Sunday, October 07, 2007

Sanctuaries: Thanksgiving Weekend 2007

It's Thanksgiving Weekend in Canada. At four this morning my wife and I were woken up by a loud thump. We raced to the windows to see if we could figure out what had just happened. Another sounded, so I put on some clothes and went outside.

Two vehicles in our neighbor's drive were on fire.

I stayed around long enough to make sure my neighbor wasn't in danger, and to see the fire department get the blazes under control. Then I went back to my house, reported to my wife and went back to bed.

The action had only just started. Our church was hit with a molotov cocktail. So was the Presbyterian church. And the people who own and run the Chinese restaurant had their family van torched.

Their restaurant and home were not damaged, and no-one was hurt, thankfully. Our church is just steps away from our neighbor, so the fire department was able to put out the fire without structural damage to the building (so far as we know). But the Presbyterian church is a gutted ruin.

As of this morning one arrest was made and another was pending. I can't imagine a person does something like this figuring they'll get away with it. But it feels as if our village has been under siege this summer. In August a beautiful old home (same vintage as the church, roughly 130 years old) burned to the ground. There were two bodies inside it, in what was either a double homicide or a murder/suicide. The police haven't announced any closure to that case. I don't think last night was related to the earlier crime, except in a sick tangential way. This is a crazy town for fires.

Several thoughts, in the heat of the moment: (1) the strike against the churches seems like a sad irony. These churches are hardly a symbol of any sort of power -- both congregations have been in steady decline; the Presbyterian church drew Sunday gatherings that numbered below 50. As is typically the case with old churches in languishing towns, the needs of children and the elderly were of chief concern to the pastors and congregations. If torching a church is some sort of "I'M BIGGER THAN GOD!" statement, well ... what could be more pathetic?

(2) Anyone who's been in the vicinity of a burning car knows it is a terrible, toxic stench. In contrast to the burning vehicles, I have to say that by fire's end, the Presbyterian ruins were emanating something far sweeter. The wood was all untreated ... not a lot of plastic or even rubber was going up in smoke. Had this been a fire in the hearth, the odor would have been welcome.

(3) Everyone in town is walking by with their families. Faces are dark. The elderly ladies who go to these churches are in their Sunday clothes, holding each other by the arm. I saw one kid walk by who's earned the reputation of being a troublemaker. He's 17 or 18 years old. His head was ducked low and he wasn't making eye contact with anyone, except one of these elderly ladies. Her face broke into this wide smile of sunshine, and she held her arms out to him, hugged him and kissed him on both cheeks. I'm not making this up; I teared up when I saw it, and I'm crying still.

Our little family stood and watched the final efforts of the firemen at the Presbyterian church. I said, "You know this church isn't really the building, don't you? It's the people." I try to believe that pretty much every day of my life.


Rob in Victoria said...

Oh, my - I feel so terrible about this.

I feel doubly terrible that your post, the idea of fires and a state of siege in a small town, has taken root in the back of my mind in the insistent, heart-flipping way that the roots of a future story take hold...

Sorry about both.

Jim said...

Wow. Except for the embrace, that's a terrible way to start and spend a holiday.

What is it with people?

dan h. said...

...the sanctuary of open arms...

DarkoV said...

This is just wrong. Small towns and churches are intertwined in their history, regardless of the attendence. This is a true horror as the town's basic fabric is being torn.
I'm truly sorry for your losses.

Peter said...

Another nail in the coffin of the American stereotype of Canada, which considers our neighbor to the north to be a peaceful, calm, crime-free oasis.

Cowtown Pattie said...

I just cannot fathom the inner workings of someone who is so broken, so tortured as to want to spread his own misery to innocent people and old churches.

My heart goes out to your community. So very tragic.

paul bowman said...

Ugly, ugly, ugly. I'm so sorry to hear of it.

The mental image stings particularly, for me, when a building's withstood man & nature already a century or more. (And I'll confess — wishing not, though, to seem inappropriately contrary — that the distinction between people & 'house' of God isn't as clear cut in my mind as it once appeared. These buildings, even the bad ones, do something, over time, that comes to refer beyond their state in use, & that can't be easily quantified — or easily realized again, once that trans-generational physical thing is lost. But I don't wish to contradict you about what's most immediately to be held dear, & what's to be built upon, if opportunity's there to build again.)

Hope something or someone may yet reach the person(s) who pulled these horrifying stunts.

Whisky Prajer said...

Thanks, everyone.

RIV - you certainly don't need to apologize to me should you find inspiration in this post. It's there to share.

Jim & CP - the primary suspect experienced an upbringing that was pretty sad, to say the least. That doesn't excuse his actions in any way, but it's all part of what the community has to deal with as it attempts to recover from this.

Peter - if you really want to put that hoary myth to rest for once and for all, I could recommend a half-dozen books written by journalists exposing the infiltration of Hell's Angels in Canada. This is organized crime beyond anything we've ever seen.

DV & PB - I believe you're right: the violent loss of an historic church building is indeed the loss of something larger for the community and the landscape. Hard to say just how we'll respond to this.

Scott said...

I don't go to church and greatly dislike "the" church, so why am I so upset by these events?

Oh right, a sense of shared humanity that whoever who did this is clearly, sadly lacking.

I hope everyone's alright in the aftermath. I liked your anecdote about the 17-year-old: I know from Hamilton experience that the kids we label 'troublemakers' are usually the most sensitive. This'll be a rough week for people like him.

I hope the witch-hunting is kept to a minimum so that the real perps might come forward or flap their gums enough to get caught.

And your last couple lines there? Beautiful.

Whisky Prajer said...

Thanks, Scott. Yeah, these kids are indeed in rough straits. And I never thought I'd be one to say something like this, but I'm gravely concerned about the drugs they're doing. The chemicals they're frying their brains with are nasty, nasty stuff. It doesn't take much to go beyond the point of no repair.