This summer, I learned about the precarious situation of United Church learning centres. Rev Robin McGauley, artist and director at Ontario’s Five Oaks Centre
said that no matter how full the programs are, how frugally the programs are run, it’s always touch and go. Ishbel Munroe, program director at Nova Scotia’s Tatamagouche Centre
, stated that “the centres are often just a broken furnace away from one big problem.” For Tatamagouche, that one big problem was last year’s horrific winter weather that kept people home. Along with British Columbia’s Naramata Centre
, it is teetering on the brink. One only has to look at Saskatchewan’s Calling Lake Centre and Ontario’s CedarGlen Centre. They both closed in recent years.
Of course, I hope that these three centres will stay alive. My anxiety about their future is partly rooted in the recommendations from The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that were so well named at the meeting of General Council last month by Commissioner Marie Wilson
. Thousands of people around Canada have taken courses in these centres in everything from pottery to cutting-edge theology and adult education; worship practice to Healing Touch. They have relationships worldwide and programs for all ages. You could easily collect testimonials from ministers who attended as teenagers, families who spent summers there and individuals who found refreshment, acceptance, quiet and encouragement.
In addition to the programs named above, the centres are years ahead of most congregations in the work of reconciliation. They have made it their business to connect with local Aboriginal communities. Elders, former residential school students, youth and other Aboriginal peoples have all told centre staff that it is often difficult to meet in churches because the symbols and stained glass can trigger frightening childhood memories. Instead, the centres — located in rural areas near water — offer a peaceful, alternative place for dialogue.
Five Oaks, for one thing, established a tradition of meetings between Aboriginal peoples and others in 1954, just four years after opening. It currently runs Camp Wampum, which is now in its third year. Situated on 116 acres on the Grand River, in Six Nations Territory near Brantford, Ont., Five Oaks is characterized by wild grapes growing in the lane leading to it. Giant oaks, maples and birch shade the walking paths; wildflowers abound. It is idyllic, calm, beautiful. And Camp Wampum, which refers to a Treaty signed in 1613 and aptly describes the intention of the camp, takes full advantage of the location. Here, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth play, talk, paddle and discuss their lives, hopes and realities for a week. Leeanne Shimoda, Springwater Hester-Meawassige and Robin McGauley told a recent national meeting of United Church Right Relations folk all about the camp. I, for one, wish there could be Camp Wampums everywhere.
In the 1980s, Reverend Gerald Hutchison took great care to document life on the land at Rundle’s Mission in Alberta. Five Oaks has followed suit, and posted the story on their website. It's a model for churches, other centres and camps. This winter might offer you a chance to research the earliest history of your sacred space, too.
So please find out if your nearest centre is faring any better than Tatamagouche and Naramata, who are making critical decisions about their immediate futures. Another closure would be a great loss, indeed.