For three days and two nights in June, six Mennonite Church Eastern Canada pastors journeyed by canoe and camped in the wilderness of Massasauga Provincial Park, near Parry Sound, Ont.
Two of them were experienced in the backcountry. But the other four—pastors belonging to the Kitchener-Waterloo Multicultural Ministerial, a group of pastors in Kitchener, Ont., who meet monthly for friendship, support, inspiration and prayer—tried this traditional Canadian adventure for the first time. Most of them had never been in a canoe until their practice day at a local conservation area two weeks before the trip.
Yoel Masyawong, who pastors Grace Lao Mennonite Church, and chairs MC Eastern Canada’s Mission Council, had the idea for the trip and he persuaded Joseph Raltong, pastor of Chin Christian Church; Chung Vang, pastor of First Hmong Mennonite Church; and Yared Demissie Seretse, pastor of Meheret Evangelical Ethiopian Church, to come along
Masyawang sought the expertise of Mark Diller Harder, a pastor of St. Jacobs Mennonite Church, with backcountry canoeing experience. Their churches share a partnership based on a history of the St. Jacobs congregation supporting refugees from Laos.
With support from René Baergen, a pastor of First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Diller Harder served as trip and spiritual guide, using the themes of pilgrimage, wilderness and solitude. Both morning and evening the men gathered to reflect and share.
There were fears and discomforts to address. Mosquitoes swarmed and they had a couple close encounters with snapping turtles! Emergency services seemed far away and the distance across the lake was daunting. There were new things to learn, like how to portage a canoe and hang food away from bears for the night.
Along with paddling and portaging, they swam and jumped off the rocks. They fished and roasted their catch whole over the fire. And they marvelled at the beauty of God’s creation in the peace and quiet and in the full moon shining over the water at night from a sky full of stars.
They intended to take a break from their digital technologies, but soon the cell phones came out to take pictures, post videos and share the adventure through social media.
They laughed a lot at the way Masyawong’s canoe zigzagged and bumped into the others, and there was good-natured teasing about how the instant rice Diller Harder provided was disappointing!
But there were also opportunities for more serious conversations. The experience brought back sobering reminders of how their people have suffered: memories of traumatic escapes across a river under gunfire, walking for days through the jungle with little food and living in refugee camps. Masyawong commented that they had to face those difficult memories before they could experience the joy of camping in the Canadian woods.
For all of the men, connecting around the campfire circle in the evening was a highlight. They shared deeply about their experiences as pastors: the joys, challenges, common concerns and different styles. Diller Harder described living together in the wilderness as a time of “mutual learning,” as they were able to share wisdom from their own settings.
Benefits are already rippling out from their wilderness adventure. They deepened their friendships and sense of trust in each other. Vang found it to be a refreshing time away from the city. Raltong wants to expand the multicultural connections beyond the pastors and he dreams of a sports day for the youth of their congregations.
They expressed gratitude to MC Eastern Canada for providing some financial support to make this possible. Would they do it again? The answer was a hearty “yes,” but maybe not in mosquito season!
The Ministerial’s churches also gather once a year for a festival of worship. These personal and congregational connections are important for the pastors, who sometimes feel isolated because they are so busy caring for the spiritual needs of their churches as well as supporting newcomers in all kinds of ways.
The pastor-canoeists take a break on a rocky outcropping in Massasauga Provincial Park. Pictured from left to right: Mark Diller Harder, Yoel Masyawong, Yared Demissie Seretse, Chung Vang, René Baergen and Joseph Raltong. (Photo courtesy of Yoel Masyawong.)
Roasting a fish over the fire during their canoe trip into Massasauga Provincial Park are, from left to right: Chung Vang, Yared Demissie Seretse, René Baergen, Yoel Masyawong and Joseph Raltong. (Photo by Mark Diller Harder)