In the heat of the argument, I felt like walking away. But I had a strange feeling that if I did, I would be closing a door forever. So I set aside my hurt, pride, and my own frustration, and I tried to open myself to the angry person who was standing in front of me.
Of the many parishioners who have shaped my personal understanding of ministry, I give thanks for Pat, who taught me that behind each negative expression of emotion is a sense of meaning and passion for something deeper than any argument could ever express.
The story of the reopening of St. Anne’s Mission Church in Port Franks began with a great cloud of hurt and anger that remained after the first church was closed and deconsecrated in 2009. Deconsecrations are rarely a joyful event, and in this particular instance, there were many personal dynamics that I was unaware of when I agreed to sit down with a small remnant of Anglicans who wanted to share their grief with me following the closing of their church.
Some of the past members insisted that the Diocese had closed them down, while others recognized that for years, the failing church had dwindled in membership and had been remiss in the upkeep of its utility payments. In order to keep the lights on and maintain the insurance coverage for the building, our Diocese had been footing the bill to the cost of many thousands of dollars. That was the story from the last chapter of the parish’s life—but I was interested in hearing if God was calling us to write a new chapter.
Pat, and his wife Rose, had both been present on the day the foundation stone had been laid for the Church of St. Anne—in the 1940’s-50’s heyday of church building in the Diocese of Huron. They had been members right up to the closing of the church in 2009. What I didn’t expect to encounter from Pat was the collective anger of an entire community.
Following a very honest and hopeful first discussion about the possibility of reseeding a church in the community of Port Franks, Pat cornered me, and unleashed a torrent of verbal abuse that I had never experienced before. In that moment I was the outlet for his pain and the recipient of his unresolved anger. The air was blue with insults and the reputation of the Diocese and wider church was under attack. Nothing in seminary had prepared me to respond to it.
In a moment of reactionary anger, I made the mistake of saying: “How can you talk to a priest in this way?” The moment the words left my mouth I knew the mistake I had made. Pissed-off Pat wasn’t going to let me hide behind my title or the respect that I assumed I should have, because the truth of the situation was that I had done nothing to earn this respect in his eyes. Verbally battered and bruised, I just about walked away from Pat and the community of Port Franks. But now, five years later, I am so thankful that God gave me the wisdom to hold on long enough to come to know a different side of the man who represented a community grieving the loss of their church.
Before I continue, allow me to be clear that I do not condone Pat’s actions, or the action of any person who believes they have a right to abuse another. Pat was wrong in what he did, but I am convinced now that it was the only way that he knew how to cope with his emotions. The greater question that I found myself asking was this: how is the Church able to respond in the face of such anger when we come to realize that some of the people we are called to serve are unable to channel their emotions in a less hurtful and more reconciliatory manner? How might we enable them to channel their energy into missional transformation?
At the end of that brutal conversation, I didn’t walk away. Instead, I made a promise to myself that I would try to discover a different side of Pat. St. Anne’s Mission began with an experiment to see if the wider community would support regular services of worship. Each week that I continued to show up, I discovered that Pat began to soften in his anger towards me. Each week present was a step of trust earned in his books. Finally, that trust was put to the test, when our community encountered a make-or-break scenario: winter was coming, and we didn’t have heating or insulation in our little church. St. Anne’s doors were about to close again.
It was Pissed-off Pat who rose to champion our cause. Under his leadership, in a matter of weeks, the sanctuary was gutted, reinsulated, painted, and a brand new gas furnace was installed. Pat went out into the community to ask for financial support, and each necessary item was donated miraculously funded. The hope of renewing and reopening his community church revealed a beautiful, generous side of a man I had previously defined by his anger towards me.
What none of us expected in December of 2011 Pat’s sudden death. After spending his entire day with the church renovation, Pat had a medical emergency in his own home, and God claimed him in that moment. In the following days, I came to realize that the last project that Pat had completed before his death was to construct a hand-crafted fireplace in the parish hall that was to be his gift of thanks to God for the reopening of the church. He had finished it just hours before he died.
At his funeral, I opened with an invitation to the gathered community: “raise your hand if you have ever seen Pat pissed-off before.” All hands in the building leapt heavenward. I continued by telling the story of Pissed-off Pat, who, in his final days, would have moved heaven and earth for us out of a deep passion for his church and community.
In summary, allow me to share that all emotional energy in our faith communities, whether positive or negative, is evidence of life and potential for change. Sometimes, our anger can be rooted in the fear of losing something of great importance. While it may be easier and safer to simply walk away from situations where emotional meaning manifests itself in a harmful way, there may also be great fruitfulness in attempting to channel that pain into a positive expression of our faith. Had I turned my back on Pissed-Off Pat, there would be no St. Anne’s Mission today. I am thankful that God convinced me to ride out the storm, so that I, and our community, could experience the transformation of a church that began with the transformation of one angry man.