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John Burton's journal

a coastal presence

By John Burton

John Burton's "adventure" began a year ago. Bidding goodbye to family and friends, he left his suburban Toronto home to take up a mobile "ministry of presence" among 11 First Nations villages on British Columbia's northwest coast. Burton's presence is intended to support ministers and lay leaders within the villages and identify the needs of First Nations congregations. Throughout the past year, Burton has kept an extensive online journal of his experiences within his new ministry. Following are excerpts.

Visit to Klemtu, March 2005

I came to Klemtu to get my feet wet, by observing a memorial service, but got more than I bargained for when I got a full body immersion. The pilot of our floatplane had to line up at the dock on my side of the plane. I was in the co-pilot's seat, and it fell to me to hop onto the pontoon, grab the rope and get up onto the dock to tie it. I misjudged my step and hit the dock with insufficient momentum to get right up onto it, so into the drink I went.

I was able to haul myself out right away with no damage, except my bruised ego. But I recognized that I had just done something that would soon make its way around the whole village, and in a way that was a very good thing. Now there is a story attached to me, and people have something to say to me, to remember about me. I made a splash when I arrived in Klemtu, and I had the wit to declare that I had been baptized into this new ministry.

First visit to Kispiox, April 2005

The baptism is wonderful, as any baptism is. The children are less than three months old and how can one go wrong with such wonderful bundles of new life?

After worship we repair to the basement where a lunch has been prepared. I have two bowls of a fabulous moose soup and have no capacity for anything else, save one bite of moose sausage.

As lunch draws to a close, one mother asks me what is involved in blessing a house. When I ask why she asks, I am told that the two mothers of the infants live together in a row house. In the house on one side, a man died recently; a year or so ago, a woman committed suicide in the house on the other side. They would, therefore, like the house blessed. I can think of no more fitting way to exorcise the spirits of those deaths than with two newborns. I offer to come by after lunch and bless the houses.

I gather folks in the kitchen, mothers, aunties wearing snuggies with the babies on board, grandma and some 10-year-old boys, and we hold hands in a circle while I ask God to bring joy and to support those in the house, that the new life we have blessed today may flow out and cast out the shadows surrounding it. Make the house a home.

Gitsegukla, June 2005

I called Paula Ashby about 10 days ago to set up a visit to Gitsegukla. She was quite excited about the recent council elections there as there had been a near complete turnover in councillors. The new chief councillor is a woman, sister of the previous incumbent, it turns out. Most of the previous council, including the chief, had been in office for 20 or 30 years. Paula is very excited about the fact that five of the nine councillors are women, and even more excited that all of them are members of the United Church.

A community consultation has been planned for today, and when I expressed interest in attending I was assured that I would be most welcome.

I meet Vicky, the new chief, at the consultation. It was her idea to provide the village with a forum for providing input to the council, and she recognizes that when you invite everyone to an open discussion, you never know what will happen.

At 11 a.m., with around 100 people in the room, Vicky gets us under way. The level of participation is impressive, considering that the population of the village is around 400. We start off with an icebreaker, which involves having us pair up with other people and race around the room holding a balloon between the two of us without using our hands. Perhaps other levels of government should take note.

Vicky assigns people to tables. "What would you like to see happen in Gitsegukla?" is the question for each group to discuss. There is no shortage of ideas -- the lists average 30-50 items. Interestingly, a few of the same ideas show up in different categories -- for instance, building a gas bar and convenience store to be run by the band. This would generate revenue and also save the 15-km trip to the nearest such facility.

Another theme is promoting the use of the band's Native language. Language is a key element for re-invigorating Native culture. Recognizing how meaningful it is to them prompts one person to suggest training in other languages as well, such as Japanese, so that tourists can be greeted in their own tongues.

As I point my car back to the west, I am quite grateful to have spent the day here. Obviously this meeting has identified needs and raised expectations that the council will not be able to meet. And they will have the difficult task of developing and defending priorities. But it is heartening to see such involvement by the village in the political process and the commitment of this council to be open.

June 2005

I telephone the minister who serves one of the charges on my circuit. My timing is very good; it must be God's doing. The minister has just come from hospital after being called to see a woman who is in a comatose state of shock after finding her teenage daughter hanging in the basement. The woman managed to get her daughter down before the girl had succeeded in her suicide attempt, but she then fainted and her daughter took off. A search has now been undertaken by the RCMP in hope of tracking her down before she succeeds in the mission that her mother interrupted.

These are the challenges of ministry in the North. As we talk further, the conversation shifts to other traumas in the village, and I am told of abused wives calling the minister for help while they hide in the closet with their children. The minister does not rush to the house to intervene, thank God, but offers wise counsel about defusing the situation so that the wife can at least get out without being beaten and find support to lay charges.

But the courts can do little. Even if a man is sent to jail for assault, he will get out and come back and the women have few options. Charging a husband can raise the risk level for women, since it takes some time for charges to be heard, and during that time he will still be in the village, even if he is not in the house.

And then we talk about the child abuse that is often the underlying cause of suicide attempts. It is a dark conversation. But the minister is able to see some hope. We know that God is with the victims. We know that God does care and that there are people who are struggling to address the social problems, this minister not the least among them. One thing that is possible is for the minister to approach abusers, men whose wives and children have come to the minister with their stories. The minister will quietly tell an abuser, "I know what you are doing and I'm watching you." I am told this sometimes works for a while.

I am grateful that I am able to offer support to someone who is struggling to provide ministry and keep their own sanity and safety intact. I'm a little bowled over by the brutal reality of it as well.

Three days later

Good news to begin with. The tragedy I recounted in my last entry, which ended with a failed suicide attempt and the young girl disappearing afterwards, has been resolved for the moment. She was discovered safe and sound at the home of her boyfriend and is now receiving counselling and treatment and will hopefully decide to live. Thanks be to God.

Haida Gwaii, July 2005

Heather (Burton) and I are visiting the Queen Charlotte Islands -- Haida Gwaii, or Island of the Haida people.

Our host, Rev. Sharon Ferguson-Hood, is the minister to the United Church congregation on the Islands. Sharon has been here five years and has successfully facilitated a merger of congregations in Skidegate and in Queen Charlotte City, some 10 km inland along the harbour. "Charlotte," as the locals call it, is the primarily white community, and Skidegate is the Native village on reserve land.

On our arrival in Skidegate, Sharon is out providing chaperone service for a man who teaches martial arts to a single woman. He had hoped for a larger class, but only one person signed up, and so to maintain the proprieties he arranged for Sharon to attend too. She later tells us that she simply sits and reads while they huff and puff. This is an example of the varied ministries that one is called upon to provide in small communities.

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