Covenant New: “Being” before “doing”

Deborah Froese
October 15, 2017
Mennonite Church Canada/Mennonite Church Manitoba
Hands transplanting plant
Girls and bunny
Boy leading horse
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Mennonite Church Canada’s Future Directions process has led to a focus on local congregations. The resulting vision, Covenant New, emphasizes the importance of growing congregational ability to nurture and equip faith, engage in worship, and become stronger centres of mission.

But what might that look like?

For Mennonite Church Manitoba (MCM), it means gathering up “all things in heaven and earth” for Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10). Using the facilities of Camp Assiniboia as a foundation for some radical new ideas, they envision a core healing component intricately connected with God’s creation to focus on reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

Over the past two years, Dorothy Fontaine, Director of Mission, held countless one-on-one meetings with pastors from 25 congregations across the province and with camp staff.  Together they sought a framework for setting the Ephesians passage in motion. Their conversations brought them to Mother Teresa’s observation that mission is a spiritual process of reconciliation: the fruit of silence is prayer, the fruit of prayer is faith, the fruit of faith is love, the fruit of love is service, the fruit of service is peace.

Fontaine points out that spending time in silence and self reflection heightens our awareness of God’s presence in our lives. “That’s where we find healing and come to understand God’s hopes for our lives. We become more conscious of God’s leading and the areas in our lives that God wants to work on.” From there, we are able to deepen our faith and our relationships with others, with creation, and with God, and reach out in service to others.

“This understanding of God’s mission is almost entirely about ‘being’ something rather than ‘doing’ something,” she says.  “The ‘doing something’ is the outcome.” 

Ken Warkentin, MCM Executive Director, notes that for many congregations, a common desire for “doing something” includes developing an ability to share the Good News of Jesus Christ in their communities. “The average person in the pew doesn’t know how to share [their] faith with neighbours and children,” he says. While a new emphasis on “being” doesn’t offer specifics on “how to program,” it will enable individuals and congregations to “nurture, equip and worship” more deeply, and through that process, prepare them to more openly share their faith.

MCM’s Camp Assiniboia is located near the Assiniboine River just south of Winnipeg. It’s nestled in a swath of unusually pristine and mature old-growth forest treasured by local naturalists and peppered with rare species of insects and birds. It is ideally situated for easy access to the Creator’s healing balm of nature. Like many church camps, it is equipped with cabins and a central lodge, trails for hiking, a wide variety of activities ranging from ropes courses to a swimming pool and a zipline – and some unique features, such as a small farming operation with a large garden and animals, including horses.

To make the camp yet more appealing to users, MCM plans to enhance facilities for an enriched, year-round experience. Among several items on a staged, sustainable development plan are the construction of a new chapel that is architecturally integrated with nature; the addition of self-contained, four-season “family” cabins with mini-kitchenettes and bathrooms (four such cabins have already been completed); a new and improved swimming pool; and an expanded farm program.

Warkentin says the new vision responds to needs expressed by individual congregations. Events or retreats can be arranged as required and tailored as necessary by the spiritual director in coordination with pastors. “What’s your context, what do you need to develop, what are the areas you feel God calling to move in?”

What MCM is offering, he says, is less programmatic and more relational and inspirational. It draws upon the healing balm of God’s creation, the connecting power of play, and uses available resources to serve the wider community.

The healing balm of God’s creation

We all need healing, Fontaine says, and many people tell her they connect with God and find healing more readily in nature. Camp Assiniboia offers a spiritually therapeutic setting with plenty of space for prayer and contemplation. The farm operation, which will be expanded to include an orchard, provides campers, retreat participants and volunteers with the opportunity to experience where food comes from and how to grow it  using sustainable farming practices.

“We want to help people to understand Creation in new ways and different ways – hopefully in ways that get them more interested in the natural world around them,” Fontaine says.

Because the wooded setting of Camp Assiniboia connects so strongly with Indigenous communities, Fontaine sees it as an ideal place to heal and strengthen relationships between Settler and Indigenous folk. They are planning tours with two Indigenous knowledge keepers who can teach traditional usage of plants for food and medicine.  In addition, MCM is planning to build a cabin to host families of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), many of whom come to the city in search of loved ones, or are simply in need of respite.

“The thing about a tragedy like losing your loved one to violence is, in some real ways, there is no ‘fixing’ it. The harm has been done, leaving an indelible mark that defines families’ lives from that moment on,” says Fontaine.

Fontaine shared the vision of a respite cabin with her friend, Mary Graham, whose elder sister May Marie is one of many MMIW. The circumstances surrounding May Marie’s death are particularly devastating for Graham; her sister was “scooped” as a child and adopted by another family before Graham was born. The two had never met. In her search for May Marie, Graham was forced to wade through a frustrating tangle of bureaucratic red tape for several years, only to find her sister’s whereabouts when it was too late.

Graham expresses surprise at the idea of MCM’s desire to assist MMIW families. “The church wants to do that for us?” she asks with a tone of wonder.

Fontaine invited Graham to share her thoughts about how church might walk with MMIW families.

“I was honoured for her to ask me,” Graham says, pointing out that the invitation is a critical step toward healing relationships with Indigenous communities. “It will only work if they will listen to what we want.” 

Listening is an integral component of MCM’s plan and a direct response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Actions. Mennonite Church Manitoba will work closely with families on the development, design and implementation of this project at all stages.

Late last summer, Graham visited Camp Assiniboia with Fontaine for the first time. “I was very emotional in the camp,” Graham says. “As soon as I stepped into the bush, I began visioning. I told Dorothy I felt at peace.” Mary’s formative years were spent in the bush so she feels at home there and says that’s where Creator speaks to her most clearly. She envisioned a round dance walk streaming through the woods, a circle of people widening and narrowing to follow the trail, holding hands and supporting one another along the way. She and Fontaine paused to bless one overnight camping spot, and each offered a prayer to Creator with Graham’s drum.

Fontaine says a week later, Graham called and shared how she kept returning to Camp Assiniboia in her mind, and the memory continued to bring peace.

If the camp can have such a profound impact on one individual, imagine how it might affect one family, or many families.

“When we’re talking about God’s end goal being to reconcile all people and all things, people and nature are intimately connected,” Fontaine says.

The connecting power of play

Play, Fontaine points out, is a fundamental building block for trust among people of all ages. Just exactly what that “play” consists of doesn’t matter.  Whether it is rough and tumble, imaginative, or anything else in between, it all works. She refers to a Ted Talk video with Dr. Stuart Brown, who says play is more than just fun. He shares the incredible story, captured in photographs, of three tethered huskies interacting with a clearly hungry male polar bear. When the female husky assumes a “play bow” and wags her tail, the bear loses his predatory gaze and begins to interact playfully with animals that might have been his dinner. 

Fontaine shares a recent example from Camp Assiniboia to illustrate how play can become an ice-breaker. In the spring of 2017, year-round camp staff and summer camp leadership staff  shared a potluck meal before summer programming began. “The potluck was fine, but they weren’t gelling,” Fontaine recalls.

After dinner, they toured the four new family cabins and visited the barn animals.

“When we got to the barn, the sun was setting and it cast a soft light everywhere. People started petting the horses, holding baby chicks and bunnies, and by the end of that evening, a cohesive group had formed.”

Jesse Thiessen was one of those in the barn. “The nervousness about being around strangers disappeared,” she says. “Conversations started in a different way than happens in a circle.”

“It was a sweet, sweet moment,” Fontaine says. “A lot of our task over the next few years is to be mindful of those moments. That was a moment of play, of relationship building.” She says similar connections arise when people get together on the trails, on zip lines, or in worship, because during those activities, they aren’t distracted by other thoughts or worry. They are living in the moment. “It’s people smiling and delighting in creation and each other’s company during a shared experience. It’s simple, but powerful.”

Thiessen, who served as head wrangler at Camp Assiniboia one summer, says, “Play at camp is really anything we do. We are constantly playing, whether we’re sitting  at a table, out in the barn, or in the recreation field.”

She relays one rainy-day event involving a group of second-day campers who had barely begun to connect with each other. As the rain fell, mud accumulated near the barn. “One staff member reached into the mud and painted marks on her face,” Thiessen recalls. “Then one child did it too, and soon the whole group was running around with mud-painted faces.” There was a lot of laughter, and the spontaneous bout of play dissolved their inhibitions.

Serving the wider community

Camp Assiniboia intends to serve the wider community too as a year-round centre for a wide variety of retreats – from scrapbooking and quilting to spiritual retreats – and as a place for volunteers to come and help out as needed while experiencing the broad range of facilities. In addition, it is also working with Urban Stable to help youth with challenges learn how to connect with others and themselves through equine-assisted play.

“They rent our horses and facility two-and-a-half days a week through fall, winter, and spring,” Fontaine says. “Kids work as a team with horses in different scenarios of play and learn how to interact with horses and each other.”

“The ability that horses give people to have confidence in themselves is astounding,” Thiessen says. “Especially when people are afraid of horses.” Their size may be intimidating, but when people work with well-trained animals, they learn that fear can be overcome.

She shares an example of an autistic girl who was fascinated by watching horses from a distance or studying photos of them, but when she got close to a horse, she grew nervous. “We encouraged her that it would be okay. About 15 minutes later, she got on and someone led her around. Then she almost flat-out refused to get off the horse. Throughout the week she begged to go riding again.”

A centre of healing and community

Camp Assiniboia can serve as a central place to heal, connect, learn, and grow, to bring the concept of  “gathering people and creation back to God” and of “being” before “doing” to life.

 “If we’re able to be faithful in that and work towards that – even if it’s just at Camp Assiniboia – and take some of those lessons and experiences and play them out in life and work and in our neighbourhoods and communities, if we understand that mission is as a much about gathering ‘me’ in as it is about gathering others in, we are furthering God’s Kingdom in a good way,” says Fontaine. “It might not be a perfect way, but it creates mindfulness.”

As we step into Covenant New – imagining what the church of the future might look like - , Warkentin suggests we might consider decreasing the demands on ourselves to “get it right.”

“I think that in the past that has caused us to split in unfortunate ways. [I believe] God is more gentle and suggestive than demanding. God therefore allows us to try different things. We don’t have to get it right; we just have to try.”

Photo Credits: 
Courtesy of Mennonite Church Manitoba