Mennonite elders seek salvation through healing circle

A conservative Christian community that is plagued with allegations of child abuse hopes a holistic healing circle will give them back their salvation, Donna Carreiro writes.

A conservative Christian community that is plagued with allegations of child abuse hopes a holistic healing circle will give them back their salvation.

Or, at least, some members hope it'll help them forgive each other, learn from each other and most importantly, get their children back.

"It's to help us get through this," said an elder from the small Manitoba community. "We're doing the best we can."

It's the latest twist in a story that made headlines last month, when child welfare officials removed all of the children — except one — from their homes. Four adults were charged with several counts of assault.

"It's anguish," said the unofficial spokesperson. "It is very, very hard on them."

A court-ordered publication ban means neither the community nor the people can be named, in order to protect the identity of the alleged victims.

But in talks with several people connected to them, it was revealed that the roots of their troubles go back more than a decade.

Splinter group moved to Manitoba

At the time, they were living in another province, as part of a larger community, but there were divisions within. Some members believed in more severe "child disciplining" than others.

Even though they were extremely conservative and secluded, these members wanted to be more conservative and more sequestered from the rest of the world.

So in 2006, they "splintered" from the rest of the community and relocated to rural Manitoba.

In the years that followed, they've led a peaceful co-existence with their neighbours around them. They kept to themselves and their traditions while keeping business ties open, selling everything from custom-made furniture to fresh asparagus.

But 18 months ago, tensions surfaced again. Some of the children began to act aggressively and sexually.

Alarmed, families removed them from their homes and placed them with other families in the community — leaders, as one person close to them described it, who had "the gift" of parenting.

That's when the alleged child abuse occurred, in the form of corporal punishment, for their behaviour.

"They really felt it was for the salvation of their children," said a former member from the larger community back home. "They love their children."

'You lose balance'

But, the former member said, they lost their focus — an inherent risk when you cut off ties with the outside world.

"It's so sad," he said. "I know what they were looking for, but you won't find it by vanishing from the world while you're living in the world. You lose balance."

Tensions came to a head in January, when members from the home community came to Manitoba to check up on them, with talk of taking the children back home.

"The people here had concerns about the pressures coming from the people [from the home province]," said their designated spokesperson.

The bottom line? They were afraid they would lose their kids, and they feared the members taking them would subject them to more abuse. That's when they approached authorities and asked for help.

But instead of stopping the kids from going home, authorities investigated and arrested the four adults who had allegedly "disciplined" them.

The authorities then seized the children, more than 20 of them, and placed them in the care of extended family members — including some from the original community.

Want to create healing circle

Today, the community is reeling. With the help of a "cultural translator," they are dealing with child-welfare officials, police and lawyers.

They have also sought out professional counselling and parenting classes.

And now, they want to create a healing circle, just like the one at Hollow Water, a prototype deemed the "most mature healing process in Canada."

The concept? To holistically heal and empower the victims and the victimizers, relying heavily on cultural and spiritual traditions.

"They may seem very different, but actually, the two cultures have a lot of similarities," said the community spokesperson. "Several leaders learned about it and said, 'Yes, this is something we are ready for.'"

They don't yet know how it will work, in part because the original model is based on those convicted of the crimes. In this case, charges have been laid, but no one has been found guilty of anything at this time.

But they've already had one planning meeting to get the wheels in motion.

The children, meanwhile, are staying with extended family — some close to the community, some in Winnipeg, and some back home with the original community.

The adults charged with the alleged assaults are next scheduled to appear in court this September.