Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Prayer for Peace

It was the evening after Remembrance Day and Paul and I had a quiet evening in. He said, "I've got an episode of Inspector George Gently saved on the P.V.R. do you want to watch it?" And I said, "Yes." The episode was called Gently with Honour, and was about top secret psychological warfare experiments on a British military base during the Cold War, with a concurrent back story about a conspiracy of silence during an earlier war.

Ex military himself, Inspector Gently, attended the funeral of a soldier from his old regiment. At the pub after the funeral, where the emphasis was on the brotherhood of the men in attendance, it was apparent that Gently was struggling with something that had happened involving the soldier whose funeral it was. He was chided by his ex superior officer for bringing up events that were past. 

Throughout the episode, which involves a cover up of things gone too far in the more recent past, Gently struggles with his complicity in witnessing a war crime and remaining silent. At the end of the program, Paul turned to me and said, "That made me think of your dad." It was exactly what I had been thinking.

The one story Dad ever told us about "his war," involved witnessing an incident similar to that which George Gently witnessed. In Gently's case it was the beating to death of a surrendering sniper by several of his fellow soldiers, led the one whose funeral he had just attended. The sniper had minutes before shot and killed several of his comrades but had surrendered unarmed, with arms raised. When the beating was over, most of the men seemed dazed and ashamed. 

Dad witnessed the cold blooded shooting of a surrendering young German soldier by a British soldier whose nickname indicated a pattern of brutality. He didn't mention and I didn't ask, if he ever told anyone at the time.

In Gently's case, he decides at the end of the episode to report the incident; a war crime; and tells his past superior officer, who accepts his decision and says that he himself will be a witness. For Gently it was the only possible way to resolve the dissonance between everything he stood for, and the silence that made him complicit. 

The episode made me think about the terrible burden of a silence carried many years; a moment in time that sickens the soul, seared into memory. High ideals drive men and women to enlist, but they face a reality that no one can prepare them for; one in which the enemy can be less easy to define, as with the lines between honour and dishonour; bravery and cowardice. 

The silence of soldiers needs no explanation, but thinking about Dad's story makes it easy to understand; the scars on the outside are not the only battle wounds. At the end of this week of remembrance it gives me compassion for those who went to war, and a deep commitment to pray for peace--in the world--and for those who have fought and live with painful memories.

Monday, November 10, 2014

In Remembrance

This is just one man's war, but he was our father, and I share this in his memory and in honour of all of the ordinary men and women who served and returned from the war forever changed.

Seventy years ago, in 1944, our father, Chris Cater, was working in a reserved occupation in Lancashire, a traditional recruiting area for the Brigade of Guards. He enlisted in spite of being of being officially prohibited from doing so and his service record shows that he enlisted in the Grenadier Guards at Wolverhampton on May 22nd 1944. He was 23 years old.

Chris was  proud to have been a Guardsman. He was assigned to the King's Company, an elite corp. because they were short one man and he was 6 feet tall.

After training for about 10 months, Chris was sent to Europe for two months; from March 2nd to May 2nd, 1945 when he was wounded by shrapnel.  He returned in 1946 as part of the occupying force; the British Army of the Rhine.

Several key events took place during the two months Chris spent in Europe. He arrived as part of an armoured brigade, just three weeks after the horrific bombing of Dresden by the Allies; which took place in mid February. The Allies took Cologne, in Germany, on March 7th 1945 and on April 30th 1945, Adolph Hitler committed suicide. May 7th, just 5 days after Chris returned to England, saw the unconditional surrender of all German forces to the Allies and May 8th was Victory in Europe Day.

Chris, like many other soldiers did not talk about the war with his family. It was a closed door, behind which were unspoken memories.

He shared the memory of just one day with me towards the end of his life, and although by then it was almost sixty years later, as he told the story, it was as if it happened yesterday.

Chris's memory of Friday, April 13th 1945:
He was in the infantry, the First All Grenadier Regiment of Foot guards and their objective was Zeven, in Germany.

Chris was riding with a convoy of 4 Sherman tanks, motorized infantry. This meant that you either rode on top of a tank, or a half track (half car, half tank with regular wheels on the front for steering and caterpillar tracks on the back to propel the vehicle.)

The wireless operator handed Chris the headset and told him to listen to the German broadcast in which someone was warning them in English, saying, "You'll regret it," an intimidation tactic.

Chris was on the fourth tank. The second tank blew up, hit by an 88mm German gun. All the infantry then quickly got off (and by then were into a heavily wooded area and the tanks were ineffective--they were blind. In open formation they had to go through the woods, "seeing" for the tanks.

They did not see a single living German soldier, but found German horse drawn artillery, all were dead, soldiers and horses. Killed by a bomb blast; there was not a mark on them.

Then, quite a way through the woods, they came under artillery fire and took cover. A guardsman named Douglas (Dougie) Clegg, from Manchester, told Chris that it was Friday the 13th and said that it was their own guns that were firing on them. It lasted about 8-10 minutes. They had evidently been ordered to pull back and the reason that they had been fired on was that they were too far forward.

Chris looked back and saw a guardsman crouched over on a tree trunk. He went back to find out if he was wounded, and where. He saw that he had a shrapnel chest wound, the size of a shilling. Chris lifted him in a fireman's lift, carrying him to a tank that was pulling out. The soldiers on top of the tank lifted him off Chris's shoulder and onto the tank.

Chris suddenly realized as the tanks pulled away that he was in danger of being left behind. He saw a Bren Gun carrier and got into it. He shouted to the driver to get them out of there, but it was stuck because it had stopped on ground that was too high and the tracks weren't engaging with the ground. All of them rocked the carrier until one track engaged, and finally it got them out.

After this, they were on foot in the heavily wooded area attacking the Alpine German troops, the 9th Reserve Jaeger Battalion that had been in a school. They drove them out, including the Volkstern (home guard) and S.S. The Germans were in retreat.

Chris went into the school and found a fine German sniper rifle with wide telescopic sights. He was in a long corridor and on the wall at the end of the corridor was a big picture of Hitler. Chris thought he would try the rifle and shoot at the picture, but then realized that in a confined space, bullets could ricochet. He turned around, and there was an open doorway behind him. He could see the back half of a German vehicle and there was a German helmet, resting on something. He was tempted to shoot at the helmet, but stopped and went to look at it first. When he picked it up, he found that it was supported on the warhead of a bazooka bomb. The Germans that had been there earlier were either dead or had pulled out.

After going through the school and on beyond it, a young German soldier came out from behind a tree with his hands up in surrender. A British soldier, with a Bren machine gun, normally operated from the ground, on his hip, shot the surrendering soldier with the Bren gun, almost cutting him in two. In horror, Chris said, "Why on earth did you do that? He was only a young lad." It was an act of inhumanity Chris never forgot.

Chris returned to Germany on the 26th of February 1946 and stayed until the 5th of December 1946 as part of the British Army of the Rhine, which oversaw prisoners of war. Some became Chris's friends. This sketch was done by one of them.

Just one man's war, but he was our dad.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Leaving Mish

It was Saturday evening; the end of our week in Mish.  That day we emptied out the fridge and freezer and put the kitchen back in good order, giving away all of the food we were amazed that we still had left.

The truck was loaded with everything but the essentials for the morning, as we planned to start out early, drive 264 km along highway 599, to highway 17, and stop in Ignace for breakfast.

We were sitting around the table after supper, when Rebecca showed Joyce the burn on her leg from the exhaust pipe on Jamie's motorbike on the journey to Mish a week earlier. Joyce, a retired nurse, had been checking it all week and it had seemed to be healing well, but on Thursday and Friday, Rebecca had gone swimming with the children, and now the wound looked nasty and the flesh for several inches above it had turned a hot looking pink. 

I panicked; possessed with a sense of urgency that told me Rebecca needed to be on antibiotics.  All of a sudden we seemed so far away from the kind of help we take for granted in the south! I went into another room and checked on the internet, but could only see that the Health Centre was open 9-5, Monday to Friday and it was now about 7.30 p.m. on Saturday. I searched further and the nearest emergency medical help seemed to be in Sioux Lookout--231 km away, with an estimated driving time of 4 hours.

I rejoined the group around the table and shared what I had found. "I'll drive Rebecca to Sioux Lookout," I said to my companions who seemed so calm in comparison to me. Susan said she was sure it only took two and a half hours, and A.J. was willing to drive.

Joyce suggested that we first go to the nurses residences on Sandy Road and see if one of them was on duty. While the others were getting ready to leave I called the police and left a message asking where we could get medication for someone in need of antibiotics.

We drove down the dark road and rounded the bend to where the nurses' residences stood, up on a small hill. I went from door to door, knocking, praying that one would open. A young boy called to his mom, a nurse, who said that she was off duty, but another nurse would be on duty in about half an hour.

Joyce said we should drive down the road to the village and see if anyone was at the Health Centre. Against hope, that's what we did, and to my surprise, the lights were on and the door was opened by a man who invited us in, offered us a place to sit, and said he'd tell the nurse we were there.

A few minutes later, the nurse came out of her office and looked at the three of us with a confused expression. "Did you make an appointment?" she said. As we explained why we were there, she told us that we were very lucky to find her there; she was only there because of another seriously ill patient that she had been treating.

I was so relieved to actually be in her office that I sat silently thanking God as she took down Rebecca's details and carefully assessed the condition of her leg.

Joyce conferred with her, nurse to nurse, discussing the options and agreeing together on antibiotics, which were dispensed right then and there.

We learned the nurse's name; Myrtle Bonnie; and that she was from Brampton, but originally from Ghana. She had come with her husband, also a nurse, wanting to share the light of God's love with the people of Mish as they served them medically. 

By the time we drove back up Sandy Road to the the school, we had a new friend to pray for and I was relieved that Rebecca had already started antibiotics. We had learned from Myrtle that pregnant women from the reserve have to leave their families six weeks before the birth of their babies for Sioux Lookout, in case of complications at birth. They are reluctant to leave, and Myrtle has the hard job of insisting that she isn't equipped to deal with what might go wrong, so far from medical assistance. How hard that must be for the women, and their families.

The next morning, after a few hours of sleep, our little convoy packed up and wound down Sandy Road for the last time, sad to leave the friends we had made.

We made some stops on our way, at the home of a little girl to whom Susan had promised her pillow, and then at Ten Houses to drop off some last items--and then we were really on our way home.

I know that I wasn't the only one who left with a heart captured forever by the people of the north, and especially Mishkeegogamang.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Gentle Teachers

When we got permission to stay at Missabay Community School for our week in Mish, I thought that our team would occupy the sprawling large school alone, since it was closed for the summer. But that was not the case. People came and went at all hours. I got up early each morning to have time alone, and sometimes; as I padded my way to the girls' washroom on bare feet, with the early morning sunshine pouring through the windows at 6.00 a.m.; would cross paths with Marita the custodian, coming down the hallway to start her day's work. 

 I was always looking for somewhere to be alone for a few minutes before the busy day got started, and one morning I thought that the office was the ideal place where I could close the door, read for half and hour, and write in my journal. But one of the staff came in to use the computer and started filling out some paperwork, nodding hello to me and carrying on with his business as I sat awkwardly with my journal. It dawned on me slowly that we were invading space belonging to other people, but they, whether out of kindness or politeness, never made us feel that way. Instead they graciously shared the school with us.

There was laughter in the air every day from the Ojibway people at the school; a gentle "He he he!" as they joked with one another. I never heard voices raised in anything but laughter.

Marita sat quietly on the bench lining the wall, hands folded in her lap, when we were at the dining room table having breakfast on our first morning there. Not knowing who she was, I went over and invited her to join us ,and she smiled, nodded, and came and sat at the table. As she spoke with us, I felt humbled. She uncovered prejudices and assumptions I wasn't consciously aware of, just by her presence. She was a woman like me; a mother, grandmother, and someone who shared our faith in God, I had not realized until then that I had seen her as "other" than me.

Mary sat on the bench one morning in the same way as Marita had done, like a wallflower at a dance. I went and quietly slipped onto the bench beside her and she began spontaneously to share some of her stories with me as if she had been waiting for someone to tell them to. She was probably about my age and she told me that she had been born in the bush--women used to go into the bush then to have their babies. Sometimes as children, she said, they would watch white people in the bush from a hiding place. She laughed softly as she remembered, "They would sometimes leave little things behind for us--sandwiches or an orange, which we had never seen before, and we would creep from our hiding place and take these gifts to our parents. But they told us not to eat them, so we threw them away!"  

One day she was with her father and playing in a river in the forest when she found some shiny stones in the river that were different to the rest. When she showed them to her father, he told her, "Those special stones belong to the Creator, put them back." She did as she was told, but never forgot the beautiful stones that were so precious that her father would not take them. She has never been able to find out where the river of her childhood was.

The qualities I observed in the people we met in Mish were gentleness; a peaceful quietness; humour; love of music and dance; spirituality; and a lack of possessiveness over material things. They also asked for what they needed, something I thought that we from the south could learn from. How often I have held back from expressing a need for help out of fear of refusal or rejection; in effect robbing someone else of the gift of sharing or giving. The people of Mish had no such hangups and were my teachers in that among other things.

I often wonder what they thought of us. We came, meaning to share God's love in action. We left with so much more than we came with.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

How We Lost our Hearts

One week in Mish left me with a heart undone. I have only to close my eyes and little Tabitha is sitting beside me in the front seat of my car with her laughing, dark, almond eyes. She is smart and funny and makes me laugh when she tells me that someone wanted to buy her puppy from her. "Give me the money first and I'll give you the puppy," she said she told the potential buyer. She still had the puppy, so I guess the money didn't materialize.

As we drove into the parking lot of the community centre on Sunday, our first day on the reserve, some children ran up to our cars, recognizing members of the team from earlier visits. Christina, a spunky little girl with a serious expression and hair falling to one side over her eyes, knocked on my car window and motioned to me to wind it down.  Her sharp eyes had spotted something of interest. Pointing to the almost empty bag of chips on the car seat, she said, "Chippies! Can I have some?" 

The children of Mish were a subculture, a tribe that ran together and free as wild ponies. Sometimes pushing boundaries and listening when they chose, they were captivated and calmed, for the most part, by the fun activities that Christy had organized.

Jamie loved the children and was determined that we pick up as many
as possible. He went from house to house letting them know of the week of activities, and he urged me to pick up Marita's three grandchildren at her house on the way to deliver the lunch.

One of the children Jamie discovered going door to door was a girl with autism named Bobby. Her parents were happy when we picked her up and she stayed as long as she wanted, included in the fun. 

There was another child with autism; young Joey; who Susan kept a watchful eye on, and Micah, who Jamie at first thought couldn't speak, but then realized that he couldn't hear.
From then on he stood facing him when he spoke so that Micah could read his lips. Micah's face was covered in a severe skin rash--excema, and he hid it by wearing a hoodie even in the 29 degree heat. It was wonderful on the last day at the beach to see Micah take off his hoodie, and splash in the water with the others, with the sun and wind on his upturned face, a visible sign of the acceptance and love that had melted his shame away.

Later that day the mother of one of the children, who had come to join us on the beach, said quietly to me, "Micah has had a rough couple of months since his mother died."

I looked at her questioningly, and she said, "Brain damage."

My heart plummeted with sadness at the hidden burdens that some of the children carried among their carefree peers. One of the elders said to Paul, "It's good that you give so much love to the kids. We don't get that at home." While I know that isn't true of everyone because I saw love for myself--I also saw brokenness; a remnant of generations of relationships torn apart and a culture shamed through the residential school system.

On the last day there were hugs and sad farewells, but there was no doubt in anyone's heart. We would come back...

Luke 18: 15-17 --The Message
People brought babies to Jesus, hoping he might touch them. When the disciples saw it, they shooed them off. Jesus called them back. “Let these children alone. Don’t get between them and me. These children are the kingdom’s pride and joy. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.”

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Love Gifts

Several weeks before we began our journey to Mishkeegogamang, Paul commissioned a painting to be done by our granddaughter Tippy, as a gift for Chief Connie Gray-McKay, both an honoured leader and friend. 

Tippy did her very best, painting a beautiful picture in vivid primary colours, of a crouching wolf with other creatures within its flowing frame. The colours and creatures were each chosen for their symbolism.

I was worried about it's fragility and wrapped it carefully in two soft pillowcases, surrounded by generous layers of bubble wrap. Over our three day journey I made sure that the picture was safe as luggage went in and out of the vehicle. I could not wait for Chief Connie to see it.

When we arrived though, Chief Connie was away, and not expected back until later in the week. After all of my anticipation, it felt anticlimactic to have to wait longer, and we weren't even sure if we would be able to see her then!

One of our team, Sharon, had been working on a beaded scarf for Chief Connie, finishing it on the journey. Sharon is a Metis, and for her the trip had deep personal importance. She too, was hoping to give her gift in person.

On Friday, after we got back from the beach, we decided to drive after supper to the nearby village of Ten Houses, where Chief Connie lives; Paul, Joyce (the leader of our churches' Missions Committee,) Sharon, and myself.  We thought we would take a chance that might find her at home. To our delight, her car was in the driveway. We knocked on the door, and it was opened by Chief Connie!

She and a handsome young man, whom she introduced as Apollo, one of six children, were just back from shopping for groceries, which they were still unpacking and putting away; but she welcomed us and invited us in warmly.

 It felt so exciting to place the package that had traveled 2,000 kilometers, into Chief Connie's hands at last.

I only wished that Tippy could have been there to see her delight as she opened it and saw the painting.

"Is this for my office?" she asked. 

"No, this is a personal gift for you!" said Paul. 

Chief Connie then took the painting straight to her bedroom, took down a picture that was hanging on the wall and replaced it with our gift.


 Sharon presented her scarf to the chief and that gift too, was received with deep appreciation.

Sharon had sewn 1400 beads into the scarf, each one representing a member of Mishkeegogamang Ojibway First Nation. (Today about 900 live on its two reserves, while 500 live off the reserve.)

Joyce gave greetings from our Missions Committee to the chief, a woman of deep personal faith who has worked hard to better the lives of the people she serves; battling the social problems that plague this community, as they do so many other remote communities. Under her leadership there is so much progress, obvious to repeat visitors. The visits of various teams from our church over the years, have been meant to be a support and encouragement to Chief Connie. We left her home thrilled that another part of our mission had been successfully accomplished!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

For Serenity and Neesh

Like crimson flames the leaves are turning the page on summer, but the memories continue to glow; embers that won't die.

On our last day with the children of Mish we drove them the 8 kilometers from the village and through the cemetery to the beach one last time; an end of the week celebration tinged with sadness at what that meant. 

The children ran from our cars, not to the beach at first, but to visit the small white wooden crosses marking graves, looking for those of people they knew, pointing them out to one another. Death seems an all too frequent a visitor to the families of Mish. 

"My auntie's here; she burned," said one little girl. Her tone was as matter of fact as if burning is as normal a cause of death as old age. But then, on the reserve, tragically, it is. Buildings burn often and the people in them die.
Down on the beach the first children to have arrived were already shrieking with joy. Their laughter carried up to the hilltop where I stood, at a grave from which a young man's face smiled from a photo: Gary "Neesh" Fox; he should have been the promise of the future for his community--"Top Student Phys Ed," "Most Improved Social Sciences." He died at 21 in a fire.

My heart broke and I am angry at the level of acceptance that this happens. This is not okay. It is shameful that in our proud country, people have no choice but to live in flimsy inadequate housing in which they struggle to keep warm in the bitter cold of winter. 

 In Missabay Community School, our friend, Isaiah Roundhead, pointed out one of the banners hanging among the other richly coloured hand sewn flags and banners representing other First Nations or events. This one, a single feather, he said quietly, was made in memory of Serenity. 

Last year Serenity would have been one of the children at the beach. She joined in the children's program we ran for a week. And she was one of four occupants who died when the house they were in burned down in the early hours of one morning this past February.  We saw the empty piece of land where their house used to stand.

John Kiedrowski wrote in an article in the National Post last January, that: 
The fire incidence rate is 2.4 times greater per capita than that for the rest of Canada, the fire damage per unit 2.1 times greater, the fire injury rate 2.5 times greater, and the death rate 10.4 times greater.
There are many underlying reasons for this, including substance abuse, lack of adequate housing and lack of emergency services, to name a few. 

Listen HERE to Chief Connie Gray-MacKay, on CBC Radio, February 18, 2014, responding to the tragedy in which Serenity died, and calling upon the Federal Government to address the challenges faced in making First Nations communities safe places to live for their children and grandchildren.

Serenity and Neesh, this is written so that you will be known beyond Mishkeegogamang and so that people will know of the challenges and the help that is needed for them to be overcome. 

Your lives were precious. You had promise and hope. You are not forgotten.