By Preston Pouteaux
Over one hundred years ago my great grandparents came out to the prairies. When they arrived on their slice of raw grassland with a shovel in hand, my great grandfather knew that beneath the wild grass on their new homestead was good soil and hope for a better life.
Yet the stories I grew up hearing made me shiver as they talked about snow drifts that nearly covered the house and months of near starvation. When we tore down the original homestead some years ago, we found that the only insulation was a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes cardboard box stuffed in the wall. Life wasn’t easy.
Leaving the comforts or challenges of home and trying to start again is one of the hardest things a person can do. Pioneers are the first on the scene; they set things in motion. They break the ground, start businesses, and build the foundation for all generations to follow. Yet in the midst of their challenges, pioneers discovered something of even greater value: each other. Stories of neighbours coming to help in times of loss, of whole communities coming together to raise a barn, and the ways that strangers because closer than family. Whether you were French, Ukrainian, Scottish, Metis, or something else, it didn’t matter. Pioneer neighbours were in it together to create something new. These are the people that built my province of Alberta, and it is this pioneering spirit that we are discovering again, today.
Friends of mine moved to Michigan and discovered that their neighbourhood was racially divided, poor, faced crime, and was struggling in many ways. People had moved away. My friends did what pioneers do best; they decided to start something new and breathe life into it. They bought an abandoned house and an empty plot of land beside it. They were determined to build more than a home, they wanted to create a safe place that was open to the community. They called it the Nest: a safe community space where neighbours knew that they were welcome.
Today the Nest hosts the Treehouse Community Garden and produces enough vegetables to feed ten families. It’s a safe place for kids and families to come together, with a library, guest rooms, a big porch, root cellar, and community kitchen. They fixed up the house with local materials and local help; they even paid off the back taxes on the old house. Everything about these pioneers aimed at taking something that was unused and making it good and beautiful again. It has taken years, and the work is only beginning, but they dream of making their neighbourhood their life’s work—a deep and abiding passion to love their little corner of the world. They inspire me.
It is easy to tip our hat to our great grandparents and thank them for building the province where we live and thrive. Their hard work paid off, we might think, and now we can carry on with living.
However, when we forget to be pioneers in our own ways and in our own neighbourhoods, we may fall into the trap of becoming hands-off observers and consumers. We buy a house, when what we really need to do is build a community. We balk at the decisions of others, when we need to get involved. Becoming a neighbourhood pioneer is not easy, but those communities built on a pioneering spirit are those that stand the test of time.
It was during early pioneering days that the church in Canada found its footing. Although there were a number of factors that we can point to for the establishment of churches across Canada, it seems to me that one commonality exists for their genesis: pioneering communities. As farms and towns sprouted up across the country, churches were a natural and fitting gathering point for families. Here neighbours connected, burdens were shared, prayer was offered, projects were launched, and culture was created. Churches birthed community, and community birthed churches. The two went hand-in-hand.
A pioneering church is a thriving church, an engaged church, and a missional church. Early church pioneers began schools, cared for those in need, started hospitals, held week-long tent revival meetings, and acted as insurance when there was no such thing.
Pioneers can create something from almost nothing, because they do it together, with grace and faith that their hard work will truly create something beautiful and lasting.
A renewed call for a pioneering posture is a call towards embodied engagement with the world around us. When we believe that our work is done, that what needed to be started has already begun, then we lose the ability to see the new work that God is doing all around us. When we see the world from the perspective of a pioneer, we develop practices that reinforce our ability to step into chaotic community dynamics. We can gather allies, build relationships, and lean into new growth. We can use limited resources and establish goodness and vitality. In Michigan, for example, many saw only the decay of an aging neighbourhood. But through the eyes of a young couple, this decay was soil for something new. They became pioneers and today inspire others to see their own neighbourhood in new ways.
Take a moment today and walk through your neighbourhood as a pioneer. Look for unbroken ground, for decay, for places and people where life may not be flourishing. These are the places where the Kingdom of God may be found, where Jesus is calling us to embody His life and love. Just below the surface, the soil is good. It takes pioneers like you and me to bend down and dream about what could be.
This article originally appeared in Forge Canada‘s newsletter Missional Voice. Preston Pouteaux, DMin. Tyndale Seminary, is a National Team member with Forge Canada, and is a pastor at Lake Ridge Community Church in Chestermere, Alberta. He studied at Briercrest College, Regent College, Tyndale Seminary, and Jerusalem University College in Israel. Preston is the author of Imago Dei to Missio Dei. He’s an avid beekeeper. @prestonpouteaux