Inuit bring the gospel south

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From left, Lizzie York, Paulossie Napartuk, Rev. Iola Metuq, (centre), having tea at New Life Girls’ Home in Consecon, Ont. with Inuit staff member Jessie Kangok (far right) and residents.

During the 19th century, Europeans risked their lives trekking north to evangelise the Arctic. But this year, for the first time, the Arctic sent its own Inuit missionaries south with the gospel.

In 1874, Rev. James Peck travelled overland from the eastern coast of James Bay north to Kuujjuaq on Ungava Bay. Now, 127 years later, Lizzie York with three other Inuit was flying south from Kuujjuaq, to minister the gospel her ancestors had received from Mr. Peck.

The four missionaries came from four coastal settlements dotted around the rocky shores of the huge Ungava peninsula (the most northerly tip of Quebec). Snow had already fallen when the team left on September 18 for its 11-day mission to southeastern Ontario.

Joining Mrs. York, a court interpreter, were Bishop Andrew Atagotaaluk, the suffragan bishop of Nunavik, Rev. Iola Metuq from Kangirsuq, and Paulossie Napartuk, a weather observer at Puvirnituq airport.

They proved to be as comfortable with the homeless in a soup kitchen and the hurting in a group home as they were with the regular churchgoer in the pew. Language was no barrier. They were quick to laugh yet shared personal stories of sharp pain.

Bishop Peter Mason of the diocese of Ontario welcomed the team. “The Gospel they received is being re-presented, but in ways that are not just repetitious. Andrew spoke the gospel truth but in a way that indicated that he had apprehended it for himself; he was not just mimicking others. I welcome God’s work of renewal from people who are in our culture as well as from those who are from outside our culture. Biblical christianity is not just putting a religious facade on our North American culture.”

Bishop Mason attended services at St. Paul’s, Kingston, and at St. Luke’s, Camden East. The team also ministered at St. Margaret’s on the Hill, Belleville and Holy Trinity, Brockville. Sharing of Ministries Abroad, an Anglican mission agency with a renewal perspective, organized the mission but the four raised their own funds.

Iola Metuq The Inuit team was very down to earth.

Iola Metuq told people in a Belleville soup kitchen that he too had known hunger. As a starving child in the 1950s he had searched through RCMP and hospital garbage for food.

He told a home for abused women, “I’m not a prophet. I’m a victim too, like you.” A doctor had lured him with treats of apples and oranges, then molested the terrified boy.

Later, as a mayor and regional politician, Mr. Metuq had power and authority but no inner peace, so he abused drugs and alcohol.

Despite his past, he spoke with an irrepressible joy. “If you want to release the hate, present it to Jesus. Jesus does the healing.”

Lizzie York “You often see Christ more clearly after you’ve been through hard times,” said Lizzie York. She comes from four generations of Christian Inuit believers but her birth father was white. “I have been hated and despised by white and Inuit. I don’t belong to either. I am gradually healing. Christ is working through all my pains.”

Her greatest trauma was being raped as a 10-year-old.

“It took me 29 years to figure out what was going on inside of me. I was very angry and ashamed.” Through prayer counselling with another Christian woman who had also been sexual abused, Mrs. York eventually found the strength to heal and forgive.

Andrew Atagotaaluk It was while interpreting for Anglican evangelist, Marney Patterson in 1972 in Resolute, in the high Arctic, that Andrew Atagotaaluk, along with his wife and father, felt called by God.

“When God called me, he knew I was Inuit. He knew my life was shaped around that environment. He didn’t come to change that but worked inside me to be useful in that culture.”

Andrew and his wife were only 20, when they committed themselves to Christian service. “We were young enough to reach other young people but we never had a chance to be young together.”

After 16 years of demanding ministry, the priest suffered burnout. In his busyness, he had broken too many promises to his children.

In 1992, he was nominated for bishop but didn’t let his name stand. He was tempted to quit the ministry entirely but instead took a leave of absence and worked as a ship inspector. “The middle part of my life had to be renewed.” In 1999, he was again nominated for bishop and agreed – but this time he would do things differently.

Bishop Atagotaaluk oversees the whole northern coast of Quebec. Hurting parents and grandparents who survived residential schools are raising the next generation, he said.

Unemployment, addictions, sexual abuse and suicide are all rampant. “I have to fall on my knees for situations that are too hard for me to handle alone.”

In the face of such a daunting ministry, Bishop Atagotaaluk is encouraged by some visions that he and a number of Inuit Christians have had.

“(Rev.) Moses Idlout, my spiritual mentor, had several personal visions of a great tidal wave coming from the Arctic Ocean and flooding Arctic Quebec. The waters rushed down past Nunavik southwards with no final destination. God gave me several similar visions in Salluit in which a huge tidal wave rose over the coastal mountains and splashed into our town. All the people were submerged but it was not a flood of physical destruction but an image of the spirit moving, like a river of life, freely flowing into people’s lives.”

Paulossie Napartuk Paulossie Napartuk was the rebellious preacher’s kid. “I extinguished what hope a lot of people held on to. I broke what little faith they had.” At 11 he was smoking marijuana; by 17, cocaine. “Even when I wasn’t drunk or drugged up I had enough rage to kill someone. Nothing could hold me back.”

Even a dramatic helicopter rescue after being stranded three days in a blizzard couldn’t persuade Mr. Napartuk to change his ways.

But God broke into his life again. At 26, with his short-term memory gone, he finally realized that his body couldn’t handle any more abuse. Nor could his spirit.

“I had a vision of my soul shrivelled up like stick man.

“You can forget my name,” said Mr. Napartuk who is now 33. “I don’t mind being forgotten, but I don’t want you to forget there is hope in Jesus. He will carry you through all the good times and the bad times.

“It is very exciting for me to have the opportunity to give back what has been given to me. I realize how unselfish, loving and unwavering in their belief were those who crossed over from the old world into the new to teach about Jesus. We are the first fruits of what was sown.”

Sue Careless is a freelance writer based in Toronto and a frequent contributor to the Anglican Journal.

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