I’ve been having so much fun with our current blog series of stories from our family of churches and beyond. The next story is not only an important and inspirational piece of our CBWC heritage, it also carries with it convicting questions for all of us about trusting God, and how we listen for and respond to His call. Thanks to CBWC’s Director of Ministries Faye Reynolds for this article based on her interview with Joyce and Betty. ~Cailey
In the early 1970s, Joyce Oxnard and Betty Milne were both working with the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON). Joyce was Betty’s boss, but they were friends and attended the Argyle Road Baptist Church in Regina, Saskatchewan. Their pastor Basil Medgett mentioned that the Baptist Union (BUWC, now CBWC) was interested in planting three churches: one in Inuvik, one near Cold Lake and another in Fort McMurray. Rather lightly, Betty said to Joyce that she had always wanted to nurse up north and wouldn’t mind going to Inuvik, but not the other locations. That quiet nudging created a door for the Holy Spirit to work.
Hearing the Call
It wasn’t long before an opportunity opened up in Yellowknife for Betty to start a nursing program. Joyce also felt a strong calling to go north, but struggled to leave her well-paying job to go into the public health sector. In the end, both continued to feel the call to move north and so by faith in 1973 they headed up to Yellowknife on one year’s leave of absence from the VON.
Joyce quickly delved into ministries in the church with the young adults. There had recently been an evangelistic campaign in the area and a number of young adults had come to the Lord, so Joyce and Betty quickly filled the need for leading in Bible studies and discipleship.
Early that spring, BUWC Executive Minister Dr. Harry Renfrew came to visit the church and the two asked him about the BUWC plans for Inuvik. He said that so far there was no one willing to come up into that region but it was certainly something that the two could do. Joyce and Betty were very excited about the potential and decided to take a month to separately pray about it. They agreed not to talk about it, but simply pray and write down their thoughts to share at the end of the season of prayer, while Dr. Renfrew took the idea to the BUWC Board. Their writings revealed that they were both eager to go and had a clear sense of God’s calling.
When they left Edmonton to fly up for the first time, they were met at the airport by BUWC leadership of Dr. Renfrew, Dick Standerwick and Jack Farr, who handed them a film strip projector, prayed for them and sent them off. They arrived on December 5, 1973, and the arrangement was that there would be a little house available for lodging.
However, when the women arrived, the house wasn’t ready. A fellow from Yellowknife knew they were coming and gave them his apartment until the house was ready.
The day after their arrival, they were walking around town and saw a woman gazing at the horizon. They asked what she was looking at. “I’m looking at the sun–it is the last day we will see it for a month.” What a reminder that they were entering a new land and life!
To begin their ministry, Joyce and Betty put a sign on the post office notice board that they were starting Sunday school in their home for any children who would like to come. They didn’t exactly know what to call themselves; were they missionaries? But that term had some baggage attached to it, and so they settled on the term “pastors.” Three couples that were Baptist and attending other churches connected with Betty and Joyce right away, so a Bible study was formed with the adults and a Sunday school with the kids. On January 6 their first worship service included 17 people in the corner of a large gymnasium, with no music available.
The BUWC provided one full-time salary for the two of them, and they anticipated working part-time at the hospital, but there were no local openings for nurses at that time. Available work meant flying into outlying settlements–but that would mean being gone 3 days at a time, which wasn’t conducive to their planting mission. They never did have other income. They received a lot of support from Al McPhedran and the Yellowknife Church–he was a real resource for them.
God always provided for their needs. An Alberta family once sent them up a whole box of frozen beef, which was better cuts of meat than they had eaten as nurses! At the time Al warned the Alberta Area that this was going to be a very expensive venture and would never become self supporting so not to go in if they were not prepared to pay for the long run.
They never really encountered any difficulties being women, although they don’t really know if some didn’t attend their church because it was lead by women. They simply lived into the calling God had placed upon them and never really gave it a thought. Once, they went to BLTS (the Baptist Leadership Training School) to meet the student body to tell them about their work; and one student asked why the BUWC wasn’t sending a man, to which they responded, “Because no men were willing to go!”
They held a gym night every night for youth, offering a snack and devotional and some were quite rough and tough characters with colorful language. If they came for the games, they had to stay for the devotional and then they’d get the snack. Some of the youth themselves would defend Joyce and Betty and warn any of the other kids not to be disrespectful with their talk.
Joyce and Betty initially thought that their mission activities would be more with the native population but that didn’t end up to be the case. The indigenous youth came to the gym night but not to the church. Their church services ministered primarily to the white population that didn’t fit with the long-standing Anglican or the Pentecostal churches and the indigenous Christians went to those churches as they were long-standing. They drew from the forces base but people came and went. Some young fellows from the church came up from the south to build a beautiful building funded by the triennium project. The congregation at that time was around 30-40 people.
Al McGee became the first pastor called to Inuvik after Joyce and Betty left. The Potters came after McGees, then Cordell Lind, working part time. The mission was cost-prohibitive because it could never be a self-supporting work, and somehow the vision of its potential became lost. The leadership in the church itself also did not seem to have the vision and commitment.
“It would be better defined as mission than church planting. Church planting today feels like a foreign language from what we did.”
Joyce and Betty returned to visit in 1996, but saw that the people had lost faith that the work would continue. They ended up filling in when they were without a pastor and stayed the year. Joyce started having terrible asthma attacks so felt that we couldn’t stay so they left in June ’97. They never found another pastor willing to go.
Take note of the type of work that these two ladies did, and the interesting statement that they considered it “better defined as mission than church planting.” What pops into your mind when you hear the phrase “church planting?” Is it defined by a particular model? Our opinion here at CBWC Church Planting would be that the work Betty and Joyce did was clearly one method of church planting, but that there are many ways to plant new congregations!
Betty and Joyce were willing to go where others thought it was “too hard,” without guaranteed income, having the willingness to be bivocational. They remind us that we as a family of churches need to accept the reality that birthing new churches is hard, that new groups that reach new demographics are unlikely to ever be self-sustaining, and that we’ll need to partner with them long-term for the work to continue. We can no longer view church planting like the franchising of a business that will soon be able to stand on its own two legs. Church planting is by nature mission, and to reach the breadth and depth of the Canadian population, we will need to dig into hard soil that will take many years of sowing prayer, time, money, and energy before seeing the fruit. But could there be any more important and rewarding work? ~Cailey and Shannon
READ PART 2 OF THEIR STORY.