She had never been on an escalator. He had never used a revolving door. She had never been to a shopping mall before. He had never seen an action movie on the big screen before this trip.
From June 23 to July 3, the Church of the Redeemer, Bloor Street, together with St. George’s on the Hill in Etobicoke, hosted an exchange group from the Yukon. The participants were members of the Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation and are connected with St. Mary and St. Mark Anglican Church in Mayo, Yukon Territory. For many, it was their first visit to a major urban centre.
The Church of the Redeemer became connected with St. Mary and St. Mark last summer during a youth service-and-learning trip. While there, we began to talk about what might be possible in terms of structuring an exchange trip. More importantly, we talked about how we might foster relationships between urban and rural Canadians, and how we might help young Torontonians and Indigenous youth forge relationships. We wondered how the building of relationships and travel to one another’s home towns might further the cause of reconciliation.
We secured funding through a Heritage Canada program called Experiences Canada, which sponsors youth exchanges for participants between the ages of 12 and 17 years of age. Our twin group in the Yukon was also able to secure funding from the Anglican Healing Fund; this covered the travel costs of a Nacho Nyak Dun Elder, the Rev. Mary Battaja. She accompanied the young people on all our excursions here and reflected on the experiences with the youth. Most importantly, she provided a traditional lens through which to interpret the experiences.
For 10 days, the Redeemer and St. George’s youth groups got to play tour guide. We saw the usual Toronto sights: the CN Tower, Ripley’s Aquarium, the zoo, the ROM, and so forth. We made a day trip to Niagara Falls. We attended a Pow Wow and went behind the scenes at the ROM to view artifacts from the Yukon. And we participated in some service-and-learning experiences, namely a day spent with the staff at Redeemer’s drop-in program to learn about homelessness and social isolation in the downtown core. As well, the group worshipped in each parish on Sunday morning.
I think it is fair to say that the highlight of the trip for many participants was shopping at the Eaton Centre. At first glance, that may seem trivial, but it spoke to a great truth. When I asked some of the participants which purchases they were most happy with, I was a little surprised by the answers. “I’m happy about my shoes, which I got to try on before buying. Usually, we order online, and it’s hard to know if something will fit right. And it’s really expensive to ship items back to return them.” Another said, “I got to go to Sephora and find the right colours for my skin tone. Now I know what to order.” Their greatest delight was in making choices that you and I might take for granted.
Making choices was an overarching theme of the exchange experience – the source of greatest joy and the most persistent frustration. What’s it like to make choices? What’s it like when you feel forced to follow the group’s itinerary? What’s it like when the meal offered isn’t what you’d choose for yourself? What’s it like to go along with someone else’s choice instead of your own? And more significantly, how does choice relate to socialization? To the pressure to conform? To self-determination?
For 10 days, we were group leaders, overnight chaperones and tour guides. It was a taxing week. But it came with great joys: to see our own city through someone else’s eyes; to look with joy and wonder at the everyday marvels we tend to skip over; to build relationships; to work through competing expectations; to see young people engage as equals in relationship, despite their regional differences and varied cultures; to see that all those things which might divide us can be overcome when friendships are made and when new experiences are shared.
A special thank-you to the people of the Redeemer and St. George’s who supported this trip and donated funds. And thank-you to my fellow leaders: Alexandra McIntosh, James Noronha, and Valerie Maier.
The Rev. Megan Jull is the associate priest of the Church of the Redeemer, Toronto.