(Fourth in a series of reflections on the church of my boyhood)
I’m aware that childhood recollections become distorted with the passing of time. In memory, hills become higher than they actually were, people taller, big black dogs scarier, and happy moments more enthralling with the advance of years.
At the same time, for all of us there were moments of childhood that were so riveting –- either for better or for worse –- that they seem to be reasonably trustworthy memories, however far into our past they take us. It’s with those two realities playing against each other that I recollect events centered around the little white church on Third Street in my home town of Estevan, Saskatchewan.
My memory of the ministers of that period is, I think, reasonably clear. I can name several of them without turning to any reference material. There were C.B. Garrett (whom I believe I remember when he was a district elder and visited Estevan), D.S. Wartman, a Rev. McGugan, a Rev. Benny Smith, and a Rev. Ansel Summers. Tenure of ministers back then was quite short.
When I was four or five, and as the congregation was leaving the Sunday morning service, I recall that at the door Rev. Garrett bent down to me, shook my hand and asked, “Donnie, do you love Jesus?” Who could forget that? The Wartmans were noted for their meticulous attire when in public — he always dressed in a black suit, a white starched shirt, a black tie, and well-shined black shoes; she in a black dress with a white collar. I’ve heard since that in those hard times suits got shiny from long wear. Even so, they kept their public attire impeccably neat and clean.
I remember Rev. McGugan (note the Irish name) for his unusual allusions when preaching. I recall his saying, “Some people are so low they could walk under a snake’s tail with a high-top hat on.” Or, “Some person could no more sing than a whipperwill could tune a banjo.” Why would that sort of thing lodge in a child’s mind? I have no recollection of what his sermons were about.
Rev. Ben Smith was from England which it seemed to me gave him special status. I was entering adolescence. His English accent made what he was saying seem important. As a boy, I remember only one thing he said. It was said in humor about a person that was so tight that “he could squeeze a nickel until the kings head had lockjaw.” (King George V was reigning sovereign at the time and his image was on one face of the five-cent-piece.)
Rev. Ansel Summers was near retirement when he was assigned to Estevan. I remember he was a happy man with frizzy white hair. His petite wife’s hair was a radiant white with a slight tinge of blue. She was quite lame because she had been stricken with polio before good medicines for the condition were available. She had a radiant countenance. It was she who invited me to the altar the night I was converted.
What I recall in general about these men is that they were earnest and they preached with passion. Given the severe limitations of the times they must have been filling the pastoral role out of a strong sense of calling. Seventy-five years ago on the Prairies they had no ministers’ pensions to look forward to.
As I try to compress into a montage my cherished but spotty memories of my church experiences when I was from five- to fifteen-years-of-age, especially with regard to the ministers of those years, here’s what I come up with: I remember those ministers best and with warmth who seemed most aware of my existence. I know now from decades of experience that some ministers have a greater knack at paying attention to children than others.
I remember also that I was taught to regard ministers with respect because they were important persons in my life and the life of the community. I think regard for authority figures was more pronounced then than now.
Perhaps my best recollection from those years is that the ministers made the Gospel of salvation clear. It was a simple gospel. I learned early that little boys do bad things for which they need forgiveness. Sometimes this created heavy conscience issues. I learned that Jesus had paid the ultimate sacrifice in order to cancel out my sins. Perhaps this was also brought home or at least enhanced by the very simple “flannel-grams” used in Sunday School. But it was preached too. I learned that I had the freedom to say “yes” or “no” to the gospel call but that each decision had long-term consequences. Freedom and responsibility were presented as heavy burdens to bear. I believe all this fed into my conversion at 16-years-of-age.
The fact that I can recall these minister’s names and something important about them indicates that they made a significant impact on a growing child’s life. That must still be one important way to measure a minister’s effectiveness.
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