"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (Eph 6:10–12)
This verse was the battle cry of the community of Cross Lake, Manitoba and still is today. "Why?," you might be asking.
An ugly spiritual battle began in this community soon after Christmas. It took shape in the form of one of the most devastating acts among humanity--suicide. By the time the first week in March came, there had been 6 suicides in the community. That's traumatic enough, especially considering the youngest was a 14 year old girl and the oldest a 33 year old mother of 3 children. But add to that over 120 attempted suicides--yes, you read that correctly--120+.
This was a community in crisis, so much so that it made it onto front page news nationally in Canada. (You can see the article here.) That prompted the provincial government to send in crisis counselors, extra nursing staff, and other officials to try and help the community recover from this death spiral it was in.
The news of this situation reached LAMP and eventually the VBS team leader, Jonathan Boll at Trinity Lutheran Church in Billings, Montana. This is the largest LAMP team, comprising over 35 people who travel on a charter bus and spend the week in Cross Lake not only conducting VBS for 300 plus kids, but offering a women's Bible study, and Teen Bible study concurrent with VBS.
I called Father Guru in Cross Lake to find out how things were going and it wasn't good. Jonathan had called Connie McIvor, the principal of Mikisew elementary school where the VBS is held and Dion Halcrow, our community contact, and got the same news. Jonathan and I started exchanging emails and phone calls. It then became obvious that we needed to go to Cross Lake and minister to this hurting community. When talking with Father Guru, Dion, and Connie about the possibility of going to Cross Lake, they said, "Yes! Please come!" Within the course of a few days, the plans were made and we were headed to Cross Lake.
The "Montana People," as they were affectionately called, left Billings at 4 AM on Palm Sunday morning. I was in central Wisconsin doing cross-cultural training for the team that goes to Garden Hill, Manitoba that weekend. So I would fly up early Monday morning and meet the team there.
|A look at Lake Winnipeg on the flight into Cross Lake|
I met all but 3 members the of the team and Connie. (Three of the team went to the high school.) Connie gave us an overview of how challenging things had gotten and that the children were holding it all inside and not talking about the suicides or the attempted suicides much. There had been 7 suicides since Christmas and over 140 attempts. The evening the Billings team arrived, an 11 year old girl attempted suicide and was found by her aunt before she succeeded. The despair and hopelessness in the community was beyond belief. Suicide had become the method of kids crying out for help where a loving nurturing family environment is hard to find.
|This is what a person sees on the main road into Cross Lake. It definitely isn't an encouragement to the community|
I also found out from Connie that a community that LAMP serves, Shamattawa, was having the same issue but even worse. (We're currently trying to get plans together to go there in April.)
There were signs of encouragement by some of the posters the kids had made that were about life and not committing suicide.
|Two of many posters decorating the halls and classrooms of Mikisew School|
|More posters and signs in the hall of Mikisew School|
Before leaving the school Monday afternoon, we did a "divide and conquer" as some team members met with staff and a couple of us went to some of the places in the school that were considered "spiritual battle grounds," where the forces of evil were manifesting themselves. God's Word is the "Sword in the Spirit"--that was our weapon. We trust that it works and works mightily.
|A handful of the team went to pray and read Scripture over troubled areas of the school.|
After this, we all gathered together before heading out for some food. We were going to meet Dion and his wife, Zelena for dinner at one of the local restaurants. Dion and Jonathan made arrangements for us to use the new Cadet Center (sort of like junior ROTC) for a gathering place for the kids.
|The team and the Halcrows at one of the local restaurants|
We headed over to the Cadet Center after dinner and met Bob, who manages the facility and the program. He went to great lengths to get the Provincial government to provide funding for the Cadet Center building and equipment for the program.
|This is Bob with one of the high school kids.|
We had around 2 dozen of the children from both schools come and hang out for the evening. Some played basketball and others tossed around a volleyball.
|Pastor Dennis playing with the younger children|
|Roger from Billings had a pretty serious game of foosball going on|
It was just what the children needed...something to take their minds off the sadness and a chance to experience fun in their lives.
|Dion and Zelena Halcrow hung out with B.J. Shaw from Billings. Kori had been coming to VBS the last 7 years!|
|Pastor Dennis is being silly while Ripkin was being cool about it.|
|Stacie gives Valerie a hug; she's a wonderful strong young woman with a smile on her face.|
The "divide and conquer" model was once again used with Roger, Tom, and Parker heading to O.N.R. (Otter Nelson River High School.) The rest of us went to the classrooms, handing out Bibles and praying with the teachers and students.
At the kindergarten class, the children were coloring crosses for Easter to look like stained glass windows.
Pastor Dennis gathered the children together to teach them "Little Red Box," one of the many VBS songs he loves to sing with the little ones.
It was quite amazing to see such a Christian presence in the school, which one would never see in a public school in the U.S. or Canada. It makes you wonder if the strong presence of Jesus in the school isn't the source of Satan's battle in that community.
A few of the team members met with Linda McLeod-McDonald and her assistant Joy to get a better idea of what was behind some of the issues in the community. Linda works for the family services at Cross Lake. The biggest issue is the breakdown of the family with so many broken homes and lack of parenting skills. We discussed the possibility of Pastor Dennis conducting a parenting workshop at Cross Lake similar to the one he did at Sachigo Lake, Ontario in January.
|Colie (Left) and Stacie (right) from the Billings team with Linda in between them|
We had a more organized approach at the Cadet Center the second evening which was a good thing. The Cadets met for attendance and a drill before joining the rest of the children.
Word had gotten out that we were going to be there, and we had twice the number of kids as the night before.
|The attendance more than doubled the second night at the Cadet Center.|
The evening opened with Pastor Dennis doing a devotion with Scripture and prayer. Then we sang a couple of songs the kids knew fairly well. Then we cut them loose for fun and games.
|Pastor Dennis leading one of the songs he led for the group|
|Pastor Dennis was giving "piggy back" rides to the younger children while Jonathan and Daniel prayed with one of the high school youth in the background.|
|B.J. wasn't very popular with the children. Yeah, right!|
We ended the way we started with gathering together for prayer and singing. The kids overpowered us with "Jesus Loves Me." It was the perfect ending to the evening.
The next day, Wednesday, we found out that because of falling attendance due to people already leaving Cross Lake for spring break, the schools were going to close at noon. We had a small window to keep on ministering to the teachers and students.
The 4th grade class went out with the "Cultural Awareness" teacher to do some ice fishing. They caught a number of nice sized Pickerel (Walleye for you south-of-the-border folks).
We continued to make our rounds to the classrooms with Bibles and prayer. Before school let out, there was a closing program put on by one of the area church groups. It included a Passion Play with clips from the movie "Passion of the Christ."
It became a watershed event, both figuratively and literally. The children suddenly and finally let their emotions out. The team members were hugging groups of sobbing children, praying over them for the peace and strength of Jesus. Connie, the principal, said that this was the first time since the suicides started that the kids opened up. It was a major blessing that the team was there to surround the kids and staff with prayer and encouragement. The Lord was definitely present and drew the battle line to stop Satan and his evil throng.
After the assembly ended, some volunteers had put together a hot lunch for the children and staff.
As the children departed for spring break, I lost count of how many hugs and good-byes I got from children whom I recently met and from those whom I didn't even know! It was quite a moving experience that I'll not soon forget. It was another indication that we were supposed to be in Cross Lake!
Connie offered us the gymnasium of Mikisew that evening for another evening with the children. But, before going back to the school for the evening, Dion and Zelena opened their home to us and invited us all over for dinner.
Zoe, Dion and Zelena's 2nd oldest daughter made us fried Pickerel, potatoes, and bannock. It was all very, very yummy.
Dion discussed with some of the team members the issues in the community and some of the personal challenges he has in youth ministry.
This is the whole team (except Stacie who's taking the picture). It's the Billings team and the entire Halcrow family.
After dinner, we headed over to Mikisew to open the gym for the children. We had a good turnout and repeated pretty much what we had been doing over at the Cadet Center. It was a full evening with some sadness at the end, as we all knew we'd be heading home the next morning. The kids were hesitant to leave since they didn't really want to see us go. But the time had come for us to close up, head back to the hotel, pack up and be ready to leave the next morning.
The Billings team was up bright and early to hit the road by 6 AM. With a 20 hour drive ahead of them, they needed the early start. Father Guru came by and took me to the airport for my 9 AM flight to Winnipeg. So our work at Cross Lake had come to an end, but it really isn't the end. We will continue to pray and keep in contact with Connie, Dion, Father Guru and others that keep the faith and fight the spiritual battle everyday.
And that leads me to the next part of the passage that opened this blog because it is the only way by which the spiritual battle will be won.
"Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints." (Eph 6:13–18)
Please keep the community of Cross Lake in your prayers, that God's Word and Spirit would prevail against Satan's deceptions and attacks. We have a powerful Lord in Jesus who has defeated sin, death, and Satan through His suffering and death on the cross and through is glorious resurrection from the dead. Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift!