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July 11-Faith Story-Deb Siertsema

Jeremiah 29: 11-14

11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

This scripture passage has been one at throughout a period of my life I felt sure of. God was living in my life and finding ways to ensure me that any plans God had for my life did not include harm.  I lived my life seeking to live a life which included communication time with God. Praying in various fashions. 

First, a bit about me: 

It is hard to imagine that it has been three years since left my life in Mississauga and beginning a new step in Stouffville and now settling in Waterloo & Elmira.

My Life’s work changed from working with the then named Aboriginal Ministries programs in the United Church of Canada to working with Mennonite Central Committee Thrift shops helping to raising funds, for their programs around the world. 

My journey has been one of a pilgrim, working in hospitality and in youth programming to then live many years a pilgrim in missions by travelling around the world living as a part of “the other”, on the sidelines and observing needs and lives.  

This has helped me to see so many areas around the world (Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Zambia) and now I am able to do my bit by helping through the fundraising arm of the Mennonite Central Committee. 

I will admit, the Thrift Shop arm is quite an adventure.  I grew up working in a fine China shop in Bayfield Ontario and I now get to see many of the same items at a vastly different price structure.  Life has changed.

The life of the pilgrim continues to lead me through many days of differences challenging and inspiring me. The scripture passage that led me through many years. 

Jeremiah 29: 11 – For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Over the years there have been many times I have called on this phrase. Life, as it does with many people, presented opportunities to bring this into my mind. As it is, I probably thought of it backwards first – actions that happened were not meant to harm but that would offer support and help to guide me in a number of ways. 

After returning to work in Mississauga I quickly found a church that I could become a part of, although I was not sure what that would mean.  I was blessed to have made many good friends at that church but also learned that when you take a group of youth to Jamaica it might be necessary for the leaders to bond together late in the night. Prayer, desperate prayer, in the church kitchen which bonds you as friends forever. This leader is now a very close friend and lives nearby in Kitchener. Again – prayer to bond this group together actually bonded us as leaders and friends.   

Friends who later spend overnight retreats talking about many things at the front of the church while awaiting the youth to settle into their slumber at the back. We have talked about so many things.  

This friend was one who knew how to speak with me after learning of the unexpected death of my brother Rob. Thinking of the scripture – the harm was supported by the birth of my Niece, 6 months prior who helped to fill our lives with Joy rather than fall into deep sorrow.  At that time, I was also given the opportunity to become great friends with those who I had never met who also were shocked and saddened by my brother’s passing This was initially a way to deal with the loss but grew into much more that simple acquaintances and friends who I would ask about some of my life decisions. 

Again, it felt like there were supports put into place to ensure that the pain or grief would not be where life ended.  Years could have been spent in grief but with the supports put into place there were joys and reinforcements. I know that this is not always the way but it was the way that I saw God’s hand in providing what I needed at that time. 

Writing this faith story is similar to an exercise that we used to do with confirmation students at Erin Mills United Church. We mapped out our lives in highs and lows and identified God’s presence in those times.   Over the years we had to revise this introductory exercise to computer presentation. It changed the exercise significantly. I don’t know if I got to know the last half of the groups of confirmands as I did the first half. 

I truly enjoyed may work with the youth at Erin Mills, partially because drawing out the conversations helped me to talk about by faith and but to be able to do it without judgement. I always liked hearing what they were thinking about and I felt that my job was to draw out the conversation rather than tell them what to think. 

I was also able to participate in Hamilton Conference Youth Forum most years since 2005. This was yet another opportunity to connect with youth from many different churches. I learned a great deal during that time and have been able to maintain contact with a number of these youth and leaders. 

These reinforcements that would offer opportunities to be a part many wonderful things in the future. 

Through connections and suggestions I was able to join with the YTCA (Youth to Central America) group from Parkminster in 2004 to Nicaragua. I met great leaders and felt that I was a part of a great program. This was reinforced when I visited Parkminster on my first “church Shopping” experience when I moved to Waterloo. It just happened to be the TCOW (Two Countries One World) participants speaking about their recent trip to Columbia.  Amazing timing – for me. 

This trip to Nicaragua not only affected the youth, but also changed my life direction. I had been working in the hospitality industry but when I returned, after seeing and knowing what I did about Nicaragua I wanted to find a way to live in a way that would offer hope and a future for all.  My pilgrim journey was moving into a new direction. 

In 2005 I moved from working in the hospitality business.  My move was as an Event coordinator with the United Church of Canada. I coordinated a few of the General Councils across the country.  Some of the coordination was not that exciting but I was able to work as one of a team of those working in administration. This is where the exciting pieces happened. I either took minutes, coordinated projection or just sat in on many sessions. There I heard how decisions were made and what was included in that decision making. People’s passions were also shared.  I began to understand the importance of language. That even using the phrase that disparages another even if unintentionally can change the trajectory of the decision-making process. As it should.  

I began to become one of the invisibles to meetings would go on at the church. I could sit on the sideline and simply soak in the wisdom or see challenges arise.  I have even been known to crawl under tables when the need arises – this was part of my audio visual expertise – Crawl and plug – life goes on.  

Because of my life circumstance I was able to participate in many cultural exposure trips to Central America, Zambia and build in New Orleans with Habitat for Humanity after Hurricane Katrina. Joining these opportunities helped me to learn about Restorative Justice, Sustainable Farming, Education and how the imbalance of wealth distribution can affect rebuilding when a whole community is wiped away. 

Summer vacations were attending the BPFNA: Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America conference every other year since 2003 unless it was General Council or National Aboriginal Spiritual Gathering summer.  The themes of these conferences were focusing on Race Relations, LGBTQ+ Rights, Peace and Justice etc. There were many late night conversations on these topics and what it means to be living in the world today and how we can improve things for the future. 

While working at the United Church of Canada, my work enabled me to become part of the work in right relations and discovered that a chalice broken while travelling to a meeting can come to represent how the church was involving Indigenous ministries.  I travelled to many Indigenous communities and heard how difficult it is for some to move into normal after the intergenerational trauma of residential Schools.  I met Freddie Taylor at the Whetung Gallery in Curve Lake Ontario and got to see how his paintings, which involved a detailed reference to his time in residential schools move from dark angry paintings to begin to see light as his healing occurred. 

I sat in the room where the decisions were made on changing the UCC Crest to include the four colours and the addition of the Mohawk phrase Awkwerenene to wheon. 

I supported the Healing Fund of the United Church of Canada and was able to hear the many applicants apply for funds to bring about changes in the communities and I was able to hear what the most important factors to the Healing Fund Committee were. The committee was built of participants from across the country and each area had different history and brought different values to the table. 

I was encouraged by a colleague to attend Centre for Christian Studies and this was three weeks spent learning about Spiritual Care, Social Justice and Education and Worship. This continues to be part of my pilgrim journey. I felt that I was being directed on a specific path. 

I also explored Emmanuel College –at the University of Toronto and on the tour was one of the participants who had been on this YTCA trip in 2004 and now I can say, to date, that a minimum of 4 participants from that 2004 program have gone into Ministry in the UCC. 

So sensing that I was on a path towards ministry in the UCC and spent a year (or should I say 8 months) in Discernment – thinking, planning, praying that this was the next step on my journey.  

I was awaiting God’s call but it turns out that it was not to be my end goal. My discernment did not go the way that I was feeling it would go. All of this was with the bible verse in mind – God would not have directed me in all this directions if there was not a plan without harm.  

This is where I am sharing part of my faith story that I struggle with. It has been many years since my discernment was declined.  It destroyed my understanding of God plan and path a bit, if I were to be perfectly honest. I knew of a God who would not harm. I was hurt and have been having difficulty finding my way back to trusting God with the direction of my life in the same way. 

Perhaps this is a more realistic way to live life although I will say that having absolute faith that God would have plans for my welfare and not harm.  

After this big downturn in my faith in that particular passage, perhaps it became a more realistic view. God does not move the pieces of my life from exact place to place like on a board game. I guess I had faith that I would feel God’s presence along side my life at all times as I had in the past. 

I knew that I had not given up on God altogether. After some time, I began Studying and was successful in gaining my certificate to become a Licenced Lay Worship Leader.  I knew I needed to find places to continue expanding my knowledge and not just become comfortable, Complacent in my life.  I want to continue learning. 

With ALL of this being said – All of it.

My ability to insert myself into a Life as a pilgrim or “the other” within various groups is with the faith that God would have plans for my welfare and be there to support and strengthen if there was any harm to come my way.  I hope that this is true for each of your lives – you feel God’s support and strength. As you move through each stage in life – sometimes hard and sometime not – can you feel God’s presence? 

So all of these many experiences (and so many more) all I can say is that I continue to be on a journey as a mixed up Child of God who works to have faith that God walks alongside me with plans for Good and not harm. 

MV 157 I am a Child of God.