Part One – Birth to the end of my JW days
I have specifically chosen the term “spiritual” journey, versus “religious” journey, as I feel that they are distinct phenomena. I think my current feelings about spirituality and religion are best understood by the journey I took.
I will start at the beginning.
My parents met in Val D’Or Quebec where I was born. My dad was an emigrant from Hungary. He fled, with many others, during the Hungarian revolution of the mid 50’s. He was a partisan freedom fighter and survived being shot and stabbed. After landing in Austria he chose to move to Canada. His first job was working the gold mine (see Origins for more details).
My mom was Catholic, and my dad was Lutheran. I was baptized Catholic in Val D’Or QC and we moved to Yorkton SK shortly thereafter. We subsequently moved to Wynyard SK just just before I started grade 2.
Shortly thereafter my mom became a member of the Jehovah Witnesses (JW). One of my maternal aunts and later my maternal grandmother were also JWs. My dad remained noncommittal to any particular Christian denomination, or religion in general, but was very tolerant of others belief systems, including my moms joining the JW’s.
My grandmother was also Catholic before joining the JW’s. I have a fond memory of being an alter boy at a Catholic service most likely in Montmarte, Sk. My memory revolves around having fun swinging the incense container and how angry my mom was when she found out as she had already become a JW.
As an interesting side note Montmarte, which has a population of just under 500, has re-branded itself as the “Paris of the Prairies”. An Eiffel Tower replica stands in Montmarte!
I spent most of my childhood and early teens going to the Wynyard JW Kingdom Hall. I never did the “door-to-door” thing. I attended a few JW conventions. Being a JW I abstained from singing the national anthem at school (no political or partisan involvement) and did not celebrate the commercial side of birthdays or religious holidays. Some say that JW’s don’t celebrate Christmas, but this is a misunderstanding. They do celebrate the birth of Christ but shy away from all the commercial and secular traditional trappings (e.g. gift giving, decorations etc.). My dad did not participate with us.
Wynyard Kingdom Hall - accessed Google Maps August 25, 2019
Smoking is discouraged and, at some point, was banned for all JW’s under threat of disfellowship. My mon smoked and could not quit. When I was in my early teens she was disfellowshipped. It was an unsettling time for both of us. Being disfellowshipped meant that all of your JW friends, and relatives, could no longer associate with you. You could still attend the Kingdom Hall but would be left to sit on your own with no interactions. JW’s form strong social cliques and abruptly losing these connections is nothing short of medieval social shunning. Imagine this in a small town where people will cross the street to avoid interacting with you. I was still welcome at the Kingdom Hall but my appetite for the JW brand of Christianity had evaporated. They counselled me to continue to attend with hopes that my mom’s status would be reinstated once she stopped smoking – no thanks – exit stage left!
Part Two- High School to Salvation
After her abrupt departure from the JWs my mom needed to fill the spiritual void. She joined a non-denominational evangelical Christian church - the Wynyard Gospel Church. I attended with her. My dad, as usual, did his own thing but was ok with us going on our own. Going from a JW to an evangelical setting took some getting used to. The emphasis on “personal salvation” and “accepting Christ as your Lord and Savior” was new to me. Even as a young teenager, given my JW experiences, I was a bit jaded and suspicious of any form of organized religion. The first Gospel Church Minister we had followed a fundamentalist evangelical curriculum. It was a bit too much "fire and brimstone" for me, especially when such messages were relayed during Sunday School.
Wynyard Gospel Church Source
One event still stands out to me. One of the young unwed members became pregnant and stood up in front of the congregation and, while sobbing, apologized and asked for our forgiveness. I felt very uncomfortable and felt she needed our love and support more than she needed our forgiveness. She did not owe us an apology and did not need our forgiveness. I feel the Minister put significant pressure on her to do this. Is this what Christ would have done?
Luckily a new younger Minster came on board that I could better relate to. He and his wife became friends that I could talk to and share my feelings without fear of judgement.
I was quite attracted to the possibility of a “religious calling”. I started having conversations with al the Minsters, Pastors, Catholic Fathers etc. in my hometown.
My memories of Briercrest was a balanced weekend full of activities, many of which were outdoor but no big spiritual epiphanies.
Nipawin was a different story. It was a more traditional Christian retreat with environments conducive to making the ultimate pledge to the Saviour. I think all the Bible College students were volunteered to work with the retreaters to guide them in their “come to Jesus” moments. I was moved to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour. I felt sincere about my pledge and I still feel it was more than the emotion of the moment. At the end my leader asked me: “were you sincere in your pledge? If not we could do it again?”. I was stunned.
I replied, and remember I was only ~ 16 at the time: “You mean every time I have doubts about this moment I have to go through this again? No, that is not the way it works. God is like the Sun. He will always shine on me. If I turn away, I can trust that His love will continue to shine on me should I chose to turn back to Him.” (I am sure I worded it differently back then, but you get the gist)
Sunset in NFLD - S Demeter 2017
To this day I have held, and expanded upon, the pledge I made in Nipawin.
While in Nipawin I thought it may be a good idea to meet with the Dean to explore options. The big question was :”Why should I attend a Bible School/College versus a traditional University/College?”. The response was to provide, and entrench, a Christian foundation before being exposed to the “secular” educational system. I thought about this for a few minutes and then decided that if God was the creator, He was responsible for how the world worked. Chemistry, biology and physics were reflections of His grand plan. I was conformable that I would be relating to God whether I was studying Newtonian physics or the Bible.
Off to secular university I went.
Part Three - Before TO
One of the problems I had at the end of High School is that I could not pick a Christian denomination. I took a Christian Ethics elective class in Grade 12 where most of the church leaders spoke to us. It is interesting to note that our school janitor (Paul Hanley a noted environmentalist in Saskatoon) was a Baha’i and although he did not address the class, I did speak to him about the Baha’i faith and this resonance later in the story.
Off to University of Saskatchewan I went. The first year was a bust (see University One). The second and third years were pretty standard pre-med stuff. What is relevant to this section is that I enrolled through St. Thomas More College (STM) at U of S which was established by the Basilian Fathers of Toronto as an associated Catholic Liberal Arts College. They taught many of the undergrad liberal arts courses I took (e.g. psychology, English). The classes were small and intimate. For intro psych there were only ~ 30 of us versus over 100 in the main campus option. STM has an onsite chapel and had a large cafeteria style area for students to congregate at any time of the day. Many graduated in Euchre or “three spot” versus their chosen major.
Located in beautiful Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, St. Thomas More College (STM) is a Catholic undergraduate liberal arts college that is federated with the University of Saskatchewan. Any U of S student can select from over 230 Arts and Science courses offered through STM. Click on photo for source page.
Faculty often sat and had lunch with us. I remember having a deep theological discussion with a Priest (Shakespeare English Professor) about the meaning and purpose of life. After awhile he stopped me and asked: “Were you baptized as an infant?”. I replied: “Yes I was baptized Catholic.”. He followed with: “Then don’t worry about it; your taken care of.” It was interesting how a theological discussion with an academic boiled down to a simple ritual. Occam's Razor I guess.
I have fond memories of STM where I made lifelong friends.
After three (really two and a half) years at U of S I moved to TO to study Environmental Health.
I now had a new dilemma.
Prior to undergrad I had trouble picking a Christian denomination. After a few years of university exposure I now had trouble picking a major world religion!
They all seemed so sincere. The fundamentals of most world religions boil down to some form of "Golden Rule" (many would argue otherwise and that's ok).
37 Jesus replied: "'Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'
38 This is the first and greatest commandment.
39 And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'
40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
My mindset before leaving for TO was that all major world religions were a continuum of the same divine message through time or the result of a series of charismatic psychotic individuals.
Part Four - To TO and Beyond