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Inspiring a Community

Chief Jimmy Stillas was a leader, even in death


Community

IT WAS LATE in the day in October 1990. We were traveling south on the Cariboo Highway, heading home from Williams Lake. CBC Radio was playing in the background. I wasn’t listening. I was driving in my usual zombie state with my mind impaled on the horns of my overactive imagination. And then something straight-armed my attention. It sounded like the words, “Jimmy Stillas.”

I jerked back to consciousness and fumbled for the radio. Jimmy Stillas was dead. Linda and I sat and listened in complete shock as the story starkly unfolded. By the time we had reached home, shock had turned into dismay.

Jimmy Stillas (1936-1990) was highly regarded as the Chief of the Ulkatcho First Nation in the hinterland of the West Chilcotin. In October 1990, while out hunting on his grandfather’s trap line, his snow machine went through the ice. It took his hunting partner two days to walk out for help. In the end, Stillas died a tragic death. The RCMP’s alleged delay in initiating a search when Chief Stillas was reported missing was one of the incidents that triggered British Columbia to hold the Cariboo-Chilcotin Justice Inquiry; it reported in 1993 and made extensive recommendations around reforming policing and police/aboriginal relationships in the area.

But this is only the news story. The people’s story is much more profound. Chief Jimmy Stillas touched our lives only obliquely and yet he had a profound effect. When we first arrived in the Cariboo Chilcotin in 1989 to engage in rural mission work, the Ulkatcho nation, which was about four hours west of the closest urban centre of Williams Lake, was engaged in a standoff with the province over the logging of the Beef Trail Creek drainage. Beef Trail Creek was the centre of some important aboriginal trap lines. Logging it would severely endanger the trap lines and subsequently the livelihoods of several families.

Before Christ launched us in mission work, I had been a forest technology instructor at a community college. We hadn’t been in the Cariboo Chilcotin very long when I was contacted by the Cariboo Chilcotin Tribal Council to see if I would consider helping out with some teaching as part of my mission work. We had prayed about it and felt led to do so. And so once a month, for about a week at a time, I would drive the mostly gravel road for four and a half hours out to Anahim Lake to teach forestry to a group of young men and women on the Ulkatcho Reserve.

Thus began our mission relationship with the Southern Carrier or Dakelh people that eventually spread to the Kluskus and Nazko First Nations and continues on today. I was deeply impressed with this first encounter, and what impressed me the most was the way this group of young people looked up to Chief Jimmy Stillas. He had begun like any one of them. He had struggled with life, even with alcoholism, and yet he had risen from the ashes like a phoenix to sit at the negotiating table as an equal with the leaders of the province. He was always driven by a genuine concern for his people and not just for himself. I don’t think I met a single young person at the time that did not aspire to emulate him, to live differently. And neither did I meet a single tribal elder who did not respect him. It seems to me, given the reality of the fractious tribal life and politics at the time, this ability to inspire his whole community bordered on the miraculous. Chief Stillas was a genuine inspiration to his people, and continued to be so even long after his death.

All great men and women, even some merely good ones, have always inspired their communities to live differently, to live with distinction, to live peculiar lives. As rare as they are, most of us can make a list of such people, some we have known personally and some by reputation only. Jimmy Stillas is on my list. But what about Jesus? Is he on anyone’s list?

Perhaps it’s a stupid question, but I find myself asking it this Easter. In fact, I have pondered this question from time to time ever since I became a disciple of Jesus some 30 years ago. The reason this question keeps coming up is, at least for me, as I look at the life of Jesus and as I look at the life of the community that bears his name, I am challenged to find many similarities beyond the congregation at the institutional level. This seems to be particularly true at Easter when the focus is on Jesus who gives his life for the world, and I share life in an institutional community that bears his name and that seems to me to be increasingly concerned with taking its life from the world or at the very least dogged with a concern for its survival in the world. It begs the question—Did Jesus inspire his community with his life and in his death or not?

“Then (Jesus) said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’” (Luke 9:23) I have always heard these words individually and struggled to figure out how to live them personally. But the scripture makes it clear that Jesus spoke these words “to them all” … to his community. For me it’s a relatively new experience to begin to hear these words of Jesus as a community not just as an individual—to interpret and live them “in community.”

As I do this, I am helped from within the Christian community as these words of Jesus are echoed in the teachings of some contemporary prophets like Tullio Vinay (founder of the Agape Community in the Waldensian Church): “The Church’s task or mission is not to save itself … Christ has already done that. It is rather to give itself in love and service … in fact to die for the world.” From within the Christian community these words of Jesus resonate in the teachings of some contemporary mystics like Thomas Merton: “The last thing in the world that should concern a Christian or a church is survival in a temporal and worldly sense: to be concerned with this is implicit denial of the Victory of Christ and of the Resurrection.”

These are amazing words for a community and institution to live by, to be inspired by, to shape its life by. But words are not enough. If a community and institution is going to live differently, to live with distinction, to live a peculiar life, it has to take its inspiration from an actual life lived, an actual life given. For me, that’s the challenge this Easter. What I think this means for those of us who share the community of Jesus in the institution of the Presbyterian Church in Canada is that we need to rip the cross off of the wall of the institution where we have it comfortably stored, and plant it right on the back of our institution and refuse to do anything that does not reflect the life and death of Jesus for the world. A community that gives its life for the world, that’s what I am looking to discover in our sessions, presbyteries, synods, and assemblies from now on.

One Comment

  1. avatar
    Nancy Howse says:

    This is a personal comment. I love all the articles you write, David. I am a fan . Would you ever want or need volunteers ? How can I get in touch with you to get information.

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