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Photo by Jill Lacey

Northern light

Hope Award | In an Inuit area overwhelmed by sexual abuse and suicide, Clair and Clara Schnupp help young men see God's mercy

Issue: "Africa, Inc.," Oct. 10, 2009

NEAR THE ARCTIC CIRCLE-"I was born in 1952, my first name was E3-890."

The statement hangs in the air while Jackie smiles mischievously.

"That was how they tagged Eskimos," Noel explains. "We had to wear it around our necks at school. 'E' stands for Eskimo, 3 was the treaty region, and he was the 890th Eskimo tagged." They laugh, but the laughter doesn't quite reach their eyes.

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Six Inuit men-they used to be called Eskimos-are attempting something unusual and brave in this remote village at the northern tip of Hudson Bay in the Nunavut province of Canada, 120 miles from the Arctic Circle: They are meeting weekly to discuss their lives and marriages, study the Bible, and help each other grow in their Christian faith. Each grew up in a violent, alcoholic home and has had troubles with drinking. Noel, a 50ish handyman with a vitality that belies his troubled upbringing, is the leader.

Noel tells of a childhood spent in fear listening to his relatives drink and fight at weekend parties where there was "a lot of sexual molestation from older boys." One early morning his aunt was found dead kneeling frozen in the snow. Another man's father, upset at the loss of his sled dogs, repeatedly picked up his 5-year-old son and thrashed him on the rocks. A third man's dad always denied that he was the dad. Noel reflects: "They say, 'I am over it.' But they have not forgiven their fathers. I am going to try to introduce them to proper forgiveness."

The six live in Coral Harbour, the only settlement (850 people) on the Island of Southhampton. From the air it is a look at another planet's surface: No trees, and the tundra's swirling texture of grays and greens only exist in Arctic regions. Even more surprising is the color rimming Hudson Bay-a Bahamian aquamarine produced by fossilized coral underneath.

It is also a place where every member of the community knows someone who committed suicide, and where-it is said-most of the women (and many of the men) have been sexually abused. So Noel, Jackie, and the others are not unique in their pain. Most of their neighbors would have similar stories-or worse-but these men are the only ones talking about it.

One reason they are talking is the influence of Northern Youth Programs (NYP) and its founders Clair and Clara Schnupp, who have been married and flying all over the Arctic and North America in ministry for 50 years. Beyond the novelty of their given names and Mennonite dress, they are both licensed pilots. They met as counselors at a summer Bible camp in Ontario and married in 1959. They began Northern Youth Programs ministering to at-risk children on the streets of Thunder Bay, Ontario, in 1967.

According to Clair, sexual abuse and absentee fathers are the leading causes of suicide-six times greater in aboriginal populations than among others-and over time this is where NYP has focused much of its effort. Northern Youth's programs include summer camps and prison ministries, but its soul is in its counseling seminars and family life training to help native people heal from the trauma of sexual abuse and become better parents.

It was at one of their counseling seminars where Noel met the Schnupps and reached out for help for the first time. "I had nowhere else to turn," he said. "I jumped over the chairs to get to them." Noel's now-deceased wife Maggie was on a path to suicide and had secluded herself in a remote cabin. Maggie's minister-father had sexually abused her as a child for many years. Noel says, "He would preach against adultery in the morning and then abuse her that night." Now Maggie was "down to 80 pounds, smoking marijuana all the time."

Clair and Clara were able to connect with her and begin some intensive counseling, but sadness and anger preceded healing. Clair says that at one point "Maggie was so angry she went to her father's grave and kicked down the headstone." After much counseling she returned to that site and read a letter of forgiveness over her father's grave. She was finally free.

Noel hopes one day there will be a healing center in the village where others in pain can receive biblical counseling. Until then he and other members of his group are reaching out to fatherless young men in the area, taking them camping and teaching them "the old ways" of living off the land. Noel's home itself is a collision of old and new. A 42-inch plasma TV dominates the living room as a 41-inch caribou leg awaits skinning on a kitchen counter.

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