No Greater Love: Calgary music festival brings the church and First Nations together

Chief Young of Chiniki First Nation and Chief Wesley of Wesley First Nation.

“It’s an ecumenical conference of song,” Wesley First Nation Chief Ernest Wesley says of the ‘No Greater Love’ festival hosted on the Stoney Nakoda tribal lands. “We’re bringing religions together, through music, to love one another.” In fact, it’s nothing short of a miracle that this Christian music festival has the blessing and support of not only one, but three First Nations chiefs who all needed to be in agreement to give the event organizers permission to hold the event on their lands. This year 6,000 people attended the Christian music festival in the gorgeous natural setting, an expansive meadow framed by the Bow River, foothills and mountains. Many camped on the First Nations lands for the weekend event.

“I really want people to appreciate how miraculous it is that this is taking place,” said Rev. Jason Johnson, lead pastor of West Springs Free Methodist Church in Calgary, AB. “Christian community gathering on First Nations land is such a huge step. It’s a sign that the evangelical community is starting to make some inroads in the Calgary area, overcoming the bad blood between our two cultures.” A year ago, event organizers Karri Ward and Tammy Love were looking for an Indigenous local pastor to help get the word out about this event, and one of Jason’s Board members happened to be on the ‘No Greater Love’ planning committee. When she brought the idea to Jason, he had to admit that it resonated with him. It’s been a long journey for Jason to come to a place of peace with his Indigenous roots. As a child, Jason absorbed shame and abuse for his Indigenous heritage. The timing of ‘No Greater love’ coincided with the work God was doing in him to bring him to a place of healing. He emceed the event in 2016, and stepped up again this year to promote the event among Calgary churches.

Each local expression of the Free Methodist church in Canada is looking for ways to take responsibility for our community, and ‘No Greater Love’ is a glimpse of one way to do just that. At its most basic level, it’s a fantastic music festival, but it’s also a way for Christians in Calgary churches to make friendly connections with the Indigenous community in their area, collaborating in a way that is inclusive and appreciative. In the first year of the event, locals from the reserve were leery. Chief Wesley intended only to come to kick off the event but he had so much fun the first night he ended up staying the entire weekend. This year, 25 Indigenous locals were employed by the festival and Jason was an integral part of interviewing and managing that team. When the event was over and the last RV drove away, the land was left spotless – every piece of trash carefully collected to leave no sign that people had been there. With each respectful, neighborly interaction ‘No Greater Love’ is changing the fearful way the reserve has viewed Christian community and writing a new story of their relationship.

Pastor Jason makes the announcement about headliner Reba McIntrye wearing his ribbon shirt.

‘No Greater Love’ is also contributing to Jason’s own healing journey as he participates. He jokes that the highlight of the event this year was “standing within reaching distance of Reba McIntyre!” but then grows more serious. The three reserve chiefs held a pipe ceremony before the event and invited all the local pastors and organizers to join them. Jason was asked to lead the group in worship and prayer as part of this time.  This group of 30-40 people, of First Nations and European descent, gathered against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains to participate in a sacred moment of cleansing and reconciliation, in which the Creator God of all people was honored. Jason wore his father’s ribbon shirt, with his father’s name proudly displayed over his shoulders, which he inherited when his father passed away. This moment, the reconciliation in himself of two parts of his identity, Indigenous person and Christian pastor, was the highlight of the event for Jason.

PS: In the weeks since No Greater Love, Wesley First Nation’s Cultural Learning director reached out to Jason to talk about Christianity.  She is a traditionalist and was leery of NGL, but had a change of heart after experiencing the event this year.  She wants to include Christian teachings in her learning workshops geared toward the Native youth, and asked Jason to participate regularly as a teacher.  The first workshop will be on prayer.  How about that??

You can reach Rev. Jason Johnson with questions or comical YouTube videos at  [email protected]

If your church would like to get involved with ‘No Greater Love’ you can contact Jason, or check out www.nogreaterlove.ca

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