It wasn’t uncommon to wake up to a Winnipeg winter day still drenched in the vestments of night. On mornings like this it was especially difficult to prepare for high school. Usually I would stumble down the hall to the kitchen an begin my day with last nights frivolous dreams still fresh in my memory.
On such mornings as this I hope to ease into the pace of the day. Surprises were disruptive to my gentle transition into reality. The family breakfast table was set and abandoned; the combination of all our schedules prevented the sharing of this common meal. I preferred to eat breakfast alone. My oldest brother, being a morning person by nature, was always too loud and far too energetic in the morning for my liking. The rest of us, not appreciating the rudeness of interrupted sleep, were too cranky to get along on the moon drenched mornings of winter.
This particular morning I walked into the kitchen to find a bustle near the side door of the house. There stood dad, in his gray tweed trench coat and hat, preparing to leave and mom still in her bath robe, night gown and slippers. I found their unexpected presence aggravating. My morning of solace was interrupted. In my self-absorption I was slow to notice the anxiety that hung over them, but as I approached they both looked particularly distressed. Neither of them spoke as dad buttoned his coat.
“Morning.” I said in a strained attempt to break the tension. Their lack of response lit a fire of uneasiness deep inside myself. Dad looked at me and said, ‘I’ve got to go.” He turned, gave mom a quick kiss and abruptly left.
“What’s going on?” Mom focused her attention on me. As dad left she leaned against the doorpost that led to the back hallway. Her eyes expressed a deep concern. I’d seen this look before after dad would storm off after an argument but in this case something else had intruded on our dark, cold November morning.
After a long deep sigh mom finally spoke. “There’s been a break-in at the church. Dad’s going down there now to assess the damage. We don’t really know what happened yet.”
“Oh.” I thought their concern seemed a little much for a simple break-in but I acted appropriately somber as I settled at the kitchen table. My day, after all, must still continue. Their vignette had already thrown me out of my routine. I could only hope to reestablish some order to this unusual Thursday morning.
The sun didn’t seem to rise all day. The dark gray clouds and steady drizzle wrapped the land in a cold wet blanket. As a young child I had believed that the rain were the tears of God that were shed in sorrow for his children. If I had done something terrible and it rained I believed that I had made God cry. Since I couldn’t think of something terrible I had done then the rain was from God’s sorrow over some other great injustice.
As gloomy as the day had been I was unprepared for the scene at home. I opened the door to hear a completely unfamiliar sound. It was a low moan that resonated through all the walls of the house. The moans were interspersed with intermittent higher pitched wails. I slowly moved through the halls of the house following the eerie sound to its origin. Somehow I knew it was the sound of intense sorrow. Instinctively my eyes welled up with tears. The trail ended at the door to my parents bedroom and I stood before the brown door completely bewildered.
“Hello?” My mom opened the door and welcomed me home. It looked as though she had been crying for several hours. Behind her dad was sitting on the bed with his back to the door. His whole body heaved with each wail. Mom shut the bedroom door and led me back into the kitchen. She took great effort to compose herself.
“Tim, the church was arsoned.” I wasn’t impacted by her statement.
“Are you sure?”
“Apparently someone hid in the church last night and let in his accomplices- he had to have help- after choir practice. They found the case of toilet paper the church had just bought and used the hymn books and some of the books in your dad’s library as kindling. The fire department found sixty-seven different fire sites set up all over the church. They even spray-painted some sort of message on the pews but we haven’t been able to read it. The fire damaged them too much for us to tell. The church has been completely gutted.” A wave of warmth rushed across my face. My tears now had a reason to flow.
Mom got up and returned to her mourning husband. This was the first time I’d ever seen my dad cry. I was struck by the depth of his emotion. He released so much grief that it flooded the house with sorrow. I heard the back door open as my brother returned home from school. I met him at the door. “What’s that?” A shocked look framed his eyes.
“It’s dad. The church was arsoned. He’s pretty broken up about it.” My words dripped with irony . He too was swept up in the emotion and began to cry. The rest of the evening was shaped by overwhelming grief.
The full impact of the event struck me two weeks later when I saw the ruins for myself. The police had finished their investigation of the crime scene and the fire department had determined that the building was now safe enough for a few church members to salvage whatever they could from the rubble. The smell of smoke was the first impression that overwhelmed my senses. Smoke invaded my nose down the street as we approached the building. Stepping through the door into the foyer all I could see was black. Nothing was preserved. From the entry way I saw several small piles of books and paper. I followed my dad up the stairs and left into the sanctuary. The beautiful wooden beams and planks in the ceiling were charred and broken. Hymnals and toilet paper were wrapped around the pews. Most of them were coal flaked and broken.
The largest fire site lay at the alter like an Old Testament offering. A large pile of hymn books and a small collection from my dad’s library were burned to ashes. I thought that it was an insult to God that His altar was replaced by an offering to hatred.
I was struck by how much the vandals did before they started the fire. This took a lot of hard work. Whoever accomplished this didn’t do it on a whim. It looked planned and deliberate. Someone hated this church. As an extension I realized that someone hated me! It was as though a beam had fallen on my head. What could I have possibly done to warrant such a reaction? No one in the church was overtly controversial or antagonistic. It seemed to have a good reputation in the community. Our only offense seemed to be our faith. Was this what it was like to live in a country where Christianity was illegal?
I remembered hearing that there is a cost to being a Christian. This was the first time being a disciple had been anything worse than inconvenient. I shuddered to think that I would face this level of hatred the rest of my life. I questioned whether or not I wanted to be a disciple of Christ if this would be my future.
Over the next few months the church strengthened in resolve and grew in faith. We rented the gymnasium of a local school where we held worship services as the church building was rebuilt. The experience seemed to add joy and vibrancy to the church. I, on the other hand, fell deeper in doubt. If God truly loved us then why would we be targets in the world? I read the Scriptures and heard several explanations but I wasn’t convinced this was the kind of life I wanted. Why couldn’t I have a quiet life free from ridicule and scorn for my faith? Instead of growing closer to God I became spiritually apathetic and fearful that my faith would become public. I saw the peace that others had. It was as foreign to me as the burnt offering at the front of the church. All I knew was there was a cost to being a Christian. I only hoped it was worth it.