A good thing to do on Riel Day

Here in Manitoba, we now mark the third Monday in February as Riel Day.  Hard to know how many people really paid much attention to the figure of Louis Riel; for most of us, it was just a welcome day off.  For those who live on the street or in only very rudimentary housing, a statutory holiday can be a less than welcome event.  This is a good news story, of how we collaborated with Agape Table and several other church groups to host a unique Riel Day event.

It all started with a conversation Rachel Twigg Boyce had one day during a volunteer shift at Agape Table. 

Last February, when I was volunteering at Agape Table I sat down to have a coffee and a conversation with one of the patrons, who I’ll call John. John began the conversation by asking me what I thought of the new holiday, Louis Riel Day.John is Aboriginal, so I assumed he was asking me what I thought of naming a day in Louis Riel’s honour and so I answered truthfully that if we were going to have a new holiday, then it was fitting to honour a man like Riel.

Well, John said, “I hate it. In fact I hate all holidays.”

I was completely taken aback and asked John, “Why?”

“Holidays are no help to the homeless,” he said. “Everything is closed. The libraries are closed, the stores are closed, and there is no where to go to keep warm. And it was really cold on Monday.”

In that one conversation John completely changed my thinking about Riel Day. It hadn’t occurred to me that the holiday had further complicated the already complicated lives of homeless people like John.

riel-day2.jpgEarlier this past fall, Rachel contacted me with a bit of a pitch.  Could we at saint ben’s collaborate with the folks who run Agape Table and basically keep the doors of the church hall open for the entire afternoon on that cold February statutory holiday?  Put out some games, offer up some hot coffee and good food, maybe add in a bit of live music… make an event for a circle of people who maybe don’t often have events thrown on their behalf.  It all sounded like a great plan to me, and so we threw out a few feelers to see if the interest would be there.  It was.

Well, to make a long story short, the day was a great success.  I’m sure someone has an exact count of how many meals were served, but it had to be several hundred.  Perhaps more significantly, there was a warm and welcoming place open to these folks, and one in which some great music was offered up for them and a bunch of volunteers were there to get challenged over Scrabble or checkers, to pour a cup of coffee, to share a story, to just be together for a while.

I have to say, it was great for saint ben’s to be able to add the music to the mix.  A fine circle of singers and players was assembled, and they offered up a bit of everything from gospel to country to rock.  Thanks to Mike Koop, Larry Campbell, Steve Bell, Gord Johnson, Catherine Pate, Al Fehr, Callaway Stephanson-Pate, Jodi McLaren, Lynnette McLarty and the host of kids who picked up the percussion instruments and helped make it all what it was.

riel-day3.jpgWhen, in the Rule for his monks, St Benedict counseled to “welcome all strangers as Christ,” it wasn’t simply advice about being generally kind or hospitable; he really understood that Christ is made manifest in our encounters with the “other,” and particularly when that “other” is someone who comes with very specific needs or wounds.  So now that quite a wide circle of people have more of a sense of what goes on at Agape Table, is there a way in which we as a church can deepen our connection with that ministry?  Not, mind you, to be generally kind or hospitable people, but to be more consciously open to encountering the living Christ in the midst of things.

Your thoughts?   Feel free to add a comment…

2 Responses to A good thing to do on Riel Day

  1. Rachel Twigg Boyce says:

    Although numbers never tell the whole story, for those who are interested, we had 484 guests and almost 60 volunteers gather together at Agape Table on Riel Day.

    Thank you so much to each and every one of you who participated to make this event a reality.

    And mark your calendars for next year because I’ve already been told that we need to repeat the event with, “more music, more chili, and karaoke…”

  2. Jodi McLaren says:

    Jamie, I have to say Agape Table on Louis Riel Day was more of a gift to me than to the people who congregate there regularly. No need to thank me for the pleasure of singing with the most talented musicians I know – all at once. No need to thank me for the smiles on the childrens’s faces as they adeptly kept beat to our songs. I am so grateful for the absolute “high” I left with that day and felt it ended too soon. My thanks to the food servers and kitchen workers and musicians and especially the patrons of Agape Table for that wonderful loving experience. Bless us all. Jodi

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