I saw a way to live life with dignity

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 on September 1, 2020
Laura Henderson

Penny Nutbrown is the Sunday School teacher and Vacation Bible School leader at St. John the Evangelist, Port Hope. She is chair of the church’s Spiritual Development Team and is a member of the Advisory Board and the Environmental Committee. This interview took place on June 15.

I plan and lead Sunday School and organize and lead our summer church camps. We have been doing Sunday School via Zoom since the pandemic lockdown began, and it is great to still be able to see the kids every week, even if only on screen. Otherwise, I try to help out where I can.

Penny Nutbrown holds books for Sunday School.

St. John’s recently partnered with Port Hope for the Future (PH4F), a local environmental group comprised mainly of young families. We held Port Hope’s first Repair Café in February. The Port Hope community in general really got behind the project. It was held in our parish hall. We had scores of volunteers, from the church and the wider community. Over 200 items were given a new lease on life by volunteer repairers. There was food, music, kids’ activities, art and yoga workshops, a piano recital and great conversations going on all day. It was fantastic. We had planned to host another Repair Café in August, but that has had to be postponed. We are maintaining our relationship with PH4F and co-planning other environmental projects with them for the community, such as a community garden and tree planting. Building partnerships with other local organizations in the community is one of the things St. John’s is pretty excited about. PH4F has been a great partner. We really appreciate what they bring to the table and their energy and passion.

The upcoming online Summer Church Camp is pretty exciting, too. We ordered a kit from Illustrated Ministries called Compassion Camp as the base for the project, but we are adding to that by creating a St. John’s Compassion Camp website where families can access all kinds of resources to help them talk to their kids about anti-racism, social justice, inclusion, empathy and more. There will be a Google Classroom page for the kids to post pictures of their projects and share their thoughts. Camp will last six weeks. Each week will start with a one-hour Zoom session on Sunday where we set up the sub-theme for the week and then the rest of the materials the families will access online. My teaching partner from school and great friend, Nikki Cooper, is helping me with the tech side of things. She is amazing, and I treasure her.

The best part of my ministry is the community we are building here, one that extends beyond the walls of the church. I am working with people who really understand the concept of “love thy neighbour,” and that this means all our neighbours. To be part of such a dynamic congregation that just rises to every challenge and opportunity with such welcoming arms and positive energy is such an amazing experience, and I feel very, very fortunate. I don’t really feel that there is a worst part to my role; perhaps just the lack of hours in the day to do all the things I want to do. But I am learning patience. I am in the Education For Ministry (EFM) program. Shane Watson is our mentor. I am learning a lot from him about giving things time to happen.

I was born in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. I went to Bishop’s University and Université de Sherbrooke, and later University of Toronto. I moved to Peterborough in 1991 to teach French. I lived and worked there for about 14 years. Starting in the late 1990s, I started visiting Port Hope and fell in love with the town. It felt like home as soon as I came off Highway 28 that very first time. I bought my house here in 2005 and plan to never leave. When I first started attending at St. John’s, I helped out with the Christmas Story. The Christmas Story has been a Port Hope tradition for 60 years. The current director is Kathy Mason, and she is so wise and talented. I did a lot of sewing for the Christmas Story, usually taking down or putting up hems, because if the shepherds were short last year, for sure they’ll all be tall this year, or vice-versa. Ditto for the angels. A lot of my students from my day job are part of Christmas Story, so it felt like going home, too.

I had a very chaotic childhood. My family was very poor, my parents were often ill. The neighbourhood we lived in had a lot of problems such as family violence, alcohol and drug use, and exploitation of children and the elderly. I saw a lot of things when I was little, but hope didn’t factor onto the list. The names of God and Jesus were curse words shouted in anger, not comfort words. It was a hard place to be a kid. Then one of my school teachers encouraged me to go to Sunday School, and because I loved and respected her, I went. There, I saw an alternative to hopelessness. In Christianity, I saw a way to live life with dignity. This dignity did not depend on how much money you had, the clothes you wore or the kind of home you lived in. Dignity came from the understanding that I was a beloved child of God and as such had value that the world couldn’t take away.

I believe that the purpose of our lives is to praise God by working to ensure that everyone gets to live in dignity, to feel valued and to experience hope. That is what I try to do, and the Church provides me with the foundation to engage in that work while at the same time being the recipient of the work of others. I am extremely grateful to have been received into the community of the Anglican Church and into my church family at St. John the Evangelist. From Fr. Jesse Parker and the whole congregation, I am learning so much and feel so loved, words fail me.

I retire from teaching in a couple of weeks. I hope that I will be able to continue working with the amazing people in my church community and the wider community. I hope to learn more and grow in understanding, with God’s help, and to continue to take part in community building. I have a very big soft spot for young families. I really do feel that the road for young parents today is a hard one. I love kids, but increasingly, I believe that you can’t support kids without supporting their families. That is the filter through which I look at a lot of things now.

I have a few favourite passages from scripture, but I am particularly partial to 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.’” When things are looking grim, like on the news most nights, and the challenges seem great, that passage calms me and I trust in the underlying and undeniable wholeness of Creation.


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