The Gospel Under Northern Lights
A Missionary Memoir
Dr. Wes Bredenhof
Providence Press, 2011, 314 pages
This memoir is a first-person account of Dr. Bredenhof's missionary work at Fort Babine, British Columbia from 2000-2005. He and his wife were sent out by Smithers Canadian Reformed Church of Smithers, BC (about 700 km or 430 miles northwest of Vancouver). Though he grew up in a Christian home and his grandfather was a missionary to Brazil, the author never felt called to ministry until a number of events took place after he finished high school.
The story is set in the remote village of Fort Babine, a First Nations Reserve in British Columbia. The author does a fine job providing additional context for his story which includes the history of this people group, their interactions with whites particularly those affiliated with the Hudson's Bay Company, and missionary efforts in that region (mostly Catholic). His story also provides insight into government policies that hurt this First Nations group particularly a controversial federal law going back to 1904 which eliminated the use of salmon barricades. This may seem like a trivial matter for the people of our day but for the people of Fort Babine their lives were at stake. Historically they, like most First Nations people, were subsistence hunters. The elimination of these barriers meant that it was nearly impossible to store up enough salmon to make it through the winter.
Bredenhof's purpose in writing this memoir is threefold: 1) To explain life in rural British Columbia; 2) To explain his passion for missions; 3) To express his love for the people of Fort Babine. In my estimation he succeeded in achieving all three of these goals. These elements are woven throughout the book so much so that you cannot separate one from the other. It was his passion for missions that led him to a beautiful yet remote community filled with hurting people. Ironically, some of the most tragic figures in the book are those who visited Fort Babine for its natural beauty but who failed to see what Bredenhof saw – the Kingdom of God advancing (slowly) among a group people who by and large and not been exposed to the Gospel. One humorous story involved an American pastor who came up and went home the same day incredulous that there was no Starbucks.
The story chronicles the author's own sense of call to ministry and how he and his wife met. It also covers several major life events: marriage, finishing seminary, and ordination. Eventually the family moved to Fort Babine where God worked a minor miracle to provide suitable housing. After settling in he began his work of meeting the residents and initiating things like a "sports night" for youth. His goal was not mere evangelism but the establishment of a reformed church at Fort Babine. Thus one should not be surprised to read about basic evangelism as well as catechism, Sunday School and worship services.
It should be expected that such a lofty goal would be met with spiritual battle: Promising contacts often drifted away, syncretism enslaved others, Roman Catholic and Pentecostal teachers claimed still more. Cultural barriers proved hard to overcome as well: trust wasn't always easy to establish; how and when to invite people to events proved difficult; etc. There was also the element of racism that reared its ugly head from time to time. On top of this was the stress of raising a young family in such a remote location with all of its limitations: reliable electricity and phone service, lack of email/internet, and long winters with lots of snow and little daylight. One entire chapter is entitled The Year of Grief. The final chapter explains how and why they left Fort Babine.
Please know that the book is anything but a downer. Throughout the story the author shows a remarkable maturity for someone in his first ministry assignment. This memoir records numerous "breakthroughs" with various adults and teens where real progress is made. In addition to the stories about people there are many stories about travel and wildlife. Flat tires and getting towed were a regular part of life in that part of the world. Likewise, remarkable encounters with wildlife like black bear, grizzly bear, moose, wolves make the reader wish that they could visit the area to see the same things.
The story ends with final reflections summed up in the two words adventuresome and tragedy. The first word is pretty self-explanatory. Life in a remote area is filled with adventure: chance encounters with bear or moose; sudden accidents; and wild weather. The tragic nature of life in Fort Babine is summarized in these words: "It's a beautiful place, but there is so much brokenness and need there. The need is for the healing that only the gospel can bring. Tragedy is what brought us there and what made us leave (p. 282)." To fully understand the tragedy one must be sure to read the preface along with Appendix I (A Brief History of Residential Schools) and Appendix II (Introduction to the Potlatch).
On many levels this book resonated with me, not the least of which is my own exposure to native peoples. Last summer I participated in a short-term trip to the First Nations Reserve at Moose Factory, Ontario with our denomination (Presbyterian Church in America). There I experienced much of what Bredenhof describes in this book. Traveling to such a remote community location provided a sense of adventure. There was also a sense of tragedy as reflected in things like unemployment, poverty, and teen suicide.
The Gospel Under Northern Lights is both a memoir and a basic manual for cross-cultural ministry. I hope that people read it with both of these ends in mind. Those who plan to work among native peoples ought to read this book to learn about the things they will likely to encounter.