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Serpent River: First mission trip

Content warning: Discussion of residential schooling and other impacts of colonialism on indigenous peoples.

“The kingdom of God is like a summer camp.”

I don’t remember where I first heard that–I know it’s not technically scriptural, cuz really summer camps weren’t a thing circa 32 CE, unless you count the 40-year summer camp that the Israelites threw on their way out of Egypt–but I digress.

I don’t remember where I first heard that, but I know it’s just one of the dozens of “the kingdom of God is like” phrases that I’ve heard in my time as a young Christian, and let me tell you, it’s not easy to keep that thing straight. Is the kingdom of God like a mustard seed? Or a pearl? What about a king settling his debts, but being forgiving? Or maybe, you’re more familiar with the house of mouse, and when I say kingdom, you think of magic, shooting stars, and epically-long lines.

However, you understand the kingdom, I’m certain that none of us will ever truly understand it, just like we won’t understand its king, until we see Him face to face. Yet, we’re called to try our best, with God’s help, to build the kingdom here and now.

And so, we get back to our opening: “the kingdom of God is like a summer camp.”

The past two summers, I’ve had the opportunity to squish with a group of Christian young (and young at heart) people into a small fleet of cars and minivans and drive 5+ hours North West of Toronto to the small town of Cutler, Ontario. Unbeknownst to some, this area is home to one of the most lovely, welcoming group of people I’ve ever worked with, the Anishinabe First Nation of Serpent River.

We, Youth Unlimited/DOXA, partner with the local reserve leadership and the Daystar Christian Native Outreach organization to run a two-week long day camp, for which we each individually fundraise so that it’s completely free for the children. Before you know it, it’s Monday morning, and the smiling faces come streaming in, overjoyed that Daystar is back for another year.

Now, if you’re at all familiar with the history of Canada’s indigenous peoples after the arrival of European colonialism, I’m sure the red flags have already started popping up. If you’re not familiar, well I’m probably not the best one to explain, but the long and short of it is that Christians have a long history of acting very un-Christlike towards our indigenous neighbours.

I could say “residential schools,” and leave it there, and that would be bad enough–the forced removal of indigenous children from their families with the intention to ‘Christianize’ and ‘civilize,’ as if the former could be taught in a school and the latter was ours to teach. And a lot of the kids didn’t make it out (it doesn’t count as Christianity if the only crosses are the ones in the cemetery. What kind of school has a cemetery?). Unfortunately, that wasn’t all.

Running a Christian summer camp on a reserve less than 25 years after the last of these ‘schools’ shut down is a little tough, especially since we’re going up with what is, on paper, the same goal: to build the kingdom. As Christians, we need to have a frank discussion about what the kingdom means, in order to make sure we act with humility, care, and compassion, within these hurt relationships.

For my part, I have seen the kingdom at Serpent River.

My first year (Summer 2016) was a bit of an ice breaker for me. The Youth Unlimited/DOXA team had already been going up for about 7 years–some of the people would swap out, but a few had stayed the same from the beginning–so the community was familiar with the team, but not with me. Regardless, they were warm and welcoming, and I felt genuinely wanted. Those couple weeks were all about meeting the kids and getting to know who they are: their colourful, unique, energetic, (sometimes tiring,) awesome selves. It was the beginning of the process, for me, of building a positive relationship with them.

In the summer of 2017, I worked at deepening these relationships, and found myself moved by one kid especially. Even if the rest of the trip had sucked, this kid would have made the whole thing worthwhile. Little guy had a smile that could light up the room, even if he occasionally ran up its walls.

Fixated on my own ever more busy life back home and dissuaded by a few setbacks that we saw that week, I wondered whether it was worth it to come back the next year; bonding with this kid showed me that I had my priorities misplaced. When I’m working with these children, I can tell that it’s making a difference in their lives, and that’s why I continue to do it. It’s not a forced difference, or something we brought from Toronto with the intention to change lives; rather, I felt that I was helping to meet the needs that all of us have. We all need to be loved and cared for; we all need an opportunity to be ourselves–to run up the walls and to smile; we all need to know that there is something beyond ourselves that loves us and made us unique. This is what building the kingdom looks like.

My co-workers at my current city job always ask me questions like, “how do you always have so much energy?” and “how do you come 30 minutes before work every day?” I tell them that I put the effort and sweat and dedication into this job because I love doing what I am doing. I’m fortunate that God has given me something I love doing, and that has supported me. I also know that, at the end of the day, what I’m doing is not just for me. When I work with children, I’m working for them. Ministry isn’t about adding more names to a ledger, or more souls to a scale; it’s about caring deeply and personally for each and every person we have the privilege to interact with.

So, this is how we build kingdom: by building relationships. The kingdom of God is like an inspiring child who makes us want to be better leaders. The kingdom of God is like kids who run to you and remember your name, even when they only see you for one or two weeks a year. The kingdom of God is like a community that would welcome us–people who look like those who hurt them so much, while the pain is still fresh–with open arms. It is not like taking a child from their home and erasing their culture. It is not like forcing ‘God’ down a neighbour’s throat as you force her off her land. It is not like what has been done, and on behalf of those who did those things in the name of my God, I am so, so sorry. The kingdom of God is like the forgiveness these people have shown me, even when I fail to hold up my end of reconciliation as a modern Canadian who still benefits from this evil.

The kingdom of God is like a summer camp: one I’m excited to be a part of.

This year’s Daystar summer camp in Serpent River started today, Monday August 8. I’m not there right now, but I’m heading up on Saturday to see my friends again. If you’re the praying type, please ask our Father to build His kingdom with us these coming weeks. I’m so, so excited to see what will happen, and I’ll be back in two weeks to share it all with you. This is about relationships after all, and I’m overjoyed that I’m able to have that with the person reading this right now.

Talk to you again soon, and as always, stay grateful.


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Please be advised that this blog post may discuss topics related to suicidal ideation. If you feel that the content may affect your well-being, please proceed with caution. If you or someone you know

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