By Brian Koonce
THUNDER BAY, Ontario – Canada isn’t all maple leafs and ice hockey, as a team of Missouri Baptist college students found out. It is, however, a place where God is hard at work, especially among the “First Nations” native peoples.
The trip was part of Missouri Baptists’ partnership with their Canadian brothers and sisters in Christ and consisted of two overlapping teams from Missouri Western State University (MWSU), North Central Missouri College (NCMC), Three Rivers Community College, and Missouri Southern State University. The team from MWSU and North Central left Missouri May 17 and returned home May 29. The Missouri Southern students joined the ministry May 25 and returned home June 6.
They worked with ministries focused exclusively on ministering to the native peoples of Canada, both in Thunder Bay (about 30 miles north of the Minnesota border) and on Grassy Narrows Indian Reservation (an eight-hour drive northwest of Thunder Bay).
Paul Damery, a trip leader and Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) campus missionary to MWSU, said there is a high rate of alcoholism, sexual abuse and unemployment among the First Nations.
“God is slowly but surely transforming lives out of the brokenness of the First Nation people,” he said.
And He’s at work through ministries like Eagle’s Cry. Run by a First Nations missionary, it and the Missouri teams helped clean up the storefront that gives families a place to hang out and relax.
“It’s all about building up and supporting the relationships between the parents and their children and youth,” said Diann Barnes, another trip leader and the MBC campus missionary at NCMC.
They cleaned up 20 bags of trash from the alley behind Eagle’s Cry, properly disposed of more than 40 hypodermic needles they found there, set up a computer lab for the teenagers to use in a café area, and built a loading dock.
They also worked at a nearby soup kitchen, serving 400 meals before mingling among the people to build relationships leading to sharing the Gospel.
“So many of the people are just broken,” Barnes said. “But God is bringing hope where there has been no hope and encouraging where there is desperation.”
The second leg of the trip took place several hundred miles to the northwest on the Grassy Narrows Indian Reservation. There, the first half of the team met up with the second half and together they worked with a Korean missionary family.
“It’s amazing how God works His plan,” Barnes said. “He’s using a couple who barely speak English to minister to a tribe who don’t speak English. But in six months he’s been able to meet with the elders, to meet daily for prayer for the tribe and its people.”
In those short months, several of the tribal elders have accepted Jesus, Damery said.
He said the people at Grassy Narrows were at first unreceptive to the teams.
“Christianity and America both have a bad rap,” he said.
Eventually they convinced the people they were simply there to serve, and wound up scrubbing floors, prepping walls to be painted, painting bathrooms, installing toilets, and painting the building where the local church meets.
In the evenings, the Missouri students hung out and played volleyball with the children. One night they did a craft project: beaded keychains with each colored bead representing a component of the plan of salvation.
“Early in the week we used soccer balls with the colors on them and talked about what they meant,” Barnes said. “When I started asking what the colors on the beads meant, they all remembered and could tell me. Seeds were definitely planted.”
At the end of the week, the same people who were reluctant to allow the outsiders to come in and minister had changed their tune.
“They said ‘we cannot thank you enough,’” Barnes said. “They told us we changed their view of Americans and Christians and they wanted us to come back.”
Barnes and the students want to return. After they returned to Missouri, she was discussing next year’s trip with a friend and mentioned the possible date of “the week of July 4th” without specifying that she meant July 4, 2011. Several students joined in on the conversation, thinking another trip was set for this July 4 with half of them immediately volunteering to return.
Damery said he isn’t surprised by the students’ response.
“Their eyes were really opened to the neat things God is doing in other countries, even if it’s not quite halfway across the world,” he said. “They all said, ‘I want to come back here. I feel like we’re just starting.’”
It’s all evidence that God is at work in Ontario, Barnes said.
“It’s like looking at the bottom side of a needle point,” she said. “You see all these individual threads but in a few years you turn it over and you’re going to see an incredible picture of God at work. His love is alive and active, and Jesus is drawing people to Him.”