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Summer programs build relationships


Rebekah Funk from First United Mennonite Church of Vancouver with a young Ahousat friend.

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Friends from First United Mennonite Church, Vancouver, B.C and Ahousat gather for a farewell photo at the end of summer camp.

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February 13, 2009
-Deborah Froese

WINNIPEG - They travel by bus or van over dusty gravel roads, or fly into the wilderness via small bush planes, sometimes covering great distances. They steal themselves to ward off flesh-eating insects and they sleep in tents or on church floors. Some of them exchange hot showers for baths in a frigid lake. But these minor discomforts pale in comparison to the camaraderie they feel when they reach their destination and hear cries of "boozhoo" or "aaniin" or other traditional aboriginal greetings from their excited hosts.  

They belong to Mennonite Church congregations. They are travelling to Canadian Aboriginal communities to connect with friends old and new, and to share their faith through summer camps or Vacation Bible School (VBS), a faith-building program.  

Neill and Edith von Gunten, Co-Directors of Mennonite Church Canada Native Ministry, describe camps and VBS as more than summer programs. They open the door to relationships that benefit everyone.

According to Kyle Penner, Youth Pastor of Springfield Heights Mennonite Church (SHMC) in Winnipeg Man., the program works. Friendships between SHMC youth and the community of Matheson Island extend well beyond summer camp experiences. The youth connect throughout the year via Facebook and email. They have also travelled back to the island for Christmas concerts.

"If we're actually serious about building relationships we have to keep at it," Penner says in a telephone conversation. He also points out that although the youth expect to go each year, "we only go back if the community in Matheson Island asks us back." But the SHMC youth have been invited back every year since their first trip in 2006 and they are scheduled to return this summer.

Since 2006, the youth of First United Mennonite Church in Vancouver have visited the Ahousat community on Vancouver Island one to three times each year. In addition, they've made a point of hosting people from Ahousat when they come to Vancouver.

In an email exchange, Shelley Dyck, the church Youth Pastor, writes that although they have not implemented any programming at Ahousat, they did one day of VBS over Easter 2008. "Our involvement has mostly been by participating in a camp that [the Ahousat] put on each summer. We support them in whatever way we can and in whatever way they want."

Dyck reports that her youth admit to being pushed out of their comfort zones, but they have been touched by the stories of hardship experienced by some of their Ahousat friends - from growing up in residential schools to having children at an early age. The church youth "really appreciate the culture and view Aboriginals through new eyes," she writes.

Appreciation goes both ways. A Manigotagan elder said to the von Guntens; "We could probably teach VBS ourselves, but we want our young people to hang around with young people from outside our community who can be role models for them."

Hazel Bird of Matheson Island helps provide food and snacks for their summer guests. In a telephone interview, she said that the children in her community "love Kyle and the gang that comes out."

In addition to the SHMC youth, Matheson Island has welcomed other church groups who bring VBS, most recently from Grace Mennonite Church in Winkler. Bird says that although hers is not a Christian community, "[The kids] really love it. Even the ones who don't come to church go to VBS...they're so busy that even if you take a snack down, it's hard to get their attention!"

Dyck and the First United Mennonite youth are impressed by Ahousat hospitality. "We've always been amazed at how they are so open with their lives and houses, and so open to us coming again and being part of their community life. We've been invited into their homes for coffee when we've been in their community, into their campsites for breakfast... We also have learned a lot about their culture."

Penner appreciates the fact that his youth are spending their time close to home rather than travelling abroad. "We are better for it because we get to invest in our community of Manitoba... we're learning that ministry - Christian faith - is not just something you go and do [once], you do it always on a continual basis."

For more information on congregational partnerships with aboriginal communities, contact Norm Dyck, Neill von Gunten or Edith von Gunten. All three contacts can be reached by telephone at (204) 888-6781 or toll-free at 1-866-888-6785



Reaching up to God our Creator curriculum package.

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Special VBS curriculum

Mennonite Church Canada Native Ministry is promoting their new curriculum, Reaching up to God our Creator, as potential Vacation Bible School (VBS) material. The resource was developed in close collaboration with native leaders.

Using a variety of multi-media materials, this resource highlights the common ground of Aboriginal Sacred Teachings and the Bible for the purpose of fostering respect and understanding among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities. For more information and to view samples of the curriculum, see Reaching Up to God Our Creator.

For VBS resources available through MC Canada's Resource Centre, see Vacation Bible School Materials.