Friday, 20 June 2014

In the Land of the Midnight Sun

As dark as it gets in June. 
"Setting Sun" at Trappers Lake
(Photo: Krissy Chua)
By John D. O'Brien, S.J.

Time has become a little relative at this point in our journey. We've only been here four days. But each day has become like a week.  — Aiden Wickey

A service trip is a little like being on a retreat. Your "normal life" recedes quickly. You've left behind routines, comforts, and habits. You are plunged in a different land. You are faced with new challenges, above all, those that are within yourself.

For four days now, we've lived at Trapper's Lake Spirituality Centre, a lodge with cabins located a few minutes drive from Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories. There is no spring here. A few weeks ago, ice still covered the lakes, while now we sweat in dry heat, and generally bask in the nearly 24-hour sunshine.

We are eighteen people, almost all from a Catholic liberal arts college in Vancouver. We've come the North on a mission of encounter, of friendship. The First Nations or aboriginal people here are known as the Dene. They are scattered in small villages across a land so immense that many are not connected by road. Their communities are largely Catholic, due to the evangelizing efforts of the Oblate Missionaries over the last 200 years. Sadly, many also struggle with addiction, the legacy of the residential schools, and, presently, the rapid erosion of the culture and their traditional ways. Today, it's hard for the youth to sit and listen to stories from the elders — the primary method of transmission of cultural and moral wisdom — with endless gaming and streaming video available on wifi. As one long-time resident said, it was hard enough for a people to have to transform from a stone age to a space age society in one generation. Now, the rate of change has become meteoric, and drugs, suicide and broken family relationships are all an effect of this.

Today, my group of nine was finishing a three-day work project at a church in the village of Dettah. The local pastoral leader invited us to join some native people to paint the inside and outside of the building, which normally weathers months of minus 30 degree weather. One of the men coordinating the project was from Inuvik, near the Arctic coast, an Inuit man named George. George was our foreman, and he took to us right away. He joined us for lunch at mid-day, and took part in the joking around and sharing of stories that characterize our young people. Today he decided to tell us his story. I've heard many stories of brokenness and heart-ache, but George's is among the most severe I've ever heard.

He was given away at birth. His adoptive father would rape his mother, then beat her in front of his children. George went to residential school, where he was sexually abused. Later, he sought escape in alcohol, and a life in and out of the prison system for crimes that included brutally attacking others, nearly killing a few. All his siblings spent time in prison, and this morning he told us he had just heard his one remaining brother had only a few days to live. He said all this with serenity, and insisted it wasn't for us to feel sorry for him, but rather to learn and focus on the good.


George shows Sarah how to approach a NWT dog.   (Photo: John O'Brien)

George's path to healing began when a local prison minister (who happened to be our host in Dettah), began visiting him in detention. He sent him a Bible, and encouraged him to read it. Later, George discovered Alcoholics Anonymous, and made other steps towards stability in his life. Today he is a qualified and skilled mechanic and builder. He still backslides, and when he met us, he said he had only been sober for ten days.

While telling his story, he got emotional only once, and that was when he referred to our sharing lunch together a few days earlier. He said he'd felt inner freedom being with us. He considered it a great victory that last night when he got the news that his brother was dying, he didn't go on a drinking binge. He attributed this "grace" to meeting us, and thanked us for being there, even if we never met again. We tell him that Christians never say good-bye, only farewell. One way or another, this life or the next, we'll see one another again.

Tonight I mentioned to the students that the moving reaction elicited in George is perhaps the effect of the Holy Spirit living in them. They are simply themselves: funny, friendly, and open to others. But the unexpected grace is when encounters with people like George happen. They have much to teach us.

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