“Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you;” (1 Peter 3:14-15)
Last fall, National Indigenous Bishop Mark MacDonald spoke at the Diocese of Niagara’s Clergy Day. He spoke about the change that he has seen across Canada as the movement toward truth and reconciliation with our aboriginal brothers and sisters has taken hold and as First Nations’ voices have become a vital part of the leadership of our country. When asked what has made the difference, why his speaking engagements ten years ago would attract only a few people and why his speaking engagements now attract packed houses, Bishop Mark’s answer was simple and surprising: hope. “I think that, within First Nations’ communities, and across the whole country, people are seeing there is hope. And they are willing to be part of that.”
Pimatisiwin Nipi has been formed and our work has flourished within the scope of that hope. It was a simple question of “what can we do?” that a bunch of us asked in 2011 that brought us together in the first place. We weren’t a group. We were just a question. It took us a year to initiate a pilot project, a handful of churches participated in the Advent Conspiracy—Advent Conspiracy is a global Christian movement to give differently at Christmas, to contribute toward water for communities in need rather than buying stuff—and we managed to raise $18,000 with the hope that we would be able to use that money to partner with a First Nations’ community in seeking a solution to their water needs. That hope began to take more concrete shape into 2013. The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) became involved in our question, they brought Pikangikum Ontario to our attention – a community with the highest suicide rate per capita on the planet – they agreed to partner with Frontiers Foundation in equipping 10 homes in Pikangikum with clean running water, and Pimatisiwin Nipi got a name (our name literally means “Living Waters”) and set a goal. We promised PWRDF we would raise $100,000 for the project. They took us at our word and fronted the money to Pikangikum, thereby seeing ten homes receive clean running water that fall. We plunged into Advent 2013 hoping that the commitment across our church had grown sufficiently to make good on this promise.
Three years later, Advent 2016, we went into our annual campaign with the knowledge that our work had so far raised over $440,000! It turns out that Bishop Mark was absolutely right in his insight: hope is contagious. It has caught across our country and across our church. For many of us, Advent is now synonymous with things like partnership, advocacy, clean water, and generous, transformational, collaborative gift giving. It hasn’t been a smooth road. We have faced numerous setbacks in continuing our work in Pikangikum. We have wept with the people of Pikangikum through continued youth suicides and a deadly house fire that claimed the lives of nine people last spring. We have hit roadblocks related to the inadequate power grid in Pikangikum and the loss of our initial implementation partner Frontiers Foundation.
And yet, our work and our hope have grown—sometimes steadily, sometimes by leaps and bounds. We look back on 2016 with these encouraging developments:
- We are now partnering with Habitat for Humanity on the next ten homes in Pikangikum.
- Work is beginning on Phase 2 of our work in Pikangikum. Although the bulk of the work will happen in 2017, materials made their way up north at the end of 2016 for the beginning of this work. The community has identified the most vulnerable homes so that they will be the ones to receive these new water systems.
- We have, to date, raised $462,681.04, and we imagine that more will come in from Advent initiatives as individual churches finish their year-end accounting!! ($100,000 of this was used for Phase 1).
- We also have reason to hope that the federal government will match the funds that we have raised since Phase 1, which we anticipate will mean clean water in more than the 10 homes to which we have committed in 2017.
- Finally, it is exciting to note and celebrate that, in the 12 priorities identified by Pikangikum for Pikangikum, Water was the second priority. The first priority was to get a new school. That new school opened and held its first Christmas Concert to a packed house this past Christmas!!
We have always felt that our work has been Spirit-led, that we are not so much the initiators in this work as ones who have managed to tag along on a change that is taking place across our nation, a change that is so desperately needed and in which we can participate.
The work before us remains daunting. We continue to seek and pray and hope for a more comprehensive and longer-term solution, one that will see not just 10 or 20 more homes equipped with clean running water, but the entire community secure in having its basic needs met, equipped with a gift that most of the rest of our country takes for granted. And Pikangikum is just one of around 80 communities in this country that face similar water challenges. Our work, of course, has only begun. The promise of our Christian faith, however, is that the challenges we face need not cause us to fear. The story that we ultimately tell will be one of “more than we can ask or imagine” and that will bear witness “to that hope that is within us.”