Sunday, October 26, 2014

Gentle Teachers

When we got permission to stay at Missabay Community School for our week in Mish, I thought that our team would occupy the sprawling large school alone, since it was closed for the summer. But that was not the case. People came and went at all hours. I got up early each morning to have time alone, and sometimes; as I padded my way to the girls' washroom on bare feet, with the early morning sunshine pouring through the windows at 6.00 a.m.; would cross paths with Marita the custodian, coming down the hallway to start her day's work. 

 I was always looking for somewhere to be alone for a few minutes before the busy day got started, and one morning I thought that the office was the ideal place where I could close the door, read for half and hour, and write in my journal. But one of the staff came in to use the computer and started filling out some paperwork, nodding hello to me and carrying on with his business as I sat awkwardly with my journal. It dawned on me slowly that we were invading space belonging to other people, but they, whether out of kindness or politeness, never made us feel that way. Instead they graciously shared the school with us.

There was laughter in the air every day from the Ojibway people at the school; a gentle "He he he!" as they joked with one another. I never heard voices raised in anything but laughter.

Marita sat quietly on the bench lining the wall, hands folded in her lap, when we were at the dining room table having breakfast on our first morning there. Not knowing who she was, I went over and invited her to join us ,and she smiled, nodded, and came and sat at the table. As she spoke with us, I felt humbled. She uncovered prejudices and assumptions I wasn't consciously aware of, just by her presence. She was a woman like me; a mother, grandmother, and someone who shared our faith in God, I had not realized until then that I had seen her as "other" than me.

Mary sat on the bench one morning in the same way as Marita had done, like a wallflower at a dance. I went and quietly slipped onto the bench beside her and she began spontaneously to share some of her stories with me as if she had been waiting for someone to tell them to. She was probably about my age and she told me that she had been born in the bush--women used to go into the bush then to have their babies. Sometimes as children, she said, they would watch white people in the bush from a hiding place. She laughed softly as she remembered, "They would sometimes leave little things behind for us--sandwiches or an orange, which we had never seen before, and we would creep from our hiding place and take these gifts to our parents. But they told us not to eat them, so we threw them away!"  

One day she was with her father and playing in a river in the forest when she found some shiny stones in the river that were different to the rest. When she showed them to her father, he told her, "Those special stones belong to the Creator, put them back." She did as she was told, but never forgot the beautiful stones that were so precious that her father would not take them. She has never been able to find out where the river of her childhood was.

The qualities I observed in the people we met in Mish were gentleness; a peaceful quietness; humour; love of music and dance; spirituality; and a lack of possessiveness over material things. They also asked for what they needed, something I thought that we from the south could learn from. How often I have held back from expressing a need for help out of fear of refusal or rejection; in effect robbing someone else of the gift of sharing or giving. The people of Mish had no such hangups and were my teachers in that among other things.

I often wonder what they thought of us. We came, meaning to share God's love in action. We left with so much more than we came with.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

How We Lost our Hearts

One week in Mish left me with a heart undone. I have only to close my eyes and little Tabitha is sitting beside me in the front seat of my car with her laughing, dark, almond eyes. She is smart and funny and makes me laugh when she tells me that someone wanted to buy her puppy from her. "Give me the money first and I'll give you the puppy," she said she told the potential buyer. She still had the puppy, so I guess the money didn't materialize.

As we drove into the parking lot of the community centre on Sunday, our first day on the reserve, some children ran up to our cars, recognizing members of the team from earlier visits. Christina, a spunky little girl with a serious expression and hair falling to one side over her eyes, knocked on my car window and motioned to me to wind it down.  Her sharp eyes had spotted something of interest. Pointing to the almost empty bag of chips on the car seat, she said, "Chippies! Can I have some?" 

The children of Mish were a subculture, a tribe that ran together and free as wild ponies. Sometimes pushing boundaries and listening when they chose, they were captivated and calmed, for the most part, by the fun activities that Christy had organized.

Jamie loved the children and was determined that we pick up as many
as possible. He went from house to house letting them know of the week of activities, and he urged me to pick up Marita's three grandchildren at her house on the way to deliver the lunch.

One of the children Jamie discovered going door to door was a girl with autism named Bobby. Her parents were happy when we picked her up and she stayed as long as she wanted, included in the fun. 

There was another child with autism; young Joey; who Susan kept a watchful eye on, and Micah, who Jamie at first thought couldn't speak, but then realized that he couldn't hear.
From then on he stood facing him when he spoke so that Micah could read his lips. Micah's face was covered in a severe skin rash--excema, and he hid it by wearing a hoodie even in the 29 degree heat. It was wonderful on the last day at the beach to see Micah take off his hoodie, and splash in the water with the others, with the sun and wind on his upturned face, a visible sign of the acceptance and love that had melted his shame away.

Later that day the mother of one of the children, who had come to join us on the beach, said quietly to me, "Micah has had a rough couple of months since his mother died."

I looked at her questioningly, and she said, "Brain damage."

My heart plummeted with sadness at the hidden burdens that some of the children carried among their carefree peers. One of the elders said to Paul, "It's good that you give so much love to the kids. We don't get that at home." While I know that isn't true of everyone because I saw love for myself--I also saw brokenness; a remnant of generations of relationships torn apart and a culture shamed through the residential school system.

On the last day there were hugs and sad farewells, but there was no doubt in anyone's heart. We would come back...

Luke 18: 15-17 --The Message
People brought babies to Jesus, hoping he might touch them. When the disciples saw it, they shooed them off. Jesus called them back. “Let these children alone. Don’t get between them and me. These children are the kingdom’s pride and joy. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.”

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Love Gifts

Several weeks before we began our journey to Mishkeegogamang, Paul commissioned a painting to be done by our granddaughter Tippy, as a gift for Chief Connie Gray-McKay, both an honoured leader and friend. 

Tippy did her very best, painting a beautiful picture in vivid primary colours, of a crouching wolf with other creatures within its flowing frame. The colours and creatures were each chosen for their symbolism.

I was worried about it's fragility and wrapped it carefully in two soft pillowcases, surrounded by generous layers of bubble wrap. Over our three day journey I made sure that the picture was safe as luggage went in and out of the vehicle. I could not wait for Chief Connie to see it.

When we arrived though, Chief Connie was away, and not expected back until later in the week. After all of my anticipation, it felt anticlimactic to have to wait longer, and we weren't even sure if we would be able to see her then!

One of our team, Sharon, had been working on a beaded scarf for Chief Connie, finishing it on the journey. Sharon is a Metis, and for her the trip had deep personal importance. She too, was hoping to give her gift in person.

On Friday, after we got back from the beach, we decided to drive after supper to the nearby village of Ten Houses, where Chief Connie lives; Paul, Joyce (the leader of our churches' Missions Committee,) Sharon, and myself.  We thought we would take a chance that might find her at home. To our delight, her car was in the driveway. We knocked on the door, and it was opened by Chief Connie!

She and a handsome young man, whom she introduced as Apollo, one of six children, were just back from shopping for groceries, which they were still unpacking and putting away; but she welcomed us and invited us in warmly.

 It felt so exciting to place the package that had traveled 2,000 kilometers, into Chief Connie's hands at last.

I only wished that Tippy could have been there to see her delight as she opened it and saw the painting.

"Is this for my office?" she asked. 

"No, this is a personal gift for you!" said Paul. 

Chief Connie then took the painting straight to her bedroom, took down a picture that was hanging on the wall and replaced it with our gift.


 Sharon presented her scarf to the chief and that gift too, was received with deep appreciation.

Sharon had sewn 1400 beads into the scarf, each one representing a member of Mishkeegogamang Ojibway First Nation. (Today about 900 live on its two reserves, while 500 live off the reserve.)

Joyce gave greetings from our Missions Committee to the chief, a woman of deep personal faith who has worked hard to better the lives of the people she serves; battling the social problems that plague this community, as they do so many other remote communities. Under her leadership there is so much progress, obvious to repeat visitors. The visits of various teams from our church over the years, have been meant to be a support and encouragement to Chief Connie. We left her home thrilled that another part of our mission had been successfully accomplished!