The Swerving Missionary
Cars swerved recklessly toward Tim and Ken as they drove down the main road of Loon Lake, Saskatchewan. Ken gripped the door and chuckled as Tim responded by jerking the wheel toward the oncoming cars. Tim Woodring and his wife Linda had moved into the community the year before. The small town, nestled by an expansive lake lined with white birch trees, is surrounded by a First Nations reserve. An unrepentant practical joker, Tim had a habit of swerving at familiar vehicles as a greeting. Friends had learned to respond in kind.
As a young boy raised in a Cree community, Ken recalled two women coming into his home and telling the children Bible stories. Instead of softening his heart, his exposure to the message of Jesus Christ strengthened his belief in the old ways. The gospel stood in stark contrast to all that Ken had been taught. He assumed he would be the spiritual leader of his family one day. When invited to a church service by Erna, who later became his wife, he got up in the middle of the service and refused to go back in. He did not want to hear about this new way of belief. This God was not for him! Yet, he found no assurance in his way of belief. The fear of the unknown, death and eternity continued to haunt his thoughts. It stirred a longing in his heart for peace.
Despite his internal unease, Ken was a fun-loving, outgoing teenager with a winning smile. He was intrigued by the extroverted white man who chose to ignore cultural norms, pursuing friendships with First Nations residents. Though initially resisting friendship with Tim, he watched this fearless missionary start conversations with anyone who would listen. Tim showed up everywhere, visiting the chief, making everyone laugh at the local coffee shop and building relationships with the youth on the basketball court. Timid residents hid from the Woodrings when they knocked on their doors but the missionaries were unfazed. Ken was eventually drawn into friendship with Tim despite the opposition to his message.
With tender notes in his voice, Ken describes his growing relationship with Tim:
“Tim created an atmosphere of acceptance. I talked about my strongly held beliefs and he gently shared the Word. We debated about God but even though he had a strong personality he didn’t create a war.”
I thank the Lord I couldn’t walk.
God allowed a crisis in Ken’s life to force a decision. At only eighteen years old, he woke up one morning in pain so severe he couldn’t walk. He didn’t know the cause of the pain but he first sought healing from his traditional ways. Finding no relief, he continued to suffer.
Tim came to visit Ken after his options had failed. With the relationship they had developed, Tim laid out the truth. “You have to choose. Will you choose Jesus Christ or your traditions?” The tension in his spirit mounted as he feared his decision would alienate him from his family. Ken chose the truth and was gloriously moved from darkness to light. They prayed together and his pain soon disappeared.
Looking back, Ken, now in his fifties reflects, “I thank the Lord that I couldn’t walk.” Most of his family are now followers of Jesus. He now testifies to his family, “Praise God that He chose us out of the darkness we were in. God sent His people to live out Jesus Christ before us, that He was the true Living God.”
As Ken began his new life in Christ, Tim enthusiastically embraced his role as the discipler. Tim arrived at Ken’s house daily, sometimes banging on his door early in the morning and boisterously calling, “Get up, it’s time to study the Bible.” He taught the great Bible stories, the essential doctrines, God’s design for the church and how a decision to follow the Lord should consume every aspect of life. Through it all, Tim walked with Ken through the maze of life’s challenges.
As Ken shared his faith, others began to join him. Siblings and friends responded to the gospel, influenced by Ken’s enthusiastic testimony. One by one the family of believers grew and the fledgling group began to gather for services in the Woodrings’ living room.
As was demonstrated by Jesus, shared life and casual conversations are at the heart of learning. The families took trips together, fixed the frequently broken-down cars, celebrated birthdays, played practical jokes, shared tears and lots of laughter. Short Canadian summers with the long daylight hours were packed with volleyball games and cookouts on the Loon Lake beach. Winter brought hunting, hockey, snowmobile trips and board games around the table. There were weddings, babies and funerals. Every activity of life thrust the young believers into uncharted territory as they worked out their new faith.
Places to Gather
While gathering for events has long been a tradition with First Nations cultures, many of those occasions are rooted in the traditional ways. The Loon Lake believers longed for a place to gather as a Christian community. It was a joyous day when they received the white, wooden church given by a local Mennonite congregation. As it was wheeled across the prairie onto a grassy plot of ground on the main road leading to the reserve, it became a beacon of hope for the community of believers. Together, they set up the building and thanked the Lord for their new church home.
Family camps became a fitting substitute for new believers who did not participate in the traditional events. The Loon Lake church rallied to organize its family camps. Musicians and speakers were invited, a suitable location was chosen, brush cleared and the large “camp meeting” tent erected. Children and camping gear spilled from overpacked vehicles. Tents popped up among the trees. Blazing campfires were used for cooking and some measure of relief from the relentless mosquitoes.
The services were packed with music, preaching and testimonies. Long into the night, with campfires flickering across their faces, struggles and victories were shared and decisions for Christ were made. What an incredible testimony of a new allegiance! Family camp created a space for people who longed to be part of a larger faith community.
During this time, Tim trained men to become spiritual leaders and move towards establishing an independent church. Within a few years, Ken and his brother-in-law, Thomas, were installed as the first pastors of the Native Fellowship of Loon Lake. The church continued to grow. About eight years after the Woodrings had moved into town, Tim could see that the group was ready to spread its wings. Bidding them a tearful goodbye, the Woodrings moved to a new ministry location.
Consistent and fervent discipleship resulted in a fully indigenous church. In a few short years, the believers had gone from no understanding of the gospel to becoming an established church. The change in their lives spoke clearly of God’s amazing love and power to transform a heart.
God is still working...
God faithfully preserved His testimony in that community despite times of great grief and uncertainty. Still relatively young in the faith, they had few Christian models from which to learn. With growing families and numerous challenges facing the church, they invited mentors to live in their community. InterAct missionaries, Dick and Ruth Browning were asked to fill that need. There were concerns that Dick might come in and take over the church. Ruth replied, “Then they don’t know Dick,” and she was right. As Dick and Ruth forged relationships with the church over the years, the people viewed them as a perfect fit. Already seen as elders, they adjusted quickly to the community. They offered a safe and nurturing environment in which the believers could flourish. For the last 20 years, they have continued to walk beside the church leaders, never above them.
Though impacted by many of the same tragedies as those in the community, with God’s grace, they respond differently and it shows. Ken reflects,
“The light is forcing people to choose. Unbelievers are calling believers to come and pray for them in their homes. What God is doing in people’s lives in the church is opening doors that were once closed. The community is on the verge of a spiritual awakening. God is still working powerfully. When we gather, we talk about Jesus. So many people are asking the Christians about their faith.”
Light has come to Loon Lake, all glory be to God!
The gospel is spreading in Loon Lake and mirrored in numerous communities across Canada. Relationships are forged, new believers discipled, and Christ-followers gathered. This story reflects the mission and heart of InterAct Ministries.