Saturday, 26 April 2014

Dora's Gift and Our Johnny

Easter Sunday it was, following a Holy Week that was both holy and ... well... I'm not sure of the word yet...

Rock in Sanikiluaq, Nunavut - image used on our Easter bulletin - reminded me of the empty tomb

Our Johnny, an Inuk much loved member of Mile End Mission, was taken to hospital the Friday before Palm Sunday. Johnny died this afternoon surrounded by people who love him and upheld in the prayers of many more. We are shocked and deeply saddened. Johnny is from what was formerly known as Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay, west of Great Whale River (Poste-de-la-Baleine on the map) - and now again called by its Inuit name, Sanikiluaq.

Barren, rocky and exquisite landscape

Sanikiluaq from the space shuttle
We tried to get the floor staff where Johnny was first placed to write a letter giving his state of health so that family could come to visit him. Much frustration and effort later - no they couldn't/wouldn't. The Nunavut government pays travel in emergencies - otherwise, it's $2,500 plane fare. At any rate, with a 'no' and a deadline applying for funding to get the Friday plane out, his sister Dora came with support from their community. Lori and I met Dora at the airport and, after a late night visit to Johnny, I brought her home. Thanks (not quite) to the nonsense on his first hospital floor, I received the gift of Dora! :-) Well - God does work in mysterious ways ;-)

(When Johnny was moved to the ICU on Good Friday, the letter was written and sent. Last Wednesday, brother Jonassie with his wife Daisy arrived and are staying at the Mission. They are overwhelmed by the love for Johnny that now extends to his family.)

Those of us who knew Johnny well already knew much of his story - his life has been tragic in many ways, growing out of sexual abuse as a little boy by a teacher, a social worker, and (he told Lori recently) an Anglican priest (three different white men). Years later, Johnny began the collective action lawsuit that brought the teacher to justice and compensation to the many, many victims.  

Tragedy notwithstanding - Ahh ... but he was loved. By family. And in recent years by a whole bunch of us. He'd ask, "Why do you care about me?" Over and over. And we'd answer: "Johnny, you've had such a hard life, but you're a good man with a warm heart." A sense of humour. Twinkly brown eyes. Stubborn as all get out - but hey - he survived where many of us might not have. A miracle. He spoke at Connie's funeral in August 2012. We may have forgotten most of what was said, prayed, and sung that sad day - but we will never forget Johnny's short tribute - "Connie fed us. She clothed us. She loved us." That was Connie and that was, and is, Mile End Mission, folks.

Flowers can bloom in rocky soil and through tribulation
Our Johnny

Jumping back to Easter Sunday - Dora told me I may tell this part of her story. She would probably give permission to tell more, but I'm not going to. Suffice it to say this much. At age 8 she was taken to a residential school run by the federal government (not by a church organization in this case) in Great Whale River, Quebec. The abuse of the children was beyond comprehension, unspeakable except by the person whose story it is - at least for now. Dora testified for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission last year, and has a DVD of her testimony. 

What priest in her (or his) right mind would ask someone to speak about residential school abuse on Easter Sunday? I had other things planned, but I believe it was Holy Spirit that moved me to toss my plans and ask her to speak. I see resurrection in Dora as well as Good Friday. Still, I had to ask how she felt about it - and if she saw evidence of resurrection in herself. Otherwise, we wouldn't have done it. She does. And we did.

Part of Dora's story: 

The community didn't know the children were going to be taken. Government officials arrived and acted with haste and cruelty. Seared in Dora's memory - her mother tugging frantically on one arm, and a government agent pulling the other. Eventually her mother had to let go, fell to the ground face in her hands, helpless, hopeless, wailing for her daughter. The children, tossed into a plane that had no seats, had no idea where they were going, why, or for how long. When the plane took off, the children were thrown together to the back of the plane, when it veered left or right, they fell to the side, and when it landed in Great Whale River they were thrown frontwards. The children lost their voice, forbidden to speak their language. Dora's hair fell to below her knees. It was cut short with bangs along with all of the girls. You've seen the images. For Inuit people, their hair is almost sacred. Dora has never been able to allow her hair to grow long again, so traumatic was the experience.

They spent ten months of the year at the school and two at home in summer. That first year, they knew nothing of the future and there was no contact allowed between families and children. Her father dog-sledded across the winter ice over the years, but sometimes they only found out he had done so when they went home in summer. Boys were separated from girls, and even siblings could not see each other, though the buildings were close together.

I could feel a teensy bit of "This is Easter Sunday, a day for flowers and joy and celebration and Alleluias. What on earth is Ros doing/thinking?" I wondered myself, of course. And so I should have. Though I had listened to her stories and prepared the way, introducing Dora and a tiny bit of her history before she spoke, even I wasn't prepared for the horrific details she told us ... 

After Dora spoke, I made connections between her story and Easter. It went something like this - Easter only has meaning after Good Friday. Nothing justifies or explains away suffering and death. Holy Week I had been aware that Johnny was Jesus for me along with so many millions of others suffering and dying in today's world. Good Friday and Easter are NOW, NOW, NOW as Herbie O'Driscoll has said. There is no justification for racism, for slavery, for Japanese-Canadian Internment Camps in WWII, for residential schools, for child abuse, for cancer, death of a spouse or a child, for the suffering of someone with Alzheimer's or their carers ... We all know suffering. We all make choices. We all experience Good Friday in our lives, and our Easters can grow out of them. Nothing, however, diminishes the suffering or can explain it away - eg - "Those were different times..." 

The last Canadian residential school was closed in 1996. A thorough report was written in 1907 by Dr. Peter Bryce about the horrendous conditions in residential schools, the extremely high death rates, conditions of the buildings and levels of abuse. The government buried the report for 15 years, and eventually Dr. Bryce whom the Department of Indian Affairs had hired to write it, published it himself in book format. And still the schools went on.

It's also important not to see either Dora or ourselves only as victims. We are more than victims. We suffer and have suffered, yes. And most of us have had help, love, and support to enable us to grow into new life as well as the courage to do so. 

Dora is a woman of courage who has found her voice (understatement) and who has learned to cry. The children in the schools were forbidden to cry.  She took a course in counselling in Iqaluit, capital of Nunavut, and in the process, began to face her demons. She is a counsellor in the elementary school in Sanikiluaq. She tells truths with grace and a gentle spirit. She also has a wonderful sense of humour. We cry and laugh a lot. Mostly laugh.

Dora, whose name means 'gift of God' has been a gift to everyone since she's arrived. One woman in our congregation called Sunday night and said it was one of the most moving services she'd ever been at. She also asked if she was the only one who cried. I told her she was the first to tell me so, and since I was sitting in a front pew, I couldn't be sure - but I suspected she was not alone.

After Dora and I had each spoken, Tom played while Dora sang "Jesus Christ is risen today" in Inuktitut. I had nothing to do with what happened next - no hint - didn't even think of it myself ;-)    ... The entire congregation spontaneously joined in singing the Alleluias. Alleluia's pretty well the same in many languages. WOW!! Awesome! Alleluia!!  And then they clapped fervently! I'm hoping that Sandra, who taped Dora singing on her Ipad, will send a link and you can see and hear her.  (see link below)

Johnny was a gift. Dora is a gift. Alleluia and thank God for this family - that they've entered our lives and hearts for ever 'n always. 

Johnny died peacefully at 2pm while Jonassie and Daisy were singing "How great thou art" for him. In Inuktitut, I think. Johnny's body will be taken this week back to his birthplace and spiritual home to Sanikiluaq after many years in different parts of Canada. Being loved these last years, finding a home where he was loved and accepted and part of a community again, I believe he came home in himself. 

May each of us come home in whatever ways we most need.

An inukshuk in Sanikiluaq - A guide home

Inuksuk (inukshuk)
Figures made of stone called inuksuit (singular inuksuk, also spelled inukshuk) are among the most important objects created by the Inuit, who were the first people to inhabit portions of Alaska, Arctic Canada and Greenland. The term inuksuk (in inuktitut) means "to act in the capacity of a human." it is an extension of the word inuk meaning "a human being." Some inuksuit have been found contiguous to palaeoeskimo sites (2400-1800 bce) in the Mingo Lake region of southwest Baffin island.
Inuksuit are placed on the temporal landscape acting as "helpers" to the Inuit. Among their many practical functions, they are used as hunting and navigational aids, act as coordination points, serve as various indicators (eg. where food was cached), and act as message centers. In addition to their earthly functions, certain inuksuk-like figures have spiritual connotations, and are objects of veneration, often marking the threshold of the spiritual landscape of the Inummariit- the Inuit who know how to survive on the land living in their traditional way. 
(from    htttp://

Three generations of Inuit in an igloo built in Sanikiluaq - in traditional clothing made from eider ducks
See the documentary "People of a Feather" that tells the history and present day challenges.
For instance, water is released regularly from a Quebec dam that is warmer and non-salt - and it is dramatically affecting hunting, fishing, climate, fauna such as seals, and vegetation. Salt water is heavier, and sinks below this water.
Eider ducks - a staple past and present
Oh, and by the way, in the 1969-1970, the Canadian government, in it's wisdom and evil purpose, decided they only wanted to have responsibility for one settlement, so slaughtered the dogs in the community in the south, destroyed all kayaks (then made of sealskin), and transported people north with no way to return. Jonassie, 8 at the time, was on a boat that got stuck in ice, and they walked to the many miles to homes that were promised, but didn't exist. They camped in tents in winter. They were to be provided for; they were not. All the people in the south had needed was within walking/sledding distance - hunting, fishing ...  The languages and cultures were different, so mixing up wasn't healthy (being polite). Many of the elders simply gave up and died. Could it be that the government wanted the land to mine for iron ore? Nahhh... though they haven't yet, that's the rumour. There are different versions of the story, of course, but this is Dora's - a 15 year old at the time who well remembers life before the move, the actual move, and life after. Given the government's historical and present treatment of aboriginal people, which version would you be most likely to believe?

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Love in Motion - Sunday School for Everyone

A tragic event in December with a young person who was a child when I arrived at the Mission in 1995 motivated Lori to say, "We have to do something for this generation of children!" And so a seed was planted. Parents and others were consulted. A grant has been applied for to help with funding, but we will carry on regardless.

Black History Jazz Mass was the beginning. And a few of the children asked, "When can we come back to church?" WOW!! 

Making communion bread

March 30th, we held our first inter-generational Sunday School in the hall. We made communion bread (see photos), sang, danced, had communion and then lunch around the same tables. 13 children with parents and various other adults, including St CHL senior members. :-) We talked about needing different kinds of food - for our bodies and our spirits. We sang (among other songs) "If I were a butterfly..." Memories of this one - evening visits on Baird 5 in Burlington, VT in the late 80's when I was doing CPE - with Heidi on my lap in a rocking chair - singing the chorus repeatedly together. 

"For you gave me  a heart, 
and you gave me a smile. 
You gave me Jesus, 
and you made me your child. 
And I just thank you God for making me, me!"

We have three regular little ones (and several other less regular) at St. CHL these days who participate as crucifiers and in all ways possible. A small church provides neat opportunities for creativity and flexibility. If we have 3 children, we have 3 crucifers - with parents helping with the larger crosses.

Our project needed a title for the grant application - so for now it's "Love in Motion." We were certainly in motion. And the concentration is obvious in the photos. It was wonder-full! Love goes a long way - and a safe and welcoming place ... 

And we all need to know we can make a difference, so each child took home what we used to call a mite box - from the Primate's Fund - and are going to collect nickels and dimes for Apeti pou aprann - the children's lunch programme in Haiti that we started in Montreal after the earthquake - through the PWRDF. 

Ashes, Life, Death, Love 'n Other Mysteries

Although I'm no longer the director of Mile End Mission, I still take special services there at the request and with the encouragement of  Lou, the new director, Lori, and others. So, on Ash Wednesday we held a non-traditional service. Armed with a simple bilingual leaflet and a small container of ashes rendered by our Evelyn at St. CHL from last year's palms and some charcoal bits from my friend Anne's fireplace. I'd asked for an old white sheet, but Lori found something better - an off-white long body pillow case which we put across one of the regular tables. When I put the ashes down, two young, curious, and eager faces appeared. Paige asked, "Who are they?"

Oh my! Out of the mouth of babes... Paige's experience of ashes: when her Grandma Connie (of Mission fame) died, the children helped place her ashes in the beautiful wooden box they had decorated. So, a natural question: "Who are they?" Pretty appropriate for Ash  Wednesday. I explained where the ashes came from after asking if they reminded her of Grandma. Yes, they did. We talked about where ashes come from - and the bits of charcoal from wood that has burned down....

Everyone who wished (most adults and all 4 children) made trumpet sounds and then a shortened passage from Joel was read ... "Blow the trumpet..."   and the Gospel ... "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also..." I asked what our most important treasures are, what we can't do without... and several things were mentioned including LOVE. Ahhh... I can be extremely wealthy, but if I don't have people to love and people who love me, it's not worth anything... I scrunched up and then went under the table and curled up crooked on the floor and said, "What's it like to have no love?"  Answers - Lonely. Isolated. Sad. Then I asked if someone who loves me would help me out from under the table. Paige and Sharissa, two of our children, rushed over and helped me out. It was so touching... 

People who love me helping me out into the community

We talked about ashes and crosses on our foreheads. 

Everyone drew crosses on the cloth with charcoal. I asked  the girls who had baptized them. Quizzical looks. "I don't know. I was a baby." Missy whispered in Paige's ear that I had baptized her in the lake at camp. Paige then whispered in Sharissa's ear that I had baptized her

, too. We did an imaginary pouring of water over their heads and they got all 'wet' and then I demonstrated the invisible crosses on their foreheads meaning they are God's children. 

We gathered in two concentric circles - pairs facing each other and used a form I found in Sara Miles' book about Ash Wednesday at St Gregory's in San Francisco. One person says, "Forgive me a sinner." The other replies, "God forgives you. Forgive me, as sinner." Response from person # 1, "God forgives you." Then the inside people move one person to the right. 

I got to an indigenous person who has lived a life in hell, was molested (along with other children in the community, by both a teacher and an Anglican priest. And, as is usual, each child thought he or she was the only one until many years later. She asked if God really forgives her. Yes, God forgives you. Several times back and forth. Both of us in tears. "I don't believe it," she said. I replied, "God's bigger than you. God forgives you." Afterwards we chatted - she is not the one who needs forgiveness - the abusers do. Anger. Yes. Excruciating ... 

We put ashes on foreheads, and Lori asked if we could put some on Connie's photo. I did, in the corner then asked paige and Sharissa if they'd like to. Well! They put the crosses on her forehead! 

Johnny marking my forehead with ashes
What a privilege is ours.

In the US, many do "Ashes to Go." Sara Miles and her group stood in a park in the Mission district of SF, near a subway entrance. I can't begin to describe the impact emotionally and spiritually ... you'll have to read the book: City of God.  So many moving stories within the larger one. Sara Miles' story inspired me to take ashes out to some who couldn't come to church - so a few of us went. And again, it was inspiring. We give - but - as well all know - the gift back to us is indescribable.