It took the Rev. Canon Rod BrantFrancis and the Rev. Lisa BrantFrancis 19 hours to drive from their parish in northern Quebec to their new companion parish in Toronto for the first time in April, but the story of these two parishes coming together actually has its beginnings much farther away.
It all began when former parishioner Virginia Davies, who now lives in Manhattan, told the Rev. David Giffen, incumbent at the Church of the Transfiguration in Toronto, that she would like to fund an initiative that would remind parishioners “that as Anglicans we worship alongside one another…wherever we are,” in the global Communion.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide (See related story, p. 15.) Some members of Davies’ family who fled the conflict found help in Anglican churches, and so she wanted to assist the Toronto parish in establishing a relationship with a different Anglican community. Giffen asked Archbishop Colin Johnson, who is the diocesan bishop for both Toronto and Moosonee, if he could recommend a parish that his community could connect with. Johnson quickly thought of the parish of St. John the Baptist in Wemindji, a Cree community of about 1,300 people, six km from the shores of James Bay.
Rod BrantFrancis and Giffen started corresponding by e-mail and decided to begin a companion relationship between the two parishes, with Rod and Lisa visiting Toronto after Easter this year. Giffen plans to lead a group of Transfiguration parishioners for a visit to Wemindji in 2016, something that has already stirred a lot of interest in his congregation.
“On a personal level, I’m very excited about all of this,” said Giffen, who said that he learned very little about Aboriginal culture in school. “This is a wonderful education for me to know about some of my Canadian brothers and sisters in another part of the country and…about brothers and sisters in Christ who are following Jesus in another part of Canada.”
The BrantFrancises lived in Toronto more than 20 years ago in the early days of their ministries with the Church Army (now Threshold Ministries), but they are accustomed to living a very different lifestyle today. Rod described Wemindji as “economically blessed,” without the housing crises and water problems that many Aboriginal communities face. Though many residents work in health care, schools and other services, their lives remain closely tied to the land and traditional activities such as hunting and fishing, said Rod. Both he and Lisa said they were struck by the noise and hectic pace of life in Toronto during their visit.
Giffen observed that it is easy for people living in the city to become Toronto-centric.
“The same goes for our community,” Lisa said of Wemindji. “We can be very focused on what happens in our small little area…The challenge to think outside your own borders is a great opportunity.”
As the regional dean for James Bay, Rod spoke of the close community and family ties that connect areas in the region even if they are geographically distant. Long-distance travel, he said, is simply a part of life for people there. For example, a group of women from Wemindji made a 14-hour bus trip to be present for Lisa’s ordination in 2010 at the cathedral in Timmins, Ont., while another busload of people from Wemindji were preparing for a 16-hour trip to a funeral in a community where five young men perished in a fire while on a hunting trip.
Urban life, with people going wherever their work takes them, is more transient than it is in Wemindji, said Giffen. “Because you stay and because there are generations of people who stay, you belong to one another in a different way,” he said, promising to add prayers for the men who died in the fire and their families at the service at the Church of the Transfiguration that Sunday.
Giffen and the BrantFrancises said that they haven’t worked out all the details of what their companion relationship will be yet because it is just at its beginning.
“We are inviting one another to walk together, to pray for one another, to be in conversation,” said Giffen.
“It’s an adventure,” said Lisa.