The Travelling Preacher
by Linda C Butler
Told by Charlie Vance
In the 1930s I lived at Thicket Portage, a small community on the Hudson Bay Railway in Northern Manitoba. At the center of town, facing the railway tracks, was a new general store, and beside this store was a tarpaper shack that had been there for a number of years.
It was winter and I was a commercial fisherman, working with eight other fellows, one of whom lived in the tarpaper shack. Our community was small, and there was no Protestant church, but occasionally a travelling minister would visit. On this occasion a young student minister came to town to preach the gospel. We had no community hall or public building, so he approached the storekeeper and asked if he could hold a church service in the store. The storekeeper agreed and benches and chairs were brought in to accommodate the small congregation.
None of us had attended church for some time, but in those days, all Protestants, of whatever denomination, were expected to attend church when it was held. We were fishermen who were used to life in the bush, and a church service was foreign to us.
The service commenced and we restlessly listened to the sermon, but we did not know the words to the hymns and none of us could sing. The preacher did his best to encourage us, but he could not carry a tune, so the hymn singing was a failure as most of us remained silent. Finally the service ended and we shook hands with the minister and departed.
We were embarrassed about our lack of singing and we were glad to leave. The fellow who lived next door in the tarpaper shack invited us to his place and we went inside and sat down. He got out a bottle of whiskey and we each took a drink while we discussed the service.
We thought about our lack of participation and one of the fellows remembered that he had sung when he was younger. Somebody else remembered that he could sing a little and another fellow remembered a few words to a hymn.
After another drink one fellow started to sing while the rest of us hummed along until we remembered the words, and then we joined the singing. We had another round of whiskey and then we all remembered the hymns and raised our voices. We continued to drink and the singing became louder.
In the meantime the preacher packed up his papers in the general store and asked the storekeeper where everyone had gone, and was told that we were next door. The preacher went outside, planning to join us, and was surprised to hear us singing hymns. He walked over to the tarpaper shack and knocked on the door. The owner answered with the whiskey still in his hand. The preacher said: “Why the hell are you fellows singing here when you wouldn’t sing in church?”
We were silent. We had never heard a preacher swear and we were embarrassed to have left church for a bottle of whiskey. It seemed like blasphemy to be singing hymns and drinking after a church service.
The fisherman holding the bottle finally said: “I, er, we, Sir, would you care for a drink?”
The preacher responded: “Don’t mind if I do.” and reached for the bottle.
No one had expected the preacher to accept a drink of whiskey and we were surprised by his response.
We found ourselves liking this man and we relaxed and told him about our lives. He understood the loneliness that we experienced, and before long, he led us in the old familiar hymns which brought back memories of loved ones far away.
When we finally quit singing we were glad that this preacher had come to our community. Instead of criticizing us, he shared his faith and gave us the gift of fellowship and understanding. Our lives, which had been bleak, were brighter for his presence.