Manitoba churches experience smudging ceremony

Evelyn Rempel Petkau | Manitoba Correspondent

Northern Manitoba aboriginal churches that met with Mennonite Church Manitoba congregations in the southern part of the province last month for their semi-annual Partnership Circle meetings continued the work of building understanding and breaking down cultural barriers.

One of the guests, Eva Solomon, whose work focuses on the enculturation of faith, led a smudging ceremony as part of the March 17, 2012, morning worship service.

“This was a new experience for many—challenging for some, welcome to most,” said Steve Heinrichs, director of Native Ministry for Mennonite Church Canada.

“You may be uncomfortable or disagree with certain things that are being said, certain practices like the smudge . . . and that’s okay,” said Brander ‘Standing Bear’ McDonald, indigenous relations coordinator for MC B.C. “What matters for us is that you are in the circle. That’s the big thing.”

Father Francois Paradis, who served for many years as a Catholic priest in the Ojibwa First Nations of southern Manitoba, shared how he struggled when he was invited to participate in aboriginal culture.

“Once he did become involved, it opened all kinds of doors into the community and the Christian church,” said Neil von Gunten, former co-director of Native Ministry who attended the Partnership Circles meeting. “That is the same struggle we are engaged in: What does it all mean and how should we be involved?”

The challenges facing northern churches are not entirely unlike those of rural Manitoba congregations, Heinrichs suggested. “Northern churches are aging and their numbers are dwindling,” he said. “There is a need for younger folks to be in the mix. Also there is a need for leadership within some of these communities.”

Riverton Fellowship is facing dwindling numbers and leadership issues. Its partnership circle, which includes Bethel, Sargent Avenue, Home Street and Douglas Mennonite churches in Winnipeg, decided to increase the number of Sundays that it brings worship services to the community to twice a month, explained Martin Penner, a member of the circle. “We want to walk alongside of them as they try to determine their path,” he said.

Although Living Word Church in Cross Lake has a large and vibrant Sunday school that the community supports, it is an aging congregation and leadership re-sources are stretched, Florence Benson Umperville reported. “Everyone seems to be getting older, and younger ones have other plans or do things differently,” she said.

Charleswood Mennonite, a partner church—along with Sterling Mennonite from Winnipeg, and Lowe Farm Bergthaler—is relatively new to the circle and is working at building relationships with the community located 10 hours north of Winnipeg by car. “We have made a few visits,” said Neil Funk Unrau of Charleswood.

Sterling Mennonite has led the summer Vacation Bible School program and Lowe Farm has sent materials and resources to the northern church.

Pauingassi, Steinbach’s Grace Mennonite and Winkler’s Emmanuel Mennonite churches are involved in a partnership that includes “hosting a family camp during the summer, sending young adults to live and work in Pauingassi for the summer and hosting a delegation from Pauingassi in the fall,” said Kyle Penner, associate pastor at Grace Mennonite.

Other partnerships exist between Matheson Island, Grace Mennonite, Winkler, and Springfield Heights, Winnipeg; between Manigotagan and Steinbach Mennonite; and between Little Grand Rapids and Winkler Bergthaler.

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