By Abby Davidson
Blythwood Road Baptist Church, Toronto
At the beginning of February, I was on a small team that travelled to Northern Quebec to visit the Cree Community of Mistissini. Misitissini is a 14 hour drive north-west of Toronto—a growing community of about 4,000 people. As we arrived there in the middle of winter, everything was buried in snow. And, as the temperature sat around -35ºC, we didn’t spend very much time outside.
We were invited to visit by Gordon and Mary Jane Petawabano. Gordon grew up in Mistissini and is now the pastor of the community’s only Baptist church, Faith Bible Chapel. Our team arrived with a mixture of excitement and curiousity. We didn’t know what to expect, aside from the cold temperatures, and we were looking forward to seeing how God would move during our time there.
Given that half of our group was pastors, we were all prepared to speak if called upon. Soon after we arrived, it became clear that we there to listen. As we began to meet people I was amazed at how open everyone was with us. Every time we sat down to a meal with one of our Cree neighbours, they would tell us their story. We heard stories of growing up in residential schools and about what it is like living in the aftermath of those schools. We heard stories of family generational trauma, broken relationships, and grief. We also heard stories of forgiveness, hope and healing.
I was struck by the vibrant faith that many of these residential school survivors held. One man told us of his struggle with alcohol addiction. After years of struggling, he saw how it was hurting his family so he decided to go on a long-distance walk – something, I learned, that is very important in First Nations culture. These walks can range from a few to hundreds of kilometers. For this man, the walk broke the power of his addiction and gave him the healing he needed. It also deepened his understanding of God and renewed his faith.
His story reminded me of the passage in Luke where Jesus meets the two travellers on the road to Emmaus. As their journey begins they are disheartened and their hopes have been dashed. When their journey ends they are filled with joy and hope has been restored. Looking back, they remember that as they walking, their hearts burned within them. They didn’t know that Jesus was walking with them until their long journey had ended.
I was grateful for the chance to listen to people’s stories. I was honoured that they were so willing to share very personal and difficult experiences with us.
After listening, it was our turn to speak. We did so in the Saturday and Sunday services. The church meets in a chapel on the campground just outside the town. There’s no electricity so we heated the building with two wood-burning stoves. Before long, our little sanctuary had turned from a frozen and dark space into a room full of warmth and light.
After hearing about other’s journeys of grief and pain, I was inspired to share my own experience with grief. I shared about disappointment and feeling distant from God, only to look back and realize that he had been with me the whole time. I discovered that whether we walk the road to Emmaus, or Yonge Street in Toronto, or a frozen road in Northern Quebec we all need help identifying that the burning we feel in our hearts is Christ walking with us.
Our trip to Mistissini was an eye opening experience for our team. We learned a lot about Cree life and culture, we met residential school survivors and we even ate moose meat! We also found that though we come from very different walks of life, we’re not so different from each other.