BY Jeff Carter
In the 1960s, most folks in and around the community where much of my family’s social lives revolved went to church. There were two choices in the nearby village, the echoing Presbyterian edifice and the more modest United Church building.
I think of this now thanks to a conversation with Ohio State University researcher Rattan Lal a year ago. It’s something I’ve been contemplating ever since.
We spoke of Lal’s humble beginnings in India and his career as a soil scientist for which he has been amply awarded, including a prestigious international honour with $250,000 attached. From there, however, the conversation strayed to our mutual passion for gardening and then to the questions concerning the moral compass of the society in which we both live.
At one point Lal spoke of the Christian faith, something which he had obviously considered himself, and intimated that my understanding of the faith in which I was raised might somehow be lacking.
Lal didn’t know that at that time I was reading a compilation of Mahatma Gandhi’s reflections on Christianity – not a bad place to start if you’re interested, incidentally.
Gandhi had a great appreciation for Christianity though, like Lal, he suggested its practitioners might focus to a greater degree on understanding and following the precepts of their faith, such as those most admirably expressed in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, the text of which, among many other things, speaks of the perils of judgement: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”
The church, the Christian church, has much to answer for and yet the condemnation of the institution I leave to others.
It was within our village’s Presbyterian Church building — one incidentally built by my great, great grandfather — that I was primarily instructed in the faith. However, it was the Baptists, 13th Line full-dip Baptists as it happens, who provided the impetus to make that fundamental leap of faith.
During the many Bible study sessions I attended, I remember being impressed by a young man, a few years older than I, whose well-thumbed concordance seemed permanently attached to his slim, suited side. I wondered at his certainty of things ... of having ready-made answers for just about everything.
I was suitably impressed by those hellfire, brimstone and damnation sermons that were offered occasionally. I also enjoyed the singing, especially the two angelic voices of a couple of young ladies, a bit older than I, who at one point encouraged me to lead the church’s youth group. It was with some relief that the suggestion was squashed with a vote of raised hands from my fellow young sinners.
That is the group with whom I attended the church camp that summer.
We arrived early one morning and soon found ourselves in the box of pickup, headed to a beach along the southern curve of Lake Huron. Elton John’s Crocodile Rock was loud on an AM station, young voices singing along.
It was water, sunshine and roller skating on a small pad of polished cement. It was hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad and coleslaw plus many cans of cola.
The adults relaxed, seated in the shade, cool beverages at their sides leaving free time a’plenty for the young people.
Shortly after lunch, we gathered in the larger of two tents set aside for us, well away from our elders. The older fellow that led the discussion had an air of authority about him and that of responsibility as well, responsibility misplaced.
Mickeys of alcohol were to be secured along with copies of Playboy and Penthouse, though the girls were vocally unimpressed by the latter. I didn’t have coin or status, placing me firmly in the camp with David who may have had the coin but was also the group’s pariah for reasons outside my understanding.
David and I were not good friends but knew each other well enough, being of the same age and having been schooled in letters, numbers and faith together.
In the heat of the late afternoon with few people about, I was recruited by David as his lookout. I was a most reluctant lookout, one who simply stood quietly, uttering a silent prayer and uncertain as to how to signal the approach of unwanted attention or whether to signal at all.
David angled toward the picnic table next to a trailer with a spidery approach, reached up, snatched the bottle and was away.
Funny how a 40-ounce bottle of whisky three-quarters full can throw havoc into even the best laid Bacchanalian plans.
I think it was around midnight that they came, the adults, a group that must have included the leading church lady of the time, David’s mother. Perhaps the only sober youth at that point, I scooted to the unoccupied tent and hunkered down in my sleeping bag before the full extent of our transgressions became apparent, hoping beyond hope to having remained unnoticed.
Only the young preacher joined me, having been assigned custodial duties for the remainder of the night.
We lay in the darkness in our cocoons, soft words like smoke rising and lingering there.
These I do not remember but they had a searching quality to them. For a time, I managed murmured replies and then feigned sleep thinking, “it’s your journey you’re speaking of. I have my own.” ◊