Sunday, March 25, 2018

Billy Graham's Winnipeg Connection

City was first Canadian office for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

Billy Graham at the 1967 Winnipeg
Centennial Crusade

Accolades and tributes for Billy Graham poured in from around the world when the famous evangelist passed away last month at the age of 99.

His death prompted hundreds of millions to recall their connection to Graham, either though attendance at one of his many crusades, or by watching them on TV.

For many, the connection was intensely spiritual and personal; it was Graham who helped them make a commitment to either follow Christ, or to deepen their faith.

Winnipeg can claim a special connection to Graham, too, as anyone who watched a crusade on TV from the 1960s to the early 2000s might remember.

The reference always came right at the end of the broadcast. 

That’s when Graham, after speaking to the crowd in the arena or stadium where the crusade was taking place, would turn to the camera and invite viewers to “say yes to Christ.”

If anyone did that, he invited them to write him at his headquarters in Minneapolis for more information.

If they lived in Canada, however, Graham told them to write to him at P.O. Box 841, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

You might be wondering: How did Winnipeg come to be associated that way with the most famous evangelist of the twentieth century?

Therein, as they say, lies a tale.

As Graham became more popular, people in Canada tuned into his radio and, later, TV broadcasts.

Soon, Canadians started writing in to his U.S. address, asking for information, and also sending in donations.

To help with the issuing of tax receipts, and to handle the growing volume of mail, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) decided to set up a Canadian office.

Why did they choose Winnipeg? One assumes the proximity to Minneapolis played a part.

Plus, it was easy to get here back then; you could take an overnight train between the two cities.

In 1953, the BGEA contacted a young Winnipeg lawyer named Don McCarthy and asked him to help. They sent a staffer named George Wilson from Minneapolis to Winnipeg to meet him.

I was not able to connect with McCarthy, who is now 89, but in an earlier interview he recounted what happened.

McCarthy recalled that Wilson spent just one day in Winnipeg. During that short amount of time, “we opened an office, set it up with furniture, hired the first employee and registered the charity.”

McCarthy went on to serve on the Canadian board of the BGEA, and today is a member emeritus. The Canadian office moved to Calgary in 2003.

All told, Graham spoke at 13 crusades in Canada, starting with Toronto in 1955 and concluding in Ottawa in 1998. He preached in Winnipeg from May 28 to June 4, 1967.

That event, which was called the “Centennial Canada Crusade,” was held in the old arena, although there are photos of the crowd spilling out to the nearby football stadium.

Altogether, the BGEA has held over 200 crusades, festivals and other events in Canada, with most led by Canadians such as Leighton Ford, John Wesley White and Ralph Bell.

Notably, it was in Canada that Graham’s son Franklin—who has become an extremely polarizing figure in U.S. religious life—began his public ministry. He first preached in Saskatoon in 1983.

Along with the Winnipeg, Graham’s other connection to Canada was his well-known soloist George Beverly Shea.

Shea, who died in 2013 at the age of 104, became known as “America’s beloved gospel singer.” In fact, he was born in Canada, and joined up with Graham in 1947.

In the wake of his passing, scholars and pundits are parsing his legacy. But most people remember him for the passion he brought to his mission; the millions of people he preached to around the world; for his masterful use of mass media; for his broad ecumenism as he brought together Christians from various denominations; and for his modest lifestyle and humble character.

But Winnipeggers can also remember another thing: His long-time connection to this city.

From the March 24, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Passing the Peace and Passing the Germs: Can You Catch a Cold at Communion?

One hundred years ago, the Spanish Flu struck North America.

One theory has it that the outbreak started with soldiers in Kansas. Another suggests it began in China and was spread to North America by Chinese labourers who were ill with the disease, and who traveled across Canada to join the Chinese Labour Corps in Europe.

However it began, the outbreak killed between 50 million to 100 million people around the world, including between 30,000 to 50,000 in Canada.

Panic was widespread; nobody knew how to battle or prevent it except to try to limit exposure to those who were sick. 

In Winnipeg, schools, theatres, churches and other public gatherings were shut down for more than five weeks in an effort to control the spread of the disease.

Thoughts about that long ago pandemic came to mind during our current flu season. 

Unlike a century ago, we know how to limit the spread of the virus: stay home if sick, cover when you cough, and wash your hands often.  

That, and get a flu shot!

Despite taking all these precautions, sometimes I wonder if churches might not be ground zero for the flu, what with all the shaking of hands in the foyer, the ushers passing out bulletins and the passing of the peace—which is also usually accompanied by shaking hands.

Then there’s communion, also known as the Lord’s Supper or The Eucharist, depending on your tradition.

The practice varies. In some churches, the celebrant breaks off a piece of bread and puts it directly into the hands or mouth of each participant.

This is followed by drinking wine from a common cup. After each sip, the celebrant wipes the cup and turns it a bit before offering it to the next participant. 

At other churches, worshipers don’t drink directly from the cup. Instead, they dip their bread into it, a practice known as intinction.

I don’t know about you, but this all seems ripe not just for passing on a blessing, but also passing on germs—lots of them.

But what do I know? I’m not an expert in epidemiology. So I decided to ask one. I contacted Dr. Allan Ronald, Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba and Senior Advisor for the International Centre for Infectious Diseases.

According to Ronald, “infection from shared vehicles like a common communion cup are difficult or impossible to prove.”

Influenza, he says, tends to be most commonly spread by respiratory means—inhalation—not sharing a communion cup, along with coming into contact with surfaces that have the virus on them, and then touching mouth, nose or eyes.

To back up his comments, he cites a 1988 study from Great Britain titled “The hazard of infection from the shared communion cup.”

The study found that “the occasional transmission of micro-organisms is unaffected by the alcoholic content of the wine, the constituent material of the cup or the practice of partially rotating it.”

It was, however “appreciably reduced when a cloth is used to wipe the lip of the cup between communicants.”

It went on to say that “no episode of disease attributable to the shared communion cup has ever been reported” and that there is no evidence to suggest the “practice of sharing a common communion cup should be abandoned because it might spread infection.”

Although the study is 30 years old, Ronald says he has heard of nothing since to contradict it.

Then again, he doesn’t have to worry; the church he attends uses tiny individual cups for communion, like the ones I grew up using in church.

It turns out the invention of those cups can also be traced back to worries about disease. In this case, it goes back to the late nineteenth century in the U.S.

During that time of rapid urbanization, when millions of people were flocking to cities and sanitation and sanitary practices were less well developed, fears arose about what kind of germs might be lingering in the common cup during communion.

Today, it’s not fear of disease that keeps the little cups in use at some evangelical or Protestant churches; it’s more likely just tradition or convenience.

In the end, it appears we don’t need to worry about getting the influenza from communion. 

We may still want to be wary when passing the peace, though.

From the March 17, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press. Photo at top from the Daily Beast.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Presbyterians in Canada Issue Letter of Repentance to LGBTQ* Community

“We are sorry, and we repent.”

That’s the message sent last month by the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC) to “all those harmed by homophobia and hypocrisy by and within the church.”

The letter was written by PCC moderator Peter Bush, who is also Minister at Westwood Presbyterian Church here in Winnipeg.

In it the denomination apologizes and repents for how its churches failed “to be safe and welcoming places” for people “who do not identify as heterosexual,” and for being judgmental and excluding others “based on restrictive gender definitions.”

It also says sorry for “our failure to protect” LGBTQ* people who have been “attacked and brutalized,” for failing “to hold people accountable for abuse and hatred” for not speaking up when such attacks occurred.

It also apologizes for putting “more emphasis on a person’s sexual identity than on their identity in Christ.”

The letter concludes by noting that the denomination is committed to “go in a new way and to be a welcoming church,” and to create a “safe place” where “experiences of LGBTQ* people will be told and heard.”

I called Bush. I asked him how the letter has been received.

“The reaction has been generally positive,” he said, noting that it went through a number of drafts over period of seven months and was read by “respected leaders” and others before being released.

“Some think it goes too far, while others think it doesn’t go far enough,” he added.

I noted that the PCC was called on to repent in this way 18 years ago, in 1994, when a report on human sexuality was delivered to the denomination.  What took so long?

Bush admitted it took “an embarrassingly long time” for the letter to be issued. But he didn’t think there was anything nefarious in the delay.

“It was part of a larger debate about human sexuality” in the denomination, he said.

The debate, he noted, is about whether clergy can perform same-sex weddings, or if LBGTQ* people can be ordained.

“I don’t think it was intentional, it just got lost for a while,” he said.

I asked: What does he hope the letter will accomplish?

“I hope it will help church reflect on the ways we have done wrong, and on the ways in which the church has been shaped by that wrong, and how it needs to be re-shaped,” he said.

And what will that new shape look like?

“I hope it will cause us to ask if we really are a hospitable church,” he says. “We want everyone to know they are welcome through our doors, to be a part of the life of our congregations.”

So far, there isn’t a lot of reaction to the letter on the denomination’s website. But what’s there is overwhelmingly positive; so far, only one person left a negative comment.

I contacted three Presbyterian Ministers. Two of them also felt good about it.

“It’s a good letter, we needed to do it,” said Matthew Brough, Minister at Prairie Presbyterian Church here in Winnipeg.

“It is the right thing to do,” he added, noting that “there are still bigger issues still to be discussed.”

Barbara Pilozow, Minister at Winnipeg’s St. John’s Presbyterian Church, also welcomed the letter.

“It says exactly what we need to say,” she saod, adding that “our treatment of LGBTQ* people has been embarrassing in the least, terrible at most.”

“It’s our responsibility to apologize, and to find God’s will for in all of this for us.”

But another pastor I contacted, who didn’t want to be named, is very disappointed.

For him, the letter shows how the denomination has been “hijacked” by a “liberal agenda that is so divorced from where the core of the church is.”

This issue, he said, “is killing” the denomination.

Bush acknowledged the issue is causing anxiety for some in the denomination—on both sides of the debate.

While he doesn’t think churches will leave because of the letter, what the church decides about the issue of same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ* people could cause “some seismic shifts.”

Pilozow agreed; the church, she said, is not unified on this issue, both among clergy and in congregations.

“This is a hard conversation to have, she said. But, in the end, “it’s God’s church. It will survive no matter what happens.”

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Accidental Killers and Cities of Refuge

“The Torah was talking about me

I was driving in an unfamiliar part of the city, trying to find an address, when I missed the stop sign.

Fortunately, the driver who had the right of way at the three-way stop saw me coming. He put on the brakes.

Since it was too late for me to stop, I mouthed the word “sorry!” as I sailed through the intersection.

The near-accident stayed with me for many days. I imagined hitting the other car broadside, probably injuring or even killing the other driver.

Each time I silently thanked God nothing bad happened.

That experience came back to me when I learned of the tragic death of the eight year-old boy who was killed a few weeks ago while crossing a street in St. Vital.

My heart went out immediately to the family, and also to the driver.

From media reports, it appears to have been an accident. At this time of writing, the driver has not been charged, although police say charges could be laid.

And even if there are charges, it’s safe to say he or she never intended to kill a child.

Why do I feel for the driver? He or she has become what’s known as an “accidental killer,” a group none of us wants to belong to.

Not only does the driver now have to live with guilt and remorse, but maybe also the condemnation and opprobrium from society—and possibly without much in the way of help in dealing with the experience.

As author Alice Gregory put it in a riveting article in the New Yorker titled “The Sorrow and the Shame of the Accidental Killer,” there are self-help books written for almost every human failing, challenge or inadequacy.

But there’s nothing for “anyone who has accidentally killed another person. An exhaustive search yielded no research on such people, and nothing in the way of therapeutic protocols, publicly listed support groups, or therapists who specialize in their treatment.”

Dr. Jason Ediger, a Winnipeg psychologist who has worked with people who have accidentally killed or injured others, says it isn’t a major subject in his profession.

“This isn't a specific topic frequently under discussion at present that I'm aware of,” he says.

“The low numbers of people in one place would make researching a therapy designed specifically for these people quite difficult,” he adds.

I asked him: How do these people cope with what they’ve done?

“They may construct narratives where they were less responsible, they may attempt some effort at penance, they may punish themselves, abuse substances to forget, attempt or complete suicide, withdraw from society and isolate themselves,” he says.

Some also “try and find meaning in it somehow,” but “it is unlikely though that they ever get to a place where they don't regret the outcome or their involvement.”

As it turns out, Manitoba Public Insurance does offers financial support so people who cause accidents can get counseling. But the support is not well known.

If the person who caused the accident was injured, a case manager would let them know about the service, says MPI spokesperson Brian Smiley.

But if they weren’t, “they would have to contact” MPI on their own, he says, adding that MPI “relies on brokers” to tell people about various services.

This is not a new issue. In the Old Testament, or what Jews call the Torah, the people of Israel were instructed by God to designate cities of refuge “so that anyone who kills someone inadvertently may flee there.” (Numbers 35:11)

In these cities, accidental murderers were to be protected from the wrath of family members of the deceased. 

While in the city of refuge, the accidental killer could not be harmed. A tribunal would rule if he or she was eligible for ongoing sanctuary.

According to Talmudic commentary, the roads leading to these cities of refuge were to be well marked so those who needed such refuge could find them easily.

In the New Yorker article, Maryann Gray, a secular Jew who accidentally killed a child in a car accident, remembers how she felt when she first learned about the cities of refuge.

“The Torah was talking about me,” she is quoted as saying. “I love that there was a way of recognizing the true devastation that’s been wrought, the harm that’s been done, without condemning the individual.”

I suspect that’s what other accidental killers are looking for—a way live in the world with acceptance, but also with the acknowledgment that something terrible occurred.

A place of refuge, in other words.

From the March 3, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press. Photo from Gerald J. Noonan website.