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The story of Site 41

Small church, big win for creation

By David Wilson

A tiny church near Midland, Ont., looms large in this issue. I know it well because I used to pass it every day on the school bus.

Ebenezer United is a lovingly maintained white frame building located at the junction of two country roads. Hardwood bush, farmers’ fields and split-rail fences surround it. It’s hard to imagine a rural church with a more postcard-perfect setting.

Until recently, it was also hard to imagine Ebenezer United and its struggling congregation of about 65 people as a hotbed of environmental activism — even civil disobedience. But that is exactly what it became as it joined a movement of local citizens and prominent environmentalists to halt the opening of a huge landfill site near Georgian Bay that threatened to pollute some of the purest water on the planet.

The fight to stop “Site 41,” as the proposed landfill came to be known, is the subject of a feature by Toronto writer John Bird (“Pure grit”). The cast of characters in Bird’s story includes the minister of Ebenezer United and two elderly church members, who defied a court order to stay away from a protesters’ encampment. It also includes the minister of a nearby First Nations congregation and Native women who maintained a protest vigil.

As I read Bird’s article, I recalled a conversation with Moderator Mardi Tindal late last year. Freshly returned from the Copenhagen climate change conference, the moderator was discouraged by the inability of world leaders to reach a meaningful agreement to combat global warming. But she was also excited by the resolve of non-government groups to work together. And she was encouraged by the support she was seeing in the pews for a higher, more active church profile in the environmental movement. Together, we wondered if that growing, faith-fuelled passion for the environment might be a catalyst for re-energizing congregations and re-engaging them with their communities.

The story of Site 41 is certainly an interesting case study in the good things that can happen when local churches step forward on an environmental issue. The churches involved in the Site 41 movement made important connections with secular organizations and with individuals who share a commitment to the well-being of the planet. By standing side by side at the barricades, Native and non-Native protesters broke down racial barriers that had divided them for generations. And 124-year-old Ebenezer United has a new-found community profile — along with a smattering of new, young families in the pews.

Need I even mention age? Ina and Keith Wood, the retired farm couple from Ebenezer United who risked going to jail by defying the court order, are 76 and 84 respectively. Their example shows that an aging church needn’t be a moribund church.

Site 41 is currently mothballed, and uneasy opponents want assurance it will stay that way. In the meantime, Ebenezer United carries on as it always has. But something tells me that the kids who pass by on the school bus now think of it as something more than picturesque. I certainly would.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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