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Northern light

In an Inuit area overwhelmed by sexual abuse and suicide, Clair and Clara Schnupp help young men see God's mercy

Northern light

(Photo by Jill Lacey)

NEAR THE ARCTIC CIRCLE-"I was born in 1952, my first name was E3-890."

The statement hangs in the air while Jackie smiles mischievously.

"That was how they tagged Eskimos," Noel explains. "We had to wear it around our necks at school. 'E' stands for Eskimo, 3 was the treaty region, and he was the 890th Eskimo tagged." They laugh, but the laughter doesn't quite reach their eyes.

Six Inuit men-they used to be called Eskimos-are attempting something unusual and brave in this remote village at the northern tip of Hudson Bay in the Nunavut province of Canada, 120 miles from the Arctic Circle: They are meeting weekly to discuss their lives and marriages, study the Bible, and help each other grow in their Christian faith. Each grew up in a violent, alcoholic home and has had troubles with drinking. Noel, a 50ish handyman with a vitality that belies his troubled upbringing, is the leader.

Noel tells of a childhood spent in fear listening to his relatives drink and fight at weekend parties where there was "a lot of sexual molestation from older boys." One early morning his aunt was found dead kneeling frozen in the snow. Another man's father, upset at the loss of his sled dogs, repeatedly picked up his 5-year-old son and thrashed him on the rocks. A third man's dad always denied that he was the dad. Noel reflects: "They say, 'I am over it.' But they have not forgiven their fathers. I am going to try to introduce them to proper forgiveness."

The six live in Coral Harbour, the only settlement (850 people) on the Island of Southhampton. From the air it is a look at another planet's surface: No trees, and the tundra's swirling texture of grays and greens only exist in Arctic regions. Even more surprising is the color rimming Hudson Bay-a Bahamian aquamarine produced by fossilized coral underneath.

It is also a place where every member of the community knows someone who committed suicide, and where-it is said-most of the women (and many of the men) have been sexually abused. So Noel, Jackie, and the others are not unique in their pain. Most of their neighbors would have similar stories-or worse-but these men are the only ones talking about it.

One reason they are talking is the influence of Northern Youth Programs (NYP) and its founders Clair and Clara Schnupp, who have been married and flying all over the Arctic and North America in ministry for 50 years. Beyond the novelty of their given names and Mennonite dress, they are both licensed pilots. They met as counselors at a summer Bible camp in Ontario and married in 1959. They began Northern Youth Programs ministering to at-risk children on the streets of Thunder Bay, Ontario, in 1967.

According to Clair, sexual abuse and absentee fathers are the leading causes of suicide-six times greater in aboriginal populations than among others-and over time this is where NYP has focused much of its effort. Northern Youth's programs include summer camps and prison ministries, but its soul is in its counseling seminars and family life training to help native people heal from the trauma of sexual abuse and become better parents.

It was at one of their counseling seminars where Noel met the Schnupps and reached out for help for the first time. "I had nowhere else to turn," he said. "I jumped over the chairs to get to them." Noel's now-deceased wife Maggie was on a path to suicide and had secluded herself in a remote cabin. Maggie's minister-father had sexually abused her as a child for many years. Noel says, "He would preach against adultery in the morning and then abuse her that night." Now Maggie was "down to 80 pounds, smoking marijuana all the time."

Clair and Clara were able to connect with her and begin some intensive counseling, but sadness and anger preceded healing. Clair says that at one point "Maggie was so angry she went to her father's grave and kicked down the headstone." After much counseling she returned to that site and read a letter of forgiveness over her father's grave. She was finally free.

Noel hopes one day there will be a healing center in the village where others in pain can receive biblical counseling. Until then he and other members of his group are reaching out to fatherless young men in the area, taking them camping and teaching them "the old ways" of living off the land. Noel's home itself is a collision of old and new. A 42-inch plasma TV dominates the living room as a 41-inch caribou leg awaits skinning on a kitchen counter.

One major goal of the Schnupps is to train aboriginal leaders to help their own people. Clair is quick to point out it is not anointing but rather affirming and helping leaders that are already there such as Noel in Coral Harbour. All of NYP's efforts, Schnupp says, have been at the request of native leaders. His philosophy is simple: "Never move ahead of their requests. Walk with them, partner with them. When they are capable let them do it." Clair remembers, "Only once in our 50 years has a native leader come and said to me 'It's time now for you to step aside; I don't need your partnership anymore.' I guess I had missed the clues that I was there too long. I admire that. We are the best of friends today." He smiles.

Cree leader Howard Jolly pastors the First Nations Alliance Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and holds a Master of Divinity degree from Providence Theological Seminary. The Schnupps counseled Jolly 20 years ago, and he says, "They helped me see the mercy of God for the first time." Because of his residential school experience, he "thought of God as strict and condemning. But I learned God is compassionate and we are very dear to Him."

These days Jolly addresses the topic "Embracing Your Identity" as a speaker for Rising Above, a First Nations ministry that offers hope and healing to survivors of sexual abuse. Questions of identity can be problematic for those who have felt the pain of both racism and abuse. Jolly says, "I always felt whites were better. I hated my ethnicity. That's the message of the residential schools. 'We have to raise your kids for you.'"

Jolly also says a biblical understanding of identity has helped: "The Bible says, 'The nations brought their glory to the Lord.' What do I have to bring to God that is distinctly Cree?" He can relate to the taunts to Jesus' identity: "Save yourself if you are the Son of God." But Jolly adds, "Knowledge of Jesus' real identity was what kept Him on the cross. For me, my identity is also connected to being willing to die for the glory of God."

In Coral Harbour Jackie's wife told him this was the best spring fishing trip they had ever had-less fighting, more family harmony. "We got new wives!" he jokes, knowing in full it is he that is new.

For more information on this year's Hope Award for Effective Compassion and to read profiles of other nominated organizations from this year and previous years, click here.

A devastating legacy

In order to "civilize" the Native population, both the Canadian and American governments established boarding schools for native children in the mid-19th century. The Canadian government's stated goal was to "remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures." The schools were made compulsory by the governments and run by churches-­primarily Anglican, Catholic, United Church of Canada, and Presbyterian.

In many cases children were forcibly removed from their villages and families at the age of 6-some unable to see their parents until they were teenagers. For most students these were tragic experiences. Beyond the loneliness and deprivation of parental contact, there was physical, mental, and sexual abuse at the hands of teachers and older students. (By the 1990s 4,500 lawsuits were filed in Canada against the churches for physical and sexual abuse.) Children were punished cruelly for speaking their own languages. Living conditions were often squalid, which led to a tuberculosis epidemic. The Canadian Department of Indian Affairs reported a 24 percent death rate in residential schools at the beginning of the 20th century. Many children died without ever seeing their parents again.

In 2008 Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper made a formal apology on behalf of the Canadian government, saying, "There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian residential schools system to ever again prevail." Canada made a financial settlement in 2007 awarding former students $10,000 for their first year of attendance and an additional $3,000 for every subsequent year spent in the system. Harper acknowledged that "in separating children from their families, we undermined the ability of many to adequately parent their own children and sowed the seeds for generations to follow."

Northern Youth Programs

• 1967: Year NYP founded

• $7,000: 1967 budget

• $1,250,000: 2008 budget

• 48: Full-time employees

• 17,000: Gallons of airplane fuel used in 2008

• 77: Degree latitude at northern point of NYP ministry in Greenland

• 4,044: NYP Bible study booklets completed by inmates in 2008

Jill Lacey

Jill Lacey