Last Saturday, just over 40 volunteers returned to Winnipeg from a week of service, learning, and community engagement in Cross Lake, Manitoba. This marked the 10th year that our church, Sterling Mennonite Fellowship, has taken an 8-hour trek to spend a week in the Cree First Nation, also known as Pimicikamak.
It all started when we partnered with the Living Word Mennonite Church in Cross Lake to put on a VBS kids camp. Our program has grown in the past few years; we now also run a youth leadership camp and a sports camp. Other churches have joined in as well, including Bethel Mennonite Church and Fort Garry Mennonite Fellowship. We also have volunteers that join us from places like Toronto and other parts of the world.
When we came back, we were exhausted. All-day activities, hundreds of kids, and very little sleep (not to mention only one shower) makes for an exciting time. We had over 300 kids registered throughout all our camps. And even when the “programs” were over, we were hanging out with people from the community until well after dark.
Each year when the week is all over, I remain amazed at how things worked out. There’s just so much to be thankful for: for the community that opened it’s doors to us again and made it possible for us to stay with them and continue the camps; for the people are so willing and excited to come and serve; and most of all, for the relationships that continue to be built between the people of Cross Lake and those that come with us. It’s amazing to witness.
I know it’s sometimes hard for us to see how God is at work in the world. But every time I come back from Cross Lake, I’m filled with stories of where I and others have seen God do amazing things we could never have imagined. Let me give you one example from this year.
Each July, the Cross Lake community puts on their own family camp, where over 1,000 people camp out by a lake and fellowship together. This year, we were able to be there for the last few days of it. The first night we went to hangout, we were scheduled to play some music as part of their gospel night under a large tent.
After our set was finished and the next band was on stage, I decided to wander down to the water with a group of people. We were on a steep hill above the shore, a hill that I’ve walked up and down countless times. But as I looked down from the top, I saw a group of kids surrounding a young mother who was holding a baby beside a stroller. She was about half-way down the hill.
As I got closer down, I met one of the little boys. I said “Hi” and asked him how he was. All he said was, “My cousin’s baby is choking.” I quickly realized that he meant the baby who was being held by woman half way down the hill, so I ran there to see what was going on.
I’ve never had a baby, and I’ve never had a baby choke while I’ve held it. I didn’t know what to do, so I quickly introduced myself and asked if everything was okay. Her baby was crying loudly as she shook her head “No.” Then I remembered that one of our volunteers this year is a nurse. So I told her we have a nurse with us and asked her if I could go call her. She nodded “Yes.” Understandably, she looked terrified and it seemed like she was at a loss for what to do.
So I ran back up to the tent where the music was and called our nurse (I’ll call her Sarah). As we ran back down the hill, I tried to explain what was going on. And as soon as Sarah got there, she knew exactly what to do. I stood around for a few moments, but then realized that I really wasn’t needed. So I moved on to give them some space.
I later learned that crying is actually good news for a choking baby. It means that air is getting to the lungs, even if it’s unpleasant. It turned out that the baby had swallowed a rock, and because the baby wouldn’t stop crying, the mother thought her baby was choking. But as scary as that experience was, the baby and mother were all okay in the end.
Sarah sat with this mother for quite some time, checking her baby and talking to the mother about all kinds of things from family matters to baby nutrition. I remember looking back to see what was going on and watching as the mother burst into tears. She was so terrified about her baby choking, and then so relieved to learn that her baby would be okay. To have Sarah there beside her made all the difference.
Sarah was able to offer a calming and reassuring presence for this mother and her baby at the exact moment after the baby swallowed a rock. But let’s remember, the mother is from Cross Lake and Sarah is from Winnipeg. 800 kilometres separate these two places. We were only in Cross Lake for one week, and at the family camp for about 3 hours.
So here’s the big question - Was it just coincidence?
This isn’t the first time I’ve been able to witness something like this. And it’s not the only story of extraordinary timing that occurred this year in Cross Lake. And no matter how much I try to run it through my head, I just can’t fathom the idea that all of this was just a matter of chance. That doesn’t mean I understand it completely or can now claim to know how God works. But a certain level of mystery seems to be healthy when it comes to understanding God’s timing.
It’s moments like these that make me even more convinced that there is a God out there who can work in all situations to do amazing things that reveal God’s goodness and love to the world. I believe more and more that God uses people and brings them into relationships in ways and with timing that could never have been planned by us or even happen by chance.
It’s an astonishing thought - that there is a God out there. Not just any god, but a God who stands above time and space, who knows all of history, everything about us, and still chooses to be in relationship with us. To have the chance to experience that God isn’t a coincidence. It’s a gift.