To keep Jesus at the centre of our faith, right relationships the centre of our lives, and justice at the centre of our work.
The Mayflower Family Centre was a church of England run mission in the heart of Canning Town, in East London. This was still Dicken’s London in so many ways. Cockney markets, kids growing up tough and old people growing lonely. Young people grew up never seeing a tree or blade of grass. At the time I came, there were over thirty young men and women, some on gap years others just wanting to be a means of grace (the most common expression used around the dinner table) to people in the neighborhood. A few others were like me, in transition and needing fixing. I had contracted filariasis teaching in Zambia, an African adventure gone terribly wrong. Everyone there had to find work in the neighborhood or in the Mayflower Family Centre. Roger and Jenny Sainsbury were the Rectors and leaders of the mission. The dining room table was our altar. You would not be able to have enough buckets to hold all the fun and laughter we had telling our stories of working with the youth at nights in ‘youth club,’ or the senior folks living in the tenements. Knowing the right Christian stuff was not important. Loving people we worked alongside was. Justice and love trumped ought to(s), should(s), and have to(s).
I ended up staying for six months. An African hero adventure was replaced with a different kind of adventure. The medical people gave me a clean bill of health. My experience at the Mayflower was about to give me something more important-a head start to a new identity. As is the case with most ‘experiences,’ this one would reveal its meaning later, in surprising ways, in new possibilities I was to take up over the next four decades, possibilities that followed along the ruts and grooves laid down in my mind, in my concepts about just about everything. God did come to me alright, disguised as an adventure that I would never have chosen, a new future that was never planned for.
And today, I ‘see’ in Menno Simons something similar for kids, parents, and teachers. Possibilities for being in the world in particular ways that come about through right relationships.
Back to me…
I wanted to replicate the experience in Canada. I have had some spectacular failures in trying to recreate my Mayflower experience. I took a teaching position immediately upon arriving back in Canada, in northern Alberta. I moved into an abandoned farmhouse a few miles outside of town. The house had no running water, wood stove for heating and power had been cut off for years. I had a .22 rifle that I was going to use to hunt rabbits for food (never even saw a rabbit during my six months there). Thank God for the Safeway in town. I hired on as the town’s one and only Pastor, part-time, and became a wired-up zealot for ‘living in community’ and a recruiter for my new mission. No one joined me in a replicated Mayflower experience. I guess living in an abandoned farmhouse had little appeal.
At the end of my teaching contract, I snuck out of town in my 1964 Chevy and have never gone back.
I have had some remarkable successes too. In 1984 my wife and I bought a rambling 7-bedroom house in Highlands, Edmonton, that had been built in 1912. Over sixty people lived with us, many for three or four years. I loved every moment of this experience and know that this brought some good into lots of young lives.
In 1997 we moved to Calgary. In 2004, we met up with a couple who were to play a leading part in an initiative called ‘40 days to community.’ I recall the Sunday afternoon sitting across from six other couples from the neighborhood. Each couple had shown up, largely out of curiosity I think, to discuss this notion of ‘doing life together.’
Seventeen years later four couples are still at it. Other couples have come and gone. ‘Group’ as we affectionately called it has morphed and does not look much like the original vision. I think it is better looking, to be honest. We have continued to use the acronym SERVICE as our manifesto, our mission statement of what we do and how we want to be known. We continue to ask each other important questions, engage in book studies and spiritual formation, to practices of ‘extending’ hospitality, doing recreation together, helping each other with our respective volunteering activities, and either supporting or going on international justice-related missions. We extend compassion to our neighbors and care for each other.
I have learned much in each experience about the Christian sweet spot, the teachings of Jesus about the kingdom of God, about a relationship based Christian life.
Again, sounds like Menno Simons to me. What about you?
Bernie Potvin, Principal