You asked me to write a story of Howick United Church. But I cannot think of just one story that could cover the whole of this place. On the surface, it looks like any small pastoral charge you would find anywhere in a farming community. Yet, I think that this is a very unique place. I thought about what you asked me a lot. I decided that the only way I can give you some sense of what this place is about is to write many little stories.
This is my first-ever white Anglo-Saxon congregation since I was ordained in 1958. My only pastorate in Canada before Howick was a Japanese-Canadian congregation, which I left in 1968 to work in Lesotho, Africa. I shared a university chaplaincy there with Desmond Tutu, mostly working with black Africans. Between 1975 and 1995, I was doing church administrative work exclusively, six years in Geneva and later in Toronto and Montreal. When I was asked to fill in after my retirement, it was to supply a vacant pulpit during the unexpected illness of the regular minister in Howick in Chateauguay Valley in Quebec. I asked George MacDonald, who as Secretary of the Presbytery had appointed me to this temporary, part-time position, about Howick. The only thing he said was, "They are nice people." I soon found that they were. And how!
When I came to Howick, I was burnt out. This place restored my health. Sure, there could be some skeletons hidden away as in any other community, but still… When Prof. David Lochhead of Vancouver School of Theology heard that I was appointed to Howick United Church, he told me, "It’s a spot of sanity in the midst of a crazy world." David had spent his sabbatical from Vancouver School of Theology several years before me providing pulpit supply in Howick. Coming from a cynical academic, his words were reassuring.
I came to a congregation basically made up of families with eight Scottish last names. I was afraid. When I came to meet with the Official Board, I also found that they were singing from the "blue book", a United Church hymnal that has twice been superceded. "Oh dear!" I thought. When I asked a question so carefully constructed it took five paragraphs to articulate, the folks were the type who would answer with one straight- forward word, "Yap." In a Ministry Personnel Committee meeting, I raised a question about the job descriptions. The response was, "You love us. The rest will work out." And it did.
I must say something about Eric. He is one of those seven-year-old boys who can see through fakery and keep the minister honest. When the only possible answer can be "No", he asks, "Why not?" He is honest, like any farmer. No political correctness convinces him. People here are like Eric. It is so refreshing for me after spending 16 years in church bureaucracy. I am not saying that people lie in a bureaucracy, but you know there are many different ways of saying the same thing. You can even say nothing in a well-articulated, two-page letter. Instead of talking about global justice, human rights, international debts, and systemic analysis, people in Howick simply love their neighbours.
The average attendance in Sunday worship is around 80 people, about a half of them children. It has been a long time since I saw a congregation with families, three generations deep, sitting together in the same pews. Four-year-old Thomas” grandmother was the organist on my first Sunday. There are six organists on rotation. Thomas could not sit next to the organ during the children”s time; another kid got there first. He was convinced that it was this rookie minister”s fault that he could not sit next to Grandma. His unforgiving glare at me lasted a couple of weeks. I am forgiven now. After all, "The guy is only new and doesn”t know how things work." This place works on its own – despite the minister. The minister just has to learn how things work here.
One choir number everybody looks forwards to on special occasions, is "Joan Knox and the children." Joan is normally a lead alto. For children, she belongs to their grandparents” generation. If Amy plays the guitar with the kids, which she does often, the choir is a three-generation event: Grandma, Mom, and the kids. The chemistry is magic. An Easter number "Run, Mary, run!" was like a dialogue between Grandma and the children by the fireside. The interaction between Joan and the children was so spontaneous that it sounded to me better than the choral dialogue between Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp children in the "Sound of Music." Trust like that can not be built up in a few rehearsals.
On one of my first Sundays, a woman shook my hand at the door and said, "Come over for lunch on Wednesday." "Thanks, I will, " said I. She told me where her place was, " the first house on Highway 203." I am sure she said more but she had to speak very quickly, as the next person was already shaking my hand. So she went. But who was she? I was too new to know and too embarrassed to ask. I went to my office and looked at the congregational address book and the map, trying to guess the name from the approximate location and her description, "the first house on 203." After studying the list and the map, I decided that the invitation must have come from Thyra. On Wednesday, when I was ready to lunch with Thyra, Evie, the treasurer of the congregation, walked in. I decided to ask her just to make sure I was going to the right place. I went to the pew where the woman in question sat, and asked, "Who is the woman who sat here last Sunday?" Evie replied, "Marjorie Templeton." "Thanks,” I said. “I nearly went to Thyra”s for lunch. But it was Marjorie who invited me." Evie said, "Probably Thyra wouldn”t even blink, and give you a nice lunch. And you”d be forgiven by Marj if you explained what happened. She will give you supper instead." I was not used to such unaffected grace. They are, like Secretary MacDonald said, "nice people." Indeed.
It has been like that ever since. Many lunches, and suppers in other homes, zucchini and corn arriving at our door to feast on at home. But I am not speaking about just meals and vegetables: I am speaking about good old-fashioned common decency and hospitality. People are so very ready to help you. One day, I could not find the psalm ( the prayer book is the old one, which is no longer used in other congregations, at least that’s my excuse if anyone asks). A hand appeared from behind and opened the book for me. It was Rita in the soprano section. No one has mentioned anything about this, ever.
When we were planning a vegetable garden in the backyard, Brent, a busy dairy farmer, drove up to the door with a spreader full of manure behind a tractor. "Where do you want this?" Our tiny vegetable patch became a foot deep with manure after Brent left. We harvested forty tomatoes a day that summer.
A sushi chef from a Montreal Japanese restaurant wanted to be married to his fiancée who had just arrived from Japan in Howick United, because I was the only minister in Quebec who could speak Japanese. They invited the congregation to please attend the wedding, because they knew very few people in Montreal and it would be sad to show the parents in Japan a picture of a tiny wedding party. A whole bunch of people showed up to celebrate the union of the chef and his bride, even though it was in the middle of the busy ploughing season in May. Nobody knew the couple, nor did they ever see them again. The people of Howick United are not the type who frequent Japanese restaurants.
After the horrible ice storm in 1998, the congregation had celebrated with a "We beat the ice storm of the century" dinner in the church basement. We enjoyed talking about not taking a shower for two weeks, dead frozen house plants, etc. "It could be worse," we agreed. People spoke a lot about the nice feeling of living in a community that cared. Was it typical Scottish denial? I don”t think so. I think that the sentiment was genuine. I for one had had a good time living with friends in a home with a wood stove and a generator. It was like camping.
From the way they love their neighbours, I am sure they know how to care globally. This is what Doug Hall calls, moving from the particular grace to the general. If you dearly love one person, you will know how to love the whole of humanity, Hall would say.
I can write a whole lot more about Howick: the Ormstown County Fair, the annual Chicken Pie Lunch, the Mitten Tree, and all that. It is indeed a rare spot of sanity, as David Lochhead discovered earlier. But this will do for the time being. I may write more about Howick later.
We still subscribed to the local weekly, The Gleaner from Chateauguay, after we left Quebec. We call it the news from home. It is home indeed, now that my ancestors are buried there.
Yours truly, Tad