There is only one place in the world where I can walk into the local TV station and get instant coverage just by picking up the mic, smiling into the camera and announcing myself.
That place is a First Nations reserve in northern Ontario — a stretch of dusty roads and broken-down trailer houses surrounded by endless strings of untouched lakes and giant pines silhouetted against the sky. I will call the place Caribou Hill for the sake of privacy and convenience.
Every summer for the last five summers I have gone to Caribou Hill to help with summer Bible school, to fish, to swim, to talk to people. Now almost everyone knows me. Now the small brown faces, the weather-wrinkled faces, the silent smooth faces, the alcohol-pimpled faces have all become my faces: my cousins and aunts and uncles and sisters.
In Caribou Hill, we laugh long and easily, laughter rolling up from our bellies and bouncing against other laughs. We laugh at things you might consider trivial, things you would maybe chuckle at. Laughter brings heart up to beating heart, makes us one.
We know pain, too, in Caribou Hill. It is different than laughter in that it shatters us, maroons us on scattered icebergs in disparate corners of the universe.
I sit in a circle of 12-year-old and teen girls and listen to Eleanor tell how she grew up in this very town and how her uncle molested her before she was old enough to know what sex should be.
“You have the strength in you to say no,” she tells the girls. “If this was your experience, you have the strength to talk to someone you trust. Remember, it is not your fault.”
Later, I visit Maureen who, her mother tells me, overdosed three times. She is dressed in a black T-shirt, a black band around her throat.
Artwork drawn on typing paper hangs on the wall above her mattress. Black hands with claws. A page of black words: “HA HA HA HA HA HA.” A girl curled in a fetal position, circled by darkness. A girl in chains with her back to the world.
“I used to draw flowers and butterflies,” Maureen says. She tells me the vision she had of her grandma screaming and trying to rescue her from the hole where she was being buried alive, tells me about her grandpa who died.
She misses him. He used to sing.
“I don’t think Jesus will accept me because of the darkness,” she says.
I tell her about the circle of girls and what Eleanor said. I lift her chin, look into her dark eyes.
“If you were sexually abused, that is not your darkness, not your wrong,” I tell her.
She says nothing, but I see the knowledge unacknowledged in her eyes.
I have seen the slash scars on the wrists of these young girls. And I wonder how to reach them, how to give them the answers they need. If I say Jesus, is that like saying drop a pebble into an ocean and wait for the ocean to move out of its place?
Is Jesus a cure only for Band-Aid-small wounds?
At tent meetings one evening, drums and the guitars and nasal-throated gospel songs boom over the loudspeakers and out onto the dusty road. A black-haired preacher stands to speak. He grew up drinking, he tells us. And one day, another man, the meanest drunk in town, “got Jesus.” When a young man made him mad, this mean ex-drunk didn’t beat him up, like he would have in the past. He took him by the throat and said, “You need Jesus, boy!”
The audience laughs, full-bellied, enjoying the moment. The preacher goes on to tell us his life, too, was changed by Jesus.
It was partly these Christians of Caribou Hill who called me back to the simplicity of the gospel during a time in my life when I doubted its strength.
Sitting in northern tent meetings convinced me Jesus is not just a Band-Aid but has real power to heal wounds.
You need Jesus, boy!
Lucinda J. Miller lives in Rusk County, Wis., with the same people who first introduced her to Jesus. Soon she will move to Maryland as Mrs. Kinsinger. She is the author of Anything But Simple: My Life as a Mennonite and blogs at lucindajmiller.com.