From July 14 - 20, Cross Lake, Manitoba became home to over 40 adults and youth who came from Winnipeg to run summer camps in the community. Cross Lake (Or Pimicikamak Cree Nation) is a community of about 10,000 people. This was our tenth year going, and for many of us, returning to Cross Lake filled us with anticipation to see how God was going to show up once again.
We saw God at work through our VBS, sports, and youth leadership camps. We interacted with over 300 children and youth, and there were many positive “God moments” that we were able to experience. God was also present in some of the more difficult parts of our trip; one of those moments came when we visited the people in the bush.
Let me try to paint the picture. One of the main buildings wherein we sleep and run our VBS camp is the Cadet building located just off of the main road behind the Family Foods. But between us and the grocery store is a small section of bush. Almost every night, there are people from the community who gather there to hang out and drink.
We usually tell our people to steer clear of that area, although some interactions are impossible to avoid. We sometimes have very interesting conversations with those folks as we walk past them to go to the store or the lake. But it’s become our practice to head into the bush on the last night to bring some food and friendly conversation to those who’ve made that their hangout spot.
This year, we had a lot of hotdogs left over after our last supper, so a couple groups decided to wander out to give them away along with some cookies. Getting rid of the food wasn’t a problem, but knowing what to do when the conversations got going was much more difficult.
I’m not sure how many chats you’ve had with intoxicated strangers, but it’s always been a little bit unnerving for me. Not only was I worried about the young people whom we brought with us, but I was also nervous that I’d say the wrong thing and make someone really upset by accident. So our default was to say “Hi,” offer food, and move on as quickly as possible.
To my surprise, some of the folks already knew who we were. They said they were so thankful that we came from Winnipeg to do the camps for the kids, and they definitely over-thanked us for the food. Some were content to see us move on, but for others, that wasn’t an option.
There was one lady in particular (I’ll call her Karen), who seemed so desperate for us to hear her story. She had clearly been drinking, so at first I wondered what she was doing. Was she just drunk and unaware of what she was saying? Was she so full of herself that she had a need to talk about her life? No. I realized very quickly that what Karen was doing was lamenting.
Karen’s story was full of questions; the kinds of questions that you hope a drunk person doesn’t ask you. She told us that her daughter had died - an experience that I can’t even imagine. But she was sure that her daughter was in hell because that was the only way to explain why the devil took her so early. She confidently claimed that she too was going to go to hell, as if she was already damned. That seemed to be the only place fit for her.
Karen was clearly shaken up, and as she kept talking, she became louder and came closer to us. At one point I wondered if we should leave because I was very uncomfortable with her tone and the language she was using. To be honest, I was at a loss, and I had no idea what God‘s purpose was in putting us in that situation. I felt unequipped and unqualified to give Karen any kind of answer about her daughter’s death or their final destination.
As I often do when I have no idea what else to do, I prayed and asked God to take over. I told God that I can’t, and I needed Him to step in. As uncomfortable as it was, I got the sense that we should just stay there with Karen. We even tried to offer some comments to suggest that God doesn’t give up on us and that no one is ever too far away from God’s love, but it became clear that what Karen really needed was someone to listen to her pain.
And so we stayed, for what seemed like a very long time, listening to Karen’s story. As awkward as I felt, we decided to see her as a fellow human and acknowledged that she was going through a very difficult time. We didn’t have responses for most of what she said, but in the end, we prayed for her. And after a few shared smiles, we said goodnight.
Coincidentally, I was reading a book called Wisdom from the Homeless by Neil Craton as we were driving up to Cross Lake this year. Craton is a doctor who has volunteered with Winnipeg’s Siloam Mission for many years. He’s gathered many stories and lessons throughout his experiences, one of them being that “empty bottles are the stuff of empty lives.” Through one story, he identifies alcoholism as a problem that’s most often a symptom of something deeper going on - a way to mask the suffering, pain, stress, and fear that people experience.
I realized after talking with Karen, that we also experienced what Craton learned through Siloam. For every person we met, the empty beer cans that littered the bush were signs of an internal emptiness or struggle that they couldn’t shake. And as I thought about the context, it became clear that what we were seeing was so closely tied to our Canadian story.
Many of the people whom we met in the bush were forced to go to residential schools as kids. Some had their children taken away. Others have family members who are missing or murdered and are not given a second thought from society. Still others have experienced the economic loss, poverty, and suicide epidemics that plague our Indigenous communities. The people gathered in the bush weren’t there to celebrate or party. They were there because alcohol has become the way for them to deal with the pain and suffering they have gone through.
So where do we see God in this? Well, for one, I knew God was with us, guiding us when we had no idea what we were doing. God gave us the strength to stay when everything else told me that we should leave. But we also learn from Jesus in Matthew 25 that God is present in the least of these, those that society turns aside. Not only do we see God’s image in everyone, but God is present in our suffering. God understands and walks with us through our pain. As we encountered the people in the bush, we also encountered God.
Now, I’m not sure how to end this story because Karen’s lament, and the pain of the people in the bush, continues. There’s a continuing need to understand how our Canadian history has systematically affected generations of Indigenous peoples. And so, perhaps that’s where we need to stay - not necessarily trying to fix things by offering nice answers, but just listening to the stories, lamenting together, praying for God to show up, and expecting to see Jesus in the least of these.