise his name for what he has done," he said. "When he healed me, when he brought me back, he brought me back an Indian."
Corston was living in Montreal when he began to sense God telling him, "John, I want you to pray for native people. So Corston began to travel in remote communities, preaching the Word of God and praying for healing.
He found many communities had no church services at all - with only occasional visits from a priest, if at all, and a scarcity of religious brothers and sisters as well.
Many communities had left their Catholic faith out of hurt over residential schools and sought to follow their own culture and traditions. They felt "pushed aside" by what had happened, he said.
When he visited, he found people ready to move on from the hurt of the residential schools, to heal.
"I believe the Church is open to respecting our cultures, respecting our ways," said Corston. "Many are still testing the waters. There are still some problems with culture but slowly its beginning to heal."
Corston's travels over the past 15 years developed contacts in many First Nations communities for native leaders who, with a little formation, might be able to step in to lead their Catholic communities.
From May 13 to 17, Saint Paul University in Ottawa, in conjunction with Kateri Native Ministry, offered the accredited Aboriginal Pastoral Ministry Leadership Program. Twenty-four participants from First Nations and Inuit communities across Canada took part.
Father Bill Burke, national liturgy director for the Canadian of Conference of Catholic Bishops, described the program as a "micro-seminary" formation in liturgy, the preparation of homilies or and the proper way to proclaim the Word of God if they must preside at a service in the absence of a priest.
Participants are "on the front lines of where the spiritual culture of the aboriginal people of Canada and the spiritual culture of the Latin Church are intersecting," said Burke.
While the course aimed to give them the tools of leadership, Burke said he and other faculty "have much to learn."