Day 14: Warren, Ont.
Members of fragmented society search for their spiritual homes
Monday, August 21, 2000
The powder-blue box of a building looks innocuous enough, as unprepossessing as a suburban bungalow, but not to Father Norm Clement, who spots the Kingdom Hall sign from the driver's seat of his Oldsmobile.
As we sail through the village of Warren in Northern Ontario, between North Bay and Sudbury, Father Clement points out the Jehovah's Witness hall not because it's so easy to miss but because its effect is, for him, so hard to ignore. Everywhere he drives in Canada, from obscure hamlets to big cities, he sees the Jehovah's Witnesses growing while his own Roman Catholic Church struggles to keep its dwindling flock.
The ironies abound, as they must in a nation of contradictions. The Jehovah's Witness faith is based on strict codes, an austere lifestyle and active proselytization -- the very sort of regimented religion that so many faiths have been trying to move away from, Father Clement's parish included.
Some of the bigger churches have tried expanded parking lots, engaging children's programs and inspiring music to win back churchgoers as if they were mallgoers. Father Clement has fiddled with his own church's liturgy and outreach programs. And with mixed results, especially stacked up against the Jehovah's Witnesses, whose Kingdom Halls can be seen on secondary highways across the country.
In a society that now shuns rules, the appeal of a stricter religion should not be surprising, Father Clement argued. "There's a security in that," he said, while heading to Sudbury to fill in for weekend mass.
The wife of one of his parishioners joined the Jehovah's Witnesses, and now speaks to her husband only to convert him, he said.
Father Clement, who works in North Bay's jail, psychiatric hospital, shelters and retirement homes, believes Canada's struggling churches are putting too much emphasis on religion and not enough on spirituality. The former is for people who are afraid of going to hell, he said. The latter is for people who have been there.
Along the Trans-Canada Highway, he points to spots where he's picked up hitchhikers who could not afford a bus ticket, and talks about how most churches unintentionally make them feel unwelcome. It's the same sort of divisions, he continued, that are fragmenting Canada as political parties, big business and the media set about their own course of identifying target groups, separating them from the rest of society, and proselytizing.
"Our society everywhere is divided," he said. "It's divide and conquer. It's all to sell a product ."
John Stackhouse's Notes from the Road will appear daily in The Globe and Mail, and on globeandmail.com, until the Labour Day weekend. His conclusions will be published in September.