Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Bad magic

If this photo seems a little misty, a little unreal, well, that's 'coz it is.
It is a chunk of my history, still bleeding and sore.
This is Park Street United Church in Chatham, Ontario, now taken over by St. Andrews, no doubt for financial reasons.
I attended this church from birth to ten
When I was about six, I remember a neighbor boy saying, "There's a new minister coming. His name is Horse Burg."
He was close. The Rev. Russell Horsburgh was a man for his season, in many ways embodying the growing ferment in modern religion: social issues were bubbling up to the surface, and black people were actually starting to attend (though most of the congregation was appalled).
Most of all, Rev. Horsburgh wanted to create some new programs for the young people, who up to now had sat on their hands and yawned.
Yes. 1960: the verge of an explosion, though no one knew it at the time. We were lucky to have him, apparently, because he represented the "coming thing". He was cutting edge, just what our poky old church needed to jolt it
into life.
At first, everything went well. Hmmm - fairly well. I was six, so I didn't understand a lot of the murmurings that were going on. Some of the congregation disapproved of what Rev. Horsburgh was doing with his youth group. He was actually including kids who were "underprivileged", from "broken homes" (i.e. homes where Mom worked). At one point, to everyone's horror, he gave a series of talks on teen sexuality. No one knew how to stop him.
I only remember a few things, but they really stand out: a friend of my Dad called him a "psychopath" (a word I wasn't familiar with, and only understood in retrospect). My mother once murmured to her friend, "They found empty bottles in the basement, and cigarette butts. . . and worse." Only in retrospect did I realize the reference must have been to condoms.
So the young people were having sex in the basement? Evidently.
I remember also leaving choir practice and heading for my Dad's car. I saw several very inebriated teenage boys lurching around and saying things like, "Hey, where's the booze?" "You're alreadly plastered!" "Hey, Boozy Bozo." "Where's the Rev?" "Let's have one for the Rev."
Another time, on Sunday morning, the Rev suddenly exploded and began to rant about "mechanical men". "We're all mechanical men. Who wants to be a mechanical man?" he repeated, pointing his finger around the sanctuary.
The strangest thing of all was a church bulletin, usually typed out and mimeographed by the church secretary. But this one had a whole page covered with x's, blotted out. My brother Walt, 20 years old and a total cynic, held the page up to the window and began to read what it said: a quote from Martin Luther's infamous
"I understand that this is the week for the church collection, and many of you do not want to give a thing. You ungrateful people should be ashamed of yourselves. . . I am sorry I ever freed you from the tyrants and the papists. You ungrateful beasts, you are not worthy of the treasure of the gospel. If you don't improve, I will stop preaching rather than cast pearls before swine."
Signed: Martin Luther
Russell Horsburgh
Obviously, something bad was going on. Bad bad. Before long, the villagers with the flaming torches closed in. Horsburgh was eventually convicted of encouraging sexual activity among minors, and sentenced to a year in jail. He got out after a few months, and gradually a pro-Horsburgh faction began to grow.
By the time he died in 1971, he had become something of a hero, a misunderstood saint who was only trying to help those poor kids learn about birth control. Or something.
I remember a frightening man who became increasingly hostile and paranoid. Did he do all the things he was accused of? I don't know. I only know I didn't want to go to church any more because he scared the hell out of me.
Seeing this picture of Park Street United (I almost wrote "Untied") woke up feelings from decades back. I googled around for Chatham sites, and even the names of streets made the hair on my arms stand up. I had buried so much.
Rev. Horsburgh became a character in my second novel Mallory, only this time he was purely evil and corrupt. Perhaps something in my soul needed to see him
that way.
A few years ago, the church I was attending was ripped off by a fraud, a minister who had no real credentials and no pastor's heart. He was a travelling salesman who had already ruined other congregations: so why didn't we find out before we hired him?
It hurt me, gored me, because I had already been hurt in this vulnerable place as a young child. I was six. Why was it happening again?

Why are people so stupid about religion?
What sick needs are met, or not met, by this casual manipulation of power? For I have never known a minister who didn't need power.
Why do I still long to find a place, an oasis, a spring in the wilderness that will quench my agonizing thirst?