Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 12, 2003
Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind
Hard truths push life-saving changes
By FR. JACQUES JOHNSON
After eight years as pastor in a northern Alberta community which included two missions, the authorities decided that the time had come for me to move on as they had other plans for me.
These had been the best eight years of my life and the thought of moving on left me with a sense of real loss. These people had become my people to love, to minister to and sometimes to battle with. The reality is that I felt accepted and loved by them, but in my line of work any sort of permanence can easily become a very fluid reality overnight.
The word got around and before too long parishioners started dropping by. One visit was from a young woman of 20 or so. She had something important to tell me: "Before you leave, I want you to know that there is one thing I will never forgive you for and that's the sermon you gave at my brother's funeral!"
That brought me back four years to a tragic week when I presided over the burial of five parishioners: an elderly couple who died within two days of each other and also three young men, 16 to 22 years of age, one in a vehicle accident caused by too much booze and the other two men unrelated stabbing incidents.
In a community of 400 souls, a week like that one is not easily dismissed. The community was in shock, no less. Around that time I had encountered a wise elder from another community who had shared these prophetic words: "Our graveyards are like plowed fields with the bodies of our youth."
But the shock of three young men's violent deaths left us reeling. During that week many people stopped at the rectory and a certain refrain kept coming at me: "Father, you've got to speak out!" I brushed that aside initially but it kept coming back. I gradually came to a conclusion: "I've got to speak out!"
At the next funeral which was that of the youngest of the three I did speak out. I challenged the community in the strongest terms I could muster to look at itself and how over the years it had not lived up to its Christian calling.
Alcohol abuse was widespread as was also the drug culture and sexual irresponsibility that goes with it. Adults partying all night long while young kids and teenagers, not knowing what kind of violence they'd encounter if they went home, opted to walk the streets aimlessly with no place to go.
"You've sown the wind and now you're reaping the whirlwind!" I stated with strong emphasis that the way people were living their lives led not to fulfilment but to death and destruction. Raising my voice I challenged them to look at themselves and start answering God's call by living out the commandments and the teachings of the Lord.
That evening with a saintly elderly Metis nun I dropped by the bereaved family. The reception was very cool. Nobody welcomed us or spoke to us. In fact people turned their backs on us.
The only one to speak with us was an uncle who had imbibed too much. And as the saying goes: we took the hint and didn't stick around very long. They had sent me a very strong message: the family was very upset with my homily!
Regarding the sister of the victim who was taking me to task on the eve of my departure from the community four years after the deed, I told her this: "I can understand your reaction because he was your only brother and you cared for him a lot. However there is something that you must know." I took the parish record of funerals and I showed her that in the previous 10 years before the tragic week the community buried an average of four young people a year.
Then I asked her to count the number of young people we had buried in the four years following her brother's funeral. She turned the pages over, then with an incredulous look she said: "Not a single one?" "Not a single one!" I said.
I added: "This sermon was very hard for all of you to take, but that talk has saved lives. The community heard a very strong message which woke it up and people changed. As a result our youth quit dying in our community."
Indeed nearly 15 years went by before that community buried another one of its youth. To their credit, the people heard the message and changed their lives. Thus the young people received from the community the support they needed and so they lived and did not die.
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