If Jesus visited the community of Cross Lake today (Pimicikamak Cree Nation, about eight hours north of Winnipeg), I think I know where He might hang out. Of course He would make His rounds to the homes of people, the five churches, perhaps the local restaurant or Tim Hortons. He might go visit the schools, play a game of baseball at the diamond, or even meet kids at the beach. But I’m pretty sure Jesus would spend a lot of time in the field and bushes behind the Family Foods.
During the second week of July, our church went to Cross Lake for the eighth time. We have gone each year to spend a week in the community and run programs for the kids and youth. This year, we brought over 40 people from Winnipeg and Toronto, and it was an amazing time. Every year we go back, we deepen the relationships we have in the community and always return having learned a lot.
The building where we stay and run our kids camp is a large cadet hall a little further behind the Family Foods. In-between the grocery store and the building is this field with several small strips of bushes and trees. There are always pockets of people hanging out on the sides of the roads or in the bushes. Most of them gather together to hang out and drink, and for some of them, we are told, this is their home. The cadet building is surrounded by a large fence and we are told not to leave the fenced area at night or to wander out alone. We are told to be careful.
We see these people every time we come to Cross Lake, and multiple times as we drive and walk by them on our way to the store, beach or other areas. Most of the time they wave and say "hi" to us, but I’ve never had the chance to get to know them, that is, until this year.
On our last day in Cross Lake, we were having a bonfire and roasting marshmallows with the kids and youth, when our coordinator came to me and asked, “Hey Moses, do you want to get to know our neighbours?” Part of me wanted to say “No, I don’t feel quite comfortable.” But a bigger part of me said “Yes, this is the motivation I’ve been waiting for.”
I’ll admit I was a bit scared, but I didn’t want to show it. I called over my brother and our friend and asked if they wanted to join me to say “hi” and offer them some of our home-made cookies. They joined me without hesitation.
As we walked out of the fenced area to one group gathered along the side of the road, I wasn’t sure what to expect. There was a little voice inside me that said, “What are you doing? These people are drunk and probably on drugs. Why are they here instead of working or making something of their lives? You’re probably going to get hurt.”
I knew that this voice of fear and judgement was not of God, so I tried to suppress it. I've encountered many people who are not like me, and we have all kinds of people walk through our doors at church. But I’ve almost never been with people this different on their turf, inviting myself into their space. I was entering unfamiliar territory with unfamiliar people, and all I was armed with was a container full of cookies.
In 60 seconds, we were there. We introduced ourselves to smiling faces and offered our cookies. As we made our rounds to the 7 or 8 people standing along the fence, each of them introduced themselves, shook our hands and said “thank you for coming over to us.” But that was just the beginning. Within a couple of minutes, each of us was in a deep conversation with one of them. But we didn’t initiate it. For some reason, they opened up to us.
I was talking with John (not his real name) who repeatedly shook my hand and hugged me, thanking me for coming over. He told me to tell Jesus that he still loves Him. I was confused about that. Why couldn’t he tell Jesus that himself? After talking for some time, it became clear that John is very knowledgable about the Bible and longs to have a relationship with God. But there was something that was holding him back. That thing was in his hand - a can of beer.
It seemed to me that he felt unworthy to approach God and would repeatedly ask me to pray for him and to speak to God on his behalf. He pointed to the beer in his hand and called it his vice. He knew that alcohol had destroyed his life and that he wasn’t on a good path. He talked about his history and the history of residential schools.
But what really got me was when he talked about his daughter. He told me that he wants her to follow the good path and to know God. He doesn’t want her to follow in his footsteps. He wants a good life for her. With tears rolling down his face, he said “please, pray for my daughter.”
It was in that moment that my preconceived notions about these people hanging out by the bush went out the window. These were people struggling to keep their lives together while falling into the habits of alcohol and drugs. But there is a reason why they are where they are. In the community of Cross Lake, one can be pretty certain that our history of residential schools has something to do with it. It broke families and left people without supports, using alcohol and other substances to numb the pain. This trauma carries on through generations.
But if we take the time to dig deep, below the external appearances and intoxication, we will find the people who are underneath; people with hopes, dreams and fears. People who are longing for something more but may not know how to get there. I wish I had more time with John. Even after praying together, I regret waiting until the last day to venture out and meet him.
My experience with John has changed the way I look at the people our society usually forgets about or brushes off as lazy, hopeless or worthless. It’s these people on the margins that Jesus always hung out with. It's these people who were looking for the kind of Kingdom He was offering. If we want to know what it means to live in the kingdom and serve God, we need to stand alongside the oppressed, run-down, and forgotten. I’m still learning what that means practically in my life, and it’s one of the hardest and most uncomfortable things so far.