Partnership circles benefit both sides as MC Manitoba congregations work with northern aboriginal neighbours
Partnerships with northern aboriginal churches continue to provide meaningful, transformative experiences for Mennonite Church Manitoba congregations.
Kyle Penner, associate pastor of Grace Mennonite Church in Steinbach, says his church’s partnership with Pauingassi First Nation Apostolic Church has opened the congregations eyes to a new reality.
“We are in Canada, and we need to be relevant to our own context,” says Penner, whose congregation entered into the partnership in 2010. “Part of our context is giving and receiving hope and healing with our aboriginal neighbours.”
This past summer, 30 members from Grace Mennonite travelled to Pauingassi, located 280 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, to participate in a family camp organized by Southeast Child and Family Services. They led activities such as arts and crafts, recreational games and singing for the 100 people from the community who attended the camp that week.
The family camp is part of a reciprocal relationship Grace Mennonite has with the community of Pauingassi. Last fall, Allan Owen, pastor of Pauingassi First Nation Apostolic Church, brought a group from his church to Grace Mennonite to lead worship and participate in some community events in Steinbach. The group is planning another visit to Grace Mennonite for the end of September.
Penner says the partnership has opened the eyes of the members of Grace Mennonite to a new reality in their own province. This has led to interesting conversations between the two groups.
“We have had very good conversations about the history of Aboriginal people in Canada, sustainable ministry, whether or not we have a responsibility to our brothers and sisters in Pauingassi and what that responsibility is,” Penner says.
“It’s actually framed part of our narrative and who we are as a church,” he adds. “Our partnership is us trying to be faithful to what God has called us to do in this world.”
Emmanuel Mennonite Church (Winkler) has also partnered with Pauingassi. It’s just one example of a number of partnerships between Mennonite Church Manitoba congregations and northern aboriginal congregations. Bethel, Sargent Avenue, Home Street and Douglas Mennonite churches in Winnipeg have formed a partnership circle with Riverton Fellowship; Charleswood and Sterling Mennonite churches in Winnipeg and Lowe Farm Bergthaler have formed a partnership circle with Living Word Church in Cross Lake; Grace Mennonite (Winkler), Springfield Heights (Winnipeg), Riverton Gospel Chapel (Riverton) and Matheson Island; Steinbach Mennonite and Manigotagan; and between Winkler Bergthaler and Little Grand Rapids.
The partnership circles stem from Mennonite Church Canada’s work in aboriginal communities prior to restructuring in 2002/2003, says Norm Voth, director of evangelism and service ministries for Mennonite Church Manitoba. When funding was withdrawn for staff people in those communities, MC Manitoba felt it was important to maintain some of those relationships.
“These are congregations that, in some cases, have a long history with the Mennonite Church,” Voth says. “The first missionaries went to Matheson Island in 1948, for example. So to walk away from that history didn’t seem acceptable. MC Manitoba didn’t have the resources to fund staff positions the way MC Canada did, but we did see an opportunity for us to build congregational partnerships.”
Ralph Bartel, a member at Sterling Mennonite, says his church’s partnership with Cross Lake has been rewarding. Bartel and other congregation members lead a Vacation Bible School in Cross Lake for one week each summer, and then youth from Cross Lake come to help with Sterling’s VBS program in Winnipeg.
“There’s so much that we can learn from them,” Bartel says. “The dedication that we see from many of the people there, the acceptance of us – strangers coming to the community, spending time with their kids and them trusting us – is quite humbling.”
“Every year, four to six new people come to Cross Lake with us,” he adds. “They come back with a better understanding of the struggles people in Cross Lake have, but also a better understanding of the strengths the people of Cross Lake show that we should be having.”
Creating partnerships that are mutually beneficial, and that both sides learn from, is the main idea, Voth says.
He recalls the story of one young man who went to Cross Lake with Sterling Mennonite a few years ago. The man had feared going to a reserve because the only images he had in his head of life on a reserve were the ones he had seen on the TV news and in the newspaper.
“He realized his fear had been completely unwarranted,” Voth says. “When he experienced getting to know some of the people in the community, he was overwhelmed by the hospitality, generosity and sense of welcome he felt.”
Stories like that affirm for Voth the importance of the partnership circles.
“One of the things that was a goal for us from the beginning was for people to simply begin to build some relationships, and to get a different perspective than the ones that are usually portrayed in the media.”
Partnership Circles are a ministry of Mennonite Church Manitoba Evangelism and Service Ministry
Article by Aaron Epp.