By the Jewish calendar, it was already the first Sunday in Advent—after sundown on the Saturday—when I clicked on a link sent to me by Ainsley Munro, a teenager in my congregation at the time. It was the Advent Conspiracy promotional video, and I was immediately drawn in by a message that spoke to my most prominent Christmas sadness. Yes, of course the rest of our culture is welcome to celebrate a holiday season at Christmas, even if the prayer and story, the invitation of “Come and worship” is no longer compelling to most people. Christmas hasn’t been stolen from Christians. We don’t corner the market on winter festivity. But as I’m trying to make sense of how the baby in Bethlehem relates to the relentless focus on gift lists and designer décor and the wild rush to shopping malls on what are now the other hotly anticipated “holidays” of Black Friday and Boxing Day (what does it really say about us that there would be such a made rush of panic to shop for ourselves the day after we have inundated one another with presents?) I admit to sometimes feeling lost.
The invitation of Advent Conspiracy is simple: worship fully, buy less, give more, love all. It started in 2006 with a couple of churches joining together to invite their congregations to give the gift of water to their loved ones at Christmas. It was an invitation grounded in freedom and generosity. We can opt out of the dominant commercial assumptions. In celebration of Jesus’ birth, we can give gifts that give life. Christmas can still change the world. And we can be part of it. Advent Conspiracy is now a global movement. It doesn’t raise money. It is not associated with any one denomination. But every year, more and more money is given by Christians at Christmas to allow for clean water to bless entire communities.
I showed that clip at church the next morning, the first Sunday of Advent, 2010. We challenged our congregation to give enough that together our congregation might purchase a well through Canadian Lutheran World Relief for a third world community for $1750. It was a small congregation, but between Advent and Easter that year, enough for two wells came in. We all felt good about reclaiming something. In all of the tinsel and wrapping, Christians risk being entirely swept along into a season whose only relationship to Christ is the etymology of its name.
But a question was raised to me that Advent, and it niggled: “what about communities in our own country that don’t have access to clean water?” I heard it from more than one person, and I found myself wishing they could keep their inquiry to themselves. I wished it even more when I began to make a few casual inquiries myself. Raising $1750 for a well in a community chosen by Canadian Lutheran World Relief, this was a straight-forward, compelling and satisfying sort of transaction. On the other hand, how do you build a well into the permafrost of a community in Northern Ontario? What would such a thing cost? What mechanism is there for giving? Wouldn’t $1750, figuratively (and maybe literally too) be but a drop in the bucket? More likely, as I came to discover, it would be a drop without a bucket, because as that casual inquiry led me down a series of more deliberate conversations, it became clear that giving water to other people was easy. Giving water to Canadians was impossible.
I can look back on this series of words—from Ainsley, from various parishioners—inviting, questioning, and I can see that the Spirit was clearly at work. But the amazing thing about the Spirit is that she is generally a multi-tasker. The next fall, I got to hang out with National Indigenous Bishop Mark MacDonald for a day at the Diocese of Toronto’s Outreach Conference. Of course I signed up for his afternoon workshop. It didn’t particularly matter to me what he was speaking about. I value any opportunity to hear the wisdom and grace he has to share. He mentioned water as one of the grave concerns in most of the First Nations communities with whom he ministered.
“I have some people in my church who would like to help with water. Is there any way of doing that?” I asked. A few others in the workshop indicated interest as well.
Bishop Mark noted all of our names. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I’ll find out.”
I have heard Bishop Mark share numerous times what happened next, but it still causes a catch in my throat to recount it. In the space of weeks, Bishop Mark began to receive calls and correspondences from unconnected individuals and groups all across the country, each of them saying the same thing: “we want to do something about water in First Nations communities.” Nothing of this sort had ever happened in his years as National Indigenous Bishop. People had expressed concerns to him in the past, but in general, it was concern without legs. Until now, there had been no energy for doing something concrete in partnership with our indigenous brothers and sisters. Suddenly, without Mark’s prodding or suggesting, a movement was happening. And without any communication yet between these various parties, without any lobbying or advocating yet taking place, this movement had focus. Water. “It is the one of the clearest experiences of the working of the Spirit that I have ever experienced,” Bishop Mark has noted on more than one occasion.
That movement led us to a first meeting in Trinity Church in Aurora Ontario with a group that would eventually call itself Pimatisiwin Nipi—the Living Water Group. Bishop Mark led us in more deeply probing the energies of our hearts. Yes, we were all there for First Nations and water, but it quickly became apparent that this focused energy also represented great diversity: some were concerned about our national water systems and saw the problems in our First Nations communities as ‘the canary in the coal mine’—they were sounding the alarm to us on the mistreatment of our collective water systems, water systems which, by their very nature, connected to one another; others were compelled by the spirituality and wisdom in First Nations’ understanding of water and our relationship to the natural world; many were concerned that we foster a national understanding of why some people in our country live in third world conditions, recognizing that reconciliation can never happen when so many of us live in ignorance; and there were a few like me. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel every other piece of the puzzle was immensely important, but I was also in “Martha mode.” I could see Advent coming up again in a few months, and I wanted to do right by my people. This year, I wanted my community to give the gift of water to my fellow Canadians. I wanted a project.
Four pillars of Pimatisiwin Nipi were articulated out of this first conversation: Education, Advocacy, Partnership and Strategic Giving. We were all keenly aware of the deep biases that exist out there in our broken relationships between our first peoples and the rest of us. If any piece of this puzzle was to be at all effective, it would need the holistic approach of the other three pieces with it. Furthermore, Bishop Mark instilled in us a most important principle. “Faithfulness,” he said. “That is going to be the most important piece. Things are not going to happen quickly. There will be advances, and there will be set-backs. The most important thing that we can communicate in reaching out to partner with First Nations people is that we are going to stick it out and stick around.”
It has taken time. There have been road blocks and set-backs. And yet, there has been a surprising smoothness to the development of our work, too. Quite early on, The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund joined our group. Their participation meant that we now had an ability to donate through an already-established charity, and not only that, through an agency that had a sparkling reputation and all of the expertise and connections that we needed to find, develop and oversee an actual project. With Bishop Mark, they explored several different avenues, even being told at one dead end that what we wanted to do was, in Canada anyway, impossible. “It’s the federal government’s responsibility,” we heard. “You can’t by-pass that.” And eventually, enough conversations led us to another powerful network of people, who had come together under a spiritual energy bearing all of the same divine fingerprints of our own group.
The Pikangikum Working Group is a group of professional people who came together in 2010 after a coroner’s inquest into a string of youth suicides in the northern-Ontario First Nations community of Pikangikum. These suicides marked Pikangikum as the community with the highest suicide rate, per capita, in the entire world. Their hearts were moved with compassion. They wanted to do something. But they wanted to do something that was different from the old things that have been tried and that have failed. “We didn’t just want to throw money at the problem,” Dave Steeves, one of the co-directors, says. Partnerships had to be developed. The community itself needed to be empowered, listened to, and there needed to be a particular emphasis on changing patterns for the young people. Twelve priorities were identified, with Food, Water and Shelter topping the list. Ninety-five percent of the homes in Pikangikum did not have running water or waste water removal. Many houses did not even have outhouses. Bathroom “facilities” in many cases consist of nothing more than an outside hole in the ground.
PWG is not a registered charity, but they began to seek groups, charities, implementing partners with whom they could work in these critical areas. And they got creative. They worked with engineers and the community to develop housing and infrastructure solutions that worked for the northern Ontario conditions. For example, whereas the government had estimated an $80 million+ pricetag to equip the homes of Pikangikum with running water, PWG created a plan that would cost just $20,000 per home—about 13% of the government’s estimate.
And so PWRDF and PWG began to flesh out the Water Project. Bishop Mark’s Pimatisiwin Nipi group took a gigantic leap of faith and committed ourselves to raising an initial $100,000 for the project. Working in partnership with another development group—Frontiers Foundation from the United Church—this initial commitment would see 10 homes receive the gift of running water and waste water removal systems in 2013. We had a lot of interest expressed in the project, but we didn’t know whether $100,000 was a crazy goal to set. We just knew that it was what we needed in order to begin our work.
Now in Advent 2015 I can note some amazing fruits from those first nudgings of the Spirits:
- Over $100,000 was raised in the time-frame we set for ourselves.
- In 2013, 14 Pikangikum homes, chosen by the community as being most in need of this gift, received Water.
- Remarkable things were noted in conjunction with this gift of water: the healing of skin conditions and various other health troubles, an increase in school attendance because of the removal of embarrassment around poor sanitation. More than that, remarks from nurses and band leaders about “the return of dignity” to these families.
- With an average of 7 people per home, almost 100 people in this small community directly impacted by this initial gift of water water!
- Along with the water systems put in place, training and jobs in the community to manage and care for the growing infrastructure.
- Now more than another $100,000 raised, ready to make possible this gift in another 10 homes as soon as partnerships and weather allow.
Bob White, Chair of PWG, reflected on a visit to Pikangikum in the late fall of 2013 with National Chief Sean Atleo:
“To see the happiness in the faces of the family getting hot and cold running water made my day. Also to see the actual work being done was gratifying. You guys have done amazing work in convincing the people you work with to reach out and lend a hand of support. The National Chief remarked that he saw the dignity returned to the family, the 4 generations living in that house. Keep up the great work. This was possible because of you and the thousands of Anglicans that know that through love a better world is possible.”
I had a dream back in 2011 when our group first met with Bishop Mark. I imagined a scenario in which Anglicans all across Canada came to associate Advent with giving Living Water. I imagined that each year we would raise $100,000 to implement clean water solutions in a First Nations community in Canada. I imagined that would become one very concrete form of healing and reconciliation, of building partnerships between communities, “respecting the dignity of every human being,” and adequately celebrating the birth of one who promises the quenching of thirst in all who believe.
I hope this dream doesn’t entirely come true. I hope that our federal government will invest in much-needed infrastructure so that all of our brothers and sisters might drink clean water NOW. I hope that it won’t take 40 Advent seasons for Pikangikum to be equipped with water, let alone the other 100+ communities in our country who have severe water needs.
And I hope the Spirit isn’t done with us yet. I suspect that the Spirit continues to move upon the waters.