July 15, 2018

 

“Who can ascend the hill of the Lord? And who can stand in God’s holy place?”

Words from today’s psalm [24].

 

I want you to picture a small mountain in N. Yukon – it’s called Crow Mountain, and it’s the sacred mountain of the Vuntut Gwichin people who live below it in the village of Old Crow, where 12 of us were visiting for the week.

To walk partway up Crow Mountain to a level lookout area you take a dirt road that gradually lifts you up above the valley of the River Porcupine, giving you spectacular views of the river, the lakes, and the mountains all around, some of which have snow on even in the heat of July.

Midway through our visit we hiked up that road, to celebrate the eucharist at the lookout on Crow Mountain at 11 pm. The sun doesn’t set at that time of year, just dips below the horizon for a short time, while the sky is shot through with blue, gold and grey, and it’s still daylight.

The mosquitoes know it’s the closest time to real dusk, so they came out in thick clouds as we were walking, but we were prepared with our bug jackets and hats, and largely unscathed.

ATVs began to come up the road behind us, as members of the Old Crow community joined us on the journey to church. Some of us hitched rides. The chief was driving one of the few vans in the village, and he gave the rest of us a lift the remaining way.

And there at the top was Bert Chestnut, the gentle, holy retired priest from Nova Scotia, who has given three years of his life to ministering without pay in Old Crow. He and the chief had set up a table for an altar, with 30 or so chairs gathered around. A fire had been lit to deter the mosquitoes, and several of the elders were inspecting the area for the berry crop, due to ripen in a few weeks. They told us it promised to be a good harvest, with plentiful cloudberries and blueberries.

Once we’d all arrived and settled in, the service began: a Book of Common Prayer eucharist, with prayers in English and in Gwichin, and we led some music with Chris’ guitar: “I’ve Got Peace Like a River,” with all the actions, a solo during communion sung by Grace, and the version of the Lord’s Prayer that the St Aidan’s band loves to play.

It was a eucharist like no other I’ve celebrated. Bert and I shared leadership, assisted by Bert’s deacon who read the Gwichin prayers. In the little outdoor congregation were some of the children we’d come to know at the swim camp we’d assisted at, as well as community leaders who had met with us to talk about their culture, their heritage, the natural resources and history of the area, the way of life of a settled but still hunting people, and their care of the environment. They had talked to us about what it means to be self-governing, how they manage their own affairs, and their hopes for the future.

When we’d first arrived we’d felt self-conscious, awkward, different. We were worried that we’d be seen as outsiders. But the first two days there were July 1st and 2nd, the long weekend, and the whole community was celebrating Gwichin Days with feasts, games, contests and a holiday feel. It was the perfect ice-breaker as we joined in with everything and gradually learned people’s names and faces.

By the time we were gathered on Crow Mountain we were comfortable, relaxed in the knowledge that we were welcome. And so as we shared communion we were sharing community, being nourished by the sacrament and the land and its beauty all around us. We’d travelled together to “ascend the holy mountain,” and we were driven back down at midnight, still in broad daylight, on the ATVs and in the van. I had a sense of being part of the wide, encompassing Body of Christ that enables us to be together in respect and celebration and prayer across our differences.

Later in the week we had a visit with the chief and four council members. We heard more about what it means to lead a small, vibrant, resourceful, strong community. We heard the pride in their voices as they spoke about the ancient Gwichin culture, and how it’s evolving today.

One of the councillors, a young man, told us that he’d left Old Crow after his schooling and gone South for more excitement. But he’d fallen into destructive behaviours and eventually returned, committed to being well and giving back to his community as a leader. His words were interspersed very naturally with references to God – how God is always teaching us, through whatever circumstances of our life we get into. How God shows us how to love and forgive. How we all belong to God, we’re all God’s people, no matter what our skin colour or culture. He already had something of the voice of an elder – a respected, wise leader in the community. And I think we were all moved and inspired by what he had to say.

“Who can ascend the hill of the Lord? And who can stand in God’s holy place?”

We walk this path together. It was an extraordinary privilege for us to be welcomed into a community in Canada that is so far from here, and so different in many ways, and yet made us aware that we’re more alike than different; that we all struggle with issues in our personal lives; that we all have a responsibility to care for the earth that sustains us. Somehow those truths seemed clearer to us in Old Crow.

This was a service and learning trip, but the learning part far outweighed the little we were able to do in the way of service. A lot of our stereotypes about struggling First Nations communities were shattered, as we learned how self-reliant and well resourced the people of Old Crow have always been and still are.

On Crow Mountain, overlooking the village, the lakes, the river, the mountain, and surrounded by the beautiful colours of the midnight sunlight, we were standing on holy ground with God’s holy people. And it was very good. Amen.