Hoop dancers, drumming and a group of friends from northern reserves brought a fresh spirit to the Mennonite Brethren Church of Manitoba’s annual Assembly in March 2017. Of the 19 new church expressions introduced to the conference, nine are emerging Indigenous ministries, shepherded by Paul Winter. This is a picture of what the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches would like to see across Canada.
“I believe that by God’s grace, MBs have an incredible opportunity work with First Nations people,” says CCMBC executive director Steve Berg.
Responding to a movement toward reconciliation in Canadian society, CCMBC has created a new line within the multiplying churches budget to support initiatives among Indigenous people (see facing page).
Invitations from Indigenous communities, combined with the fact that tribal identities transcend provincial boundaries – so ministries should as well – motivated CCMBC to plan for national ministry.
In a few years, Winter has gone from pastoring a small, largely Indigenous church plant in central Winnipeg, to consulting on MB church planting in Manitoba, to his July 2017 appointment as full-time national Indigenous ambassador serving with the C2C Network. He is regularly approached by individuals and leaders from Indigenous communities around Manitoba, inviting partners for Bible study and discipleship.
“My main focus is to start gatherings,” says Winter; “to bring the hope of Jesus to groups that have asked us to come.”
CCMBC’s budgeted funds will support these new Indigenous gatherings with Indigenous leaders on Indigenous soil.
Additionally, C2C will equip leaders, subsidize travel of leaders and church vision groups to and from remote reserves, and contribute staff time to encourage and train settler churches for reconciliation and Indigenous leaders for ministry
Besides Winter’s burgeoning work in Manitoba, the C2C Network has indigenous ambassadors working among church plants in Ontario (Derrick Parenteau) and B.C. (John Johnstone, starting in Oct. 1, 2017). Paul welcomes more partners who are engaged in fostering growing gatherings of Indigenous Christians across Canada.
Earlier efforts to “Christianize” Indigenous people came “in a package of annihilation of culture, and of genocide,” says Winter. Not Indigenous himself, Winter is sensitive to past injustice but passionate about teaching the true gospel message.
“The first step is always an invitation,” he says. Responding to his sense of calling to serve a multi-nation Indigenous fellowship in Winnipeg has opened doors to visit many communities in the north. “It’s always word of mouth,” he says.
“As God transforms people…they decide they want to go back to their home community.” An invitation for Winter to bring a team to facilitate sharing circles often results.
Another component of Winter’s work is to guide settler Canadian churches to understand the role they have to play in reconciliation. Training activities like the blanket exercise (created by KAIROS) equip settler Canadians to begin to understand the context of Indigenous communities.
He arranged for Winnipeg’s Fort Garry MB Church to send a spring break team of College and Career to Cross Lake (Pimicikamak), Man., in 2017, and he joined emerging Indigenous leader Dallas Pelly from Forest Grove Community Church, Saskatoon, to teach at the Sasktachewan MB Assembly and a special session this summer.
Part of this work is understanding the role of culture in spiritual journeys. “A sharing circle is similar to a small group,” he says to those who are concerned about syncretism. “The Bible talks about God who will go before us” (Deuteronomy 31:8) – including to the people of Turtle Island (Canada), he says. “My hope is that they learn how Jesus fits into what God has already shown their culture.”
“Jesus has put a person of peace in every community,” says Winter. “We need to pray, find them, equip them and send them out in this Luke 10:02 work.”
In the next five years, Winter hopes to see multicultural indigenous-settler communities worshipping together and at least 100 new First Nations groups in Canada with healthy Indigenous church gatherings, full of people who understand “I can be who God made me and be transformed by the power of Jesus.”