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Tour reveals hidden resources


Edith and Neill von Gunten, new co-directors of Mennonite Church Canada Native Ministries, visited dozens of Native communities, congregations, and other denominations and church related bodies that relate to aboriginal people. A highlight of the cross-Canada tour: the growing number of Mennonite people in each province learning about, and relating to, their Aboriginal neighbors in some way, said Neill.

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January 6, 2006
-by Dan Dyck, with reports from Neill and Edith von Gunten

Winnipeg, Man. — Unannounced, Neill and Edith von Gunten knocked on their door just as family birthday festivities for Grandma were about to begin.

Sensitive to the awkward timing, the von Guntens indicated they would move on, but instead were invited to share some songs and Bible readings – and then warmly welcomed to stay for the celebration meal.

This was just one of many experiences Neill and Edith von Gunten, Mennonite Church Canada Native Ministries Co-directors, encountered on their recent cross-country learning tour of aboriginal communities. The objective of the tour was to become more closely acquainted with what is already happening – and discern an optimal course of direction for the future of Native Ministries.

Along the way, von Guntens also visited Mennonite Church congregations, Aboriginal Neighbors staff of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), and other Native and non-Native agencies, Christian organizations and denominational church offices to learn more about how connections are built with aboriginal peoples.

“Meeting each one face-to-face and feeling their willingness to work together was a real encouragement,” said Edith.

Despite the many church members that already connect with aboriginals in their professional 9-5 jobs, the von Guntens observed that congregations are slow to recognize the daily working lives of its members as ‘the church scattered.’ “We in our churches do not validate as well as we could or should those connections that our pew partners have with Aboriginal people through their work,” said Neill.

In one congregation the von Guntens met a teacher with many years’ experience teaching Native students. She expressed deep gratitude for all she had learned at a one-day seminar sponsored by local Aboriginal leaders from the adjacent community. “But she hasn’t really shared much with others because there were no forums for doing so within her church. She is a valuable resource that is not being tapped. How can we create more opportunities for sharing what people have learned from their work and personal experiences?” asks Edith.

“It was interesting how many in our congregations work with Native people on a daily basis. When we told them that they have good resources right in their midst, they were pleasantly surprised!” added Neill.

Two primary themes surfaced from the tour, say the von Guntens: that relationship-building is the first, and most vital part of learning to know others, and a need to be open and willing to learn from others.

At one church Neill shared his story of working in an African-American ghetto in Chicago as a young man. What he learned in those two years about life, another culture and the prejudices and feelings he had himself, was transformative. “It was beautiful to realize how sharing Neill’s experience freed a Native person in the group to share his story, as well as some others in the group,” said Edith.

A meeting with members in another church revealed how the congregation had been enriched and stretched by a Native man who has become a member in recent years. He has come to feel at home in the church, and his sense of humour and his honesty have enabled him to reach out to the non-Native members of the congregation with love and frankness about what he sees and feels around him. His faith in God and his compassion for others in his community is evident, and he provides a relationship-building model of ministry.

“What excited us the most was the interest that a growing number of Mennonite people have in each province for learning about, and relating to, their Aboriginal neighbors in some way,” said Neill.

Sidebar: Indigenous language Bible translations

The James Bay Cree communities of Québec have partnered with Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Canadian Bible Society on a version of the New Testament in their own language. In 2001 they gathered in the community of Mistissini, Québec to celebrate the published New Testament.

The Dogrib (Tlicho) community around Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories celebrated a similar achievement on August 23, 2003. Their celebration of the Scriptures in their language coincided with another major victory for the community – the historic land claims and self-government agreement. One of the Dogrib elders was heard to remark on seeing the historic Bible publication, “Wow, this is the real agreement! This one will not be broken.”

In addition, the Canadian Bible Society has been partnering for many years with Mennonite co-workers on the translation of the Scriptures for the Ojibwe-Sauteaux communities in Northern Ontario and Manitoba. A di-script (Syllabic and Roman) New Testament was published in 1988, followed by a beautiful leather bound syllabic New Testament in 1994. Since then work has continued on portions of the Old Testament with the goal of producing a shorter (40%) Old Testament in Ojibwe. This project is nearing completion with the anticipation that the Shorter Old Testament will be published in 2006. – from a Canadian Bible Society release