Letter from Whati
Four weeks in a First Nation community in Canada’s Northwest Territories
It all started with an invitation by Bishop Mark Hagemoen of the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith in Canada: “Are you willing to serve the Church and spend four weeks, your summer vacation, in the First Nations’ community of Whati? It is a community of close to 560 of the Tlicho nation in the North Stave Region, 2,500 miles north of the Canadian-American border.”
Little did we know that this would also help us to understand more how much our spirituality can nourish the Church in missionary areas.
We were a group of five: Mike and Marilena Murray, a couple from Washington with grown-up children; Joy Dekic and Maria Santana, two focolarine from Macedonia and Brazil now living in Canada; and me, a priest in Kelowna in the Diocese of Nelson, British Columbia.
We were determined to go there bearing the presence of Jesus among us (see Mt 18:20) as our primary gift and the source of what would develop from our presence there.
When we arrived, we didn’t have any plans, but were just there to live with the people. On our first day together, we went to the cemetery to pray at the grave of an Oblate priest buried there, entrusting to him our stay as a continuation of what had been built up already.
Then, being there for 23 days, we ended up offering a youth program, helping prepare for an annual assembly, spending time with three women who were the established Church leaders, and celebrating Mass — the diocese has only six priests who rotate around the numerous parishes in an area considered one of the largest dioceses in the world.
It wasn’t easy to connect right away, but we were determined to find small ways to do so. Difficulties with language had to be overcome, a respect for traditions was important for us, and we tried to listen to understand their challenges and stories.
We soon learned that this people had shown leadership skills by establishing the first model agreement of land claims. Politically, things were now happening quickly in the area. There is now a large diamond mining industry developing that will bring prosperity, and a new road has been approved for access to the district and its future prospects.
The first spark to ignite more involvement for us was our meeting with two enthusiastic and friendly Lutheran missionaries who had also come to Whati to offer a Bible Camp for children and youth. They were overjoyed to accept help from two teachers in our group, and while there were never more than five children participating, seeds were planted.
On my first Sunday there, the announcement of our coming elicited little excitement. The listeners might have asked themselves if this were to be just another program developed in a distant culture. Then, when the people experienced our presence giving supportive help in the preparations for a canoe trip to their annual band assembly, in creating a beautiful birthday party for one of the girls in our youth group and in offering a thanksgiving BBQ for all as a farewell, it was clear that we had united ourselves with the life and demands of the community.
At separate moments we invited the chief, some elders, community leaders, and local people to our trailer home, where we did so much listening and we learned a great deal about their lives and culture. Even the bears and many mosquitoes greeted us. Nature gave us beautiful displays of colorful sunsets, northern lights, red moon risings and a gorgeous lake.
On my fifth and last Sunday, I had the impression, from the faces and the beautiful simple words of the people, that Jesus among us had reached their hearts. Jesus himself had broken through the wall of that separated us at the beginning.
I was astonished by the power that emerges in a small place that rarely sees a priest, by a group simply living with Jesus in their midst. The Sunday Gospel for that day touched me deeply: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Mt 14:31).
We are invited back to Whati this coming summer, and we were also invited to visit another community as well.
By Fr. Harry Clarke
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