Last week, I wrote about the joys and challenges of small church, rural ministry. To be sure, these kinds of ministries come with a unique set of challenges. But they also come with many wonderful opportunities. I mentioned my first ministry among the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) in Manitoba. My family lived in a Métis community of less than twenty people located adjacent to the Hollow Water First Nation, a community of about 2000, half of whom lived on the reserve, while others lived off reserve locally or elsewhere, such as Winnipeg. A paper written in 1990 suggested that when we lived in the area, there were less than 1000 people between the four communities—Hollow Water, Manigotagan, Seymourville, and Ahgaming. It was a small community.
The unique life opportunities there abounded and the blessings were rich! I spent a lot of time with the men of the community in their daily activities—fishing, trapping, cutting wood, and participating in community life. It was thrilling to live and work among them. For a time, I participated on the local school committee as a representative for Ahgaming, Frontier School Division #48. We didn’t run the school as a school board, we only provided local input to the school division. I spent time on the trapline with some of the men, went out on the lake (frozen or otherwise) when they “lifted” their nets, sat with them at the weigh scales while they waited for trucks to weigh, attended their wakes, often speaking briefly, attended funerals or marriages and enjoyed the community suppers, sometimes saying grace as the only resident minister. One of my favorite events was their annual wild game dinner—delicacies like moose, beaver tail, muskrat, lynx, wild rice, bannock, local freshwater fish of various kinds delighted our palettes. We learned much and laughed much with neighbors many of whom became our friends.
When we moved north, Rebecca and I had been recently married and we knew little of life and living in the bush. We heated our home with a wood stove. The first winter, when I hooked up the chimney pipe, I put the damper (it looked something like this but much more simple forty years ago) at the top of the pipe near the ceiling. Melvin came walking into the house laughing one evening for Bible study. My placing the damper so high meant that every time the wind blew, it would suck heated air out of the house. He informed me that the damper should be placed as low down the pipe as possible so that it would pull cooler air out of the house. The stove needed the damper to keep the wind from drawing air through the wood stove increasing the speed at which the wood burned. I just didn’t know what I was doing. Another time, he came into the house laughing, seeing that I was burning wet wood. “You have to season the wood” he said, to which my wife asked if that would make it smell better! We were so young and inexperienced. But they loved us and taught us how to live.
The women were equally helpful to my wife as a young mother. Yvonne helped my wife learn how to handle and bathe our first child. Neighbors and friends taught her how to embrace the cold winters, make bannock, cook wild rice and moose, string beads and socialize. They laughed with her and sometimes at her, not in a malicious way, but because she was so young and inexperienced. That helped her to learn to laugh at herself. Such a joyful group of people and such great memories!
In exchange, we learned their way of life, their joys and their trials. This week Pope Francis is in Canada apologizing to the indigenous peoples for the mistreatment their children faced when they were forced to attend religious schools. They were punished if they spoke their own languages while on the school grounds and they were given English names rather than using their indigenous ones. Sometimes they were sexually abused. Many died and recently mass graves have been brought to light. I once asked a man with whom I was visiting why the reserve was divided by religion. The Catholics lived at one end, while the Anglicans lived in the other direction. At one time, there were two schools on the reserve, one run by the Catholics, and the other run by the Anglicans. The man looked at me and suggested that it was the fault of my people—Christians—who had divided the reserve along religious lines. Of course, he knew I didn’t personally do it, but I heard him loud and clear. In this particular case, Christianity did more harm than good! We had work to do to win their trust.
There were occasional tensions because I was a gitchi-mookomaan, big knife, an American, but I sought to show them respect and appreciate their way of life. I worked to gain their trust. Though it wasn’t necessary to learn their language to communicate, I learned words and phrases, some of which I remember to this day. As I was learning these, sometimes the old timers would try to teach me embarassing words. Ambrose, an old fisherman, told me to walk over to an older lady and say “o-geem-shin” or something like that. But he laughed when he made the suggestion. It turns out he was trying to get me to say “give me a kiss!” It was such a great privilege to live and serve. They taught us much. The attitude of the white man was often “can all you get and get all you can.” Their attitude was to share and share alike. If someone killed a moose, neighbors showed up to get a piece of the meat. A piece was freely given, even to the waabishkiiwe.
I also helped one of the schoolteachers run a boy scout program for a brief time. I took reserve kids to camp and used my chain saw and pickup truck to help them cut wood to sell to raise money for camp. It was here that I developed my passion for cutting wood. I would cut 4–6 cords per winter, full cords, not face cords. Because I had a truck and a saw, I would help others gather their own wood. It was a great way to serve.
Before we had children, Norman, who worked for the Manitoba government, hired me and my Toyota Land Cruiser to take he and his wife up the winter road for his work to the Bloodvein First Nation and the Paungassi First Nation. The winter road literally started at our front door and went north along the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg, across rivers, over the muskeg and through the bush, to connect remote communities that didn’t have an all-weather road. Food and fuel were trucked north in the winter to supply these remote areas. What an experience! What an opportunity! Thanks, Norman for the pleasure!
I was doing some work on the home we were living in and a local contractor came to see me. He saw my drywall finishing and asked me to finish drywall for him. I did a few houses. Because our home was poorly winterized when we arrived, we were without water from late November to April. I knew how to sweat copper, so I replumbed the house. Word got out that I had this skill, and I was asked to repair a rotted bathroom floor in a local man’s home. I quoted the man a price, but he had a hard time saving the money. He and his wife went to bingo regularly. When he said God hadn’t answered his prayers supplying him with sufficient funds for the job, I challenged him about his spending habits. “That’s what I like about you, you don’t always tell me what I want to hear!” was his response. Soon his floor was fixed. On another occasion, I had the opportunity to install a flush toilet for an older couple in their 70s. It was the first time in their life they had indoor plumbing!
It was a rich and rewarding ministry and one we will never forget. Was it hard? At times. But it was a great place to begin our lifetime of service for Christ. I received a number of good comments from my essay last week. One brother spoke of his father’s long ministry in a small rural church. It certainly gave a solid foundation for this brother as he entered into his own ministry. Small church rural ministry is a great place to serve the Lord if He opens the door! You might have to work hard, but isn’t life about hard work? The ministry certainly is.