Stanley Mission in Saskatchewan made a lasting impression on Tanner Lacy.
He said the white peak of the Anglican Church standing brilliantly white in contrast to the forest-covered island and the deep blue waters of the Churchill River was breathtaking.
To commemorate his experiences in Stanley Mission, Lacy is painting a wrap-around depiction of the town on his 1969 Dodge Tradesman van. Lacy works on the mural incrementally — using a photo he took during his first visit to Stanley Mission — in between classes at Tabor College and working as a carpenter.
The van exterior is separated evenly between the green forest around the Canadian town and the blue water of the river. A few pieces of the forest are detailed with shadows, the white church is present in the landscape, but the passenger side of the van and the details of the photo are what remain incomplete.
“The van is a work in progress; I really don’t know when it will be finished,” Tanner said. “I paint for the fun of it and have only had one painting class in my life and that was watercolors.”
Although the landscape in Saskatchewan impressed Lacy, working with the people of Stanley Mission is what inspires him.
“The picture on the van does remind me every day of my people up there in Stanley Mission, and it brings back a lot of happy memories for me,” Tanner said.
The St. Francis native is a ministry major at Tabor. The focus of his study is mission work. He has primarily worked with inner-city children in the U.S. Six years ago, a group of Lacy’s friends from Colorado were heading to Saskatchewan for mission work with Cree Native Americans. They invited Lacy, and the group of about 18 people drove to the northern part of the Canadian province that summer.
He has returned to Stanley Mission every year since.
In between his first trip and today, Lacy started dating Hannah, a fellow Tabor College student from Lawrence. She is also working on a degree focusing on mission work and he asked if she wanted to go to Stanley Mission. She agreed and they made the trip together. They were married in 2009.
The Lacys were tasked with providing religious teaching to Cree people.
Hannah said the people of Stanley Mission are impoverished and rural. Many of the adults in the community are addicted to alcohol and drugs, Tanner said.
However, they are proud and resist any kind of economic assistance.
“They don’t really need physical things,” Hannah said. “They told us, ‘We do like that you try to teach us something.’”
Christianity has been a part of the Cree community in Stanley Mission for 150 years. The Anglican Church painted on the driver side of the Lacys’ van is the oldest standing structure in the province. The people were converted to Christianity in the past and most Stanley Mission residents are Anglicans from birth, but most people have never fully accepted the religion, Hannah said.
The spiritual remnants of their original religion are still evident in their culture. As an example, men still ask a spirit for luck on a hunt.
“It’s a very spiritual culture but it’s a hopeless culture,” Hannah said. “Their traditional beliefs don’t offer much.”
The Lacys organized and taught Bible studies for children in the community, with the adults showing little interest. At first, children attended the sessions as an activity. After reading and discussing Bible passages, they play games. The meetings also usually involve snacks.
Gradually, the Lacys have seen the messages relayed in Bible study and other religious sessions resonate with students. The Lacys worked with two young girls, Megan and Keisha, in their first trips to Stanley Mission. Over the years, Megan and Keisha became more involved in their meetings.
The Lacys keep in contact with the residents via Facebook. They say they talk to someone in Saskatchewan every month. Megan and Keisha said that they have used passages they learned from the Lacys as a source of strength when encountering difficult situations.
“When you’re teaching them, you make that true for yourself,” Tanner said. “It strengthens you and you get to see God live that out, you get to see him move in their lives. That’s a powerful thing.”
The Lacys said God worked through the mission people last year. Shortly after arriving in Canada, several members of the mission team fell ill and went home. The Lacys were among five people who did the work of 18 people.
Each person ran a Bible study of 40 children. Joe and Mary Roberts and Laura, the elementary school teacher in town, helped the Lacys teach classes.
Other residents gave the Lacys food.
“It felt very much like God was providing,” Hannah said.
The Lacys’ calling goes beyond teaching. In one instance, they learned from a young student that she was afraid to be around her drunk mother. They immediately went over to her house to be with her and protect her. When the mother sobered, the Lacys kept in contact with the young girl by telephone.
The Lacys believe they have made people’s lives less bleak. The Cree people have taught them about their culture, even teaching Tanner how to make snares.
“It’s a two-way relationship,” Tanner said. “They’ve taught me how to teach people I don’t understand and how to love them regardless.”
Recently, Tanner was offered a home in Stanley Mission. He is going to finish his degree but is seriously considering moving to Saskatchewan.
“Seeing the picture and remembering the people makes me want to go back,” Tanner said.
The van, which Tanner originally bought from his father for $300 and a motorcycle, is a conversation starter when people see its uniquely painted exterior.
“People either love the van or they call it a ‘Dumpster on wheels,’” Tanner said. “Most people really like it.”