About five years ago, the people of Knox United Church in Kenora, Ontario, had a vision to hire second minister, with two main duties: to work with youth and young families in the church, and to build connections with the wider community. For the past 17 months, the Rev. Meg Illman-White has been doing just that, with encouraging results.

“There are interconnecting roles between youth and outreach,” Illman-White said. “I try to make the connections stronger, and figure out where peoples’ spiritual passions lie. It’s really about building on what Knox already is.”

One Sunday morning this fall, members of the youth group took part in an hour-long hike, led by Daryl Redsky of Shoal Lake 40 (a neighbouring reserve). “He talked about the importance of respecting Mother Earth and entering nature with the same reverence and respect we would enter someone’s home or a place of worship,” she said. “We all learned so much.”

Youth members are also encouraged to get involved in social initiatives, such as Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign. Amnesty has identified 10 individuals or communities around the world facing human rights violations, including Indigenous people in the Peace River Valley in British Columbia. Their traditional homeland and its habitat will be submerged in water, if a proposed hydroelectric dam is built. This is a really crucial issue for Canadians, and especially United Church members, Illman-White said, if we intend to live out our Apology and engage in the real work of truth and reconciliation.

A sign saying: "Freedom Road: We support Shoal Lake 40"
Meg Illman-White
 “We are hoping that letter writing becomes a lifelong spiritual practice for our youth, one that brings Advent into focus as we wait with hope the coming of God’s dream for this world,” said Illman-White. “Wouldn’t it be great if we are able to grow a whole generation of people who are willing to get involved in human rights issues in the world?

When it comes to community outreach, the congregation has a long history of providing three nutritious lunches and one supper each week. With up to 70 people coming for these meals, “this work is part of the fabric of Knox. The hum of the dishwasher is probably the most lovely and welcoming sound at Knox.  No one balks at creating meals.”

”Other local organizations support this effort with funds and volunteers,” she added, noting their involvement is crucial, as it builds bridges between people who live in different socioeconomic realities.

“Those who come to serve get the opportunity to see the under-resourced in our community as real people with names, and stories. They come to know one another, tease one another, comfort one another,” she said, noting that atmosphere during these meals truly reflects the wording of the Cheers theme song. “This really is a place where everybody knows your name,” she said, “and you are always glad you came.”

She describes Kenora as “one of the most interesting communities in Canada,” thanks to the mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents.

Over 100 years ago, the traditional land of Anishinaabe First Nation of Shoal Lake 40  was carved up after an aqueduct was dug to supply clean drinking water to Winnipeg. A permanent bridge to the community was promised, but never built, leaving the community isolated.  Tragically, the community that supplied Winnipeg with its clean drinking water has been under “boil water advisory” for 19 years, and has had to rely on bottled water.

Last year, Illman-White and about a dozen others from Knox United were invited to visit the Shoal 40 First Nation. Residents’ efforts and struggle for justice are clearly displayed in “The Museum of Human Rights Violations” (a parody of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg),” which details how successive governments have failed to take action on agreements and initiatives of the tiny but tenacious community.

 “The visit to Shoal Lake 40 was transformative for Knox United members,” she said. “We were changed by the experience, and it helped us to better understand our neighbours.”

Illman-White added that everyone is grateful that in mid-December, federal and Manitoba government officials, plus the city council of Winnipeg, agreed to release the funds needed to build the permanent road to Shoal Lake 40.

While few Indigenous people are regulars at church services, Illman-White said Anishinaabe elders have participated in five worship services. The church is also moving toward becoming an Affirming congregation, with about 40 members of the LGBT2S community showing up for Pride service in June.

Looking back at her 17 months at Knox United, Illman-White surmised: “It has just been an incredible 17 months, from heartbreaking to hopeful. There is such openness from the Kenora community to what Knox United has to offer.”

For more information on reaching out to youth and the community, contact Illman-White at megillman-white [at] sympatico.ca.

—Paul Russell is Communications Coordinator with the Office of the Moderator and General Secretary.

New and diverse approaches to ministry are constantly cropping up across The United Church of Canada, and Embracing the Spirit wants to hear about them. If you are involved with a group that has found an innovative way to approach church, let us know, by filling in the Tell Us Your Story form, found at the bottom of the Spur Innovation page.