Church communities find solace amid tragic deaths

March 28, 2024 | News | Volume 28 Issue 06
Leona Dueck Penner |
Photo by Tina Nord/Pexels.

After our January 28 Sunday morning worship service at Aberdeen Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, our congregation, together with St. Kateri Tekakwitha Catholic Indigenous Church, from whom we rent worship space, held a joint vigil for two young men who died tragic deaths in the area.   


On December 30, 2023, the body of Brooklyn Elijah Hiebert (20) was found next to our church building. He had been murdered.     


Then on January 25, just a few days prior to an already planned vigil for Brooklyn, Dakota Tre Raven (21), beloved foster son of our pastor, Teresa Enns Zehr, and her husband, Jeremy, died of a drug overdose. He left behind his partner and their 18-month-old child.     


The sorrow was raw, deep and intense as we gathered for the vigil. Yet it turned out to be a healing event for all of us as we gathered outdoors, haloed by bright sunlight shining on freshly fallen snow at the spot near the fence where Brooklyn’s body was found.    


We listened to welcoming words by Brother Thomas Novak, and we shared scripture texts, songs and prayers from both church traditions. This was followed by Indigenous cleansing rituals, including smudging and a water ceremony.     


Then, our pastor laid flowers in the snowy sacred space. We sang Ojibwe farewell songs, accompanied by the slow low beat of elders drumming as they blessed the two young men on their journey to the next world.     


As we proceeded back to the fellowship hall for lunch, led by a group of women singing and drumming, I looked upwards and was stunned to see what looked like an eagle circling overhead, its wide-spanned wings silhouetted against the bright blue sky as though embracing all of us.     


My heart somersaulted as I remembered the rich Indigenous traditions associated with eagles. I tried to alert others next to me to the graceful bird’s presence, but it disappeared quickly, only to reappear briefly across the parking lot, looking a little less eagle-like than raven-like.      


Still, no matter which species it was, to me it felt like a special blessing from on high as we left that hallowed space.    


That feeling was reinforced the following Sunday when the Old Testament lectionary text was Isaiah 40: 50-51:    


Even youth will faint and grow weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall rise up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not faint.      


That seemed like more than a coincidence. It seemed like a doubling of blessing, and a sacred promise which grew during the breaking of the bread and drinking of the wine later in the service. It was further reinforced during the deep sharing time which followed, and later with the informal conversations during coffee time.    


Once again, we left our worship place feeling renewed and strengthened.    


But those blessings were not over yet. A week later, I phoned Beatrice, the secretary at St. Kateri and a member of the drumming group that was part of the vigil. In talking to her about the songs their group had sung, I mentioned that I thought I’d seen an eagle at the vigil, though my husband reminded me I tend to have an active imagination. She responded thoughtfully: “Don’t write that eagle off too soon. This [kind of sighting] quite often happens to us when we hold these ceremonies.”  


Once again, my heart gave a little skip of joy as I gave thanks for the blessing of eagles.     


Leona Dueck Penner attends Aberdeen Mennonite Church in Winnipeg.

Photo by Tina Nord/Pexels.

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