“... the subject of this week’s human interest interview is perhaps the only truly contented man
I have ever met. And well he might be.
For he has spent thirty years in the untamed tropics bringing the Gospel to pagans and heathens. Since his return to civilization, he has ministered to a Canadian flock as part-time pastor. He now spends his few remaining years in confident comfort, awaiting his appointment with his Maker ...”
The Missionary let the newspaper
drop from his hands to the floor. At age eighty, it was easier to do that than
to fold it and place it on the side-table. This is what comes of vanity, he thought. For he was the “truly contented man” of whom the newspaper spoke. It was all a mistake, naturally. But
it seemed such a good idea at the time: to celebrate his eightieth birthday by finally granting the long-sought-after interview
to the newspaper; to tell the reporter what he had done in his eighty years. This
seemed such a worthwhile thing to do.
It had failed, of course, and painfully so. The article now lying at his feet was testimony to that. It was full of prejudiced phrases like “untamed tropics” and “pagans and heathens”. He took some comfort in the fact that no Trinidadian would ever see this small-town
Canadian newspaper. But still, he felt he had betrayed a people whom he loved,
even though the betrayal was quite unintentional.
Missionary leaned back into the soft comfort of the oversized cushions on his wheel chair.
It’s funny, he thought. Way back when I was a boy, summers were
hot and winters were cold. Now, in this centrally-heated / air-conditioned hostel,
he could absolutely forget the seasons. He could forget that it was freezing
outside, with snow on the ground. He could forget that this was Canada of the prairies. He could, by letting his mind wander, pretend that
this was Trinidad.
The human mind at age eighty is a most quixotic
thing. The Missionary could not remember what he had eaten for breakfast that
day, or even if he had eaten breakfast at all. But he could remember with photographic
clarity that bright morning in mid-December, fifty years ago, when he had stepped off the ship at Port of Spain. Little details stuck fast:
the joy of firm ground after a long sea voyage; the pleasant discovery that some of his fellow-voyagers had been several dozen
Christmas trees; the ease with which he had passed through customs and immigration - thanks, no doubt to the known nature
of his mission.
Fifty years ago.
1934. He had been thirty then, and single.
In fact, his singleness had weighed against him at the interview. He remembered
being asked, over and over by the well-meaning older Ministers on the Panel, whether his unmarried status would not be a hindrance. Could he really council older couples? And
what about amorous young women? Would that not be a problem?
But he was firm in his convictions, and his answers
had shown that. He knew that he was called to be a Missionary, and nothing would
prevent that. From the day he first felt the call to the Ministry, through his
theological studies, and more recently during his assignments as assistant pastor at various congregations, he knew that he
would be a missionary.
With such a drive and ambition, it was only natural
for him to apply when recruits were sought for the Mission to Trinidad. In
spite of his non-married status, his fervour won out. He was selected, and reached
Trinidad safely. Then, on his very first trip from Port of Spain to San Fernando, he had coined a phrase
that would forever conjure his strongest mind-picture of Trinidad: snow on the canefields.
The journey had been a tiring, hot and tedious
one. His companion, the senior Presbyterian Minister in Trinidad, was a man given to short sentences and long silences. But he had done his best to cushion the newcomer from the absolute shock of the tropics. He had pointed out the valleys of the Northern Range as they drove past, and named
the scattered towns. Then came the cane fields as they travelled further south. The cane was in arrow, and this gave it a striking appearance. The Missionary’s mind made a connection with a more familiar off-white frosting. He had thought of the cane arrows on that day - and since that day - as snow on the canefields. And by that mental adjustment he had been able to forge a link between his Canadian childhood and this
new land where he would perform his life-work.
The Missionary settled into Trinidad far easier than he had expected. He
genuinely liked his flock, and they respected him. He found no heathens nor pagans
here ... at least not as he had half-expected. He found, instead, quite normal
villages with people who could be gentle, or laughing, or violent, as the mood took them.
His people, for their part, saw in their Missionary
many things. He represented a new God, one who found favour with their colonial
masters. He, a white man, was also a potential intercessor with those same colonial
masters. But most important, he represented education for their children. For his was the church which brought the C. M. Schools to the Indian labourers in
this colony when no one else cared. In truth, many of his congregation on a Sunday
morning were there more for the good of their children’s education than for the sake of their own souls. This had rankled the Missionary at first, but later he learned to accept it and make the most of their
The Missionary’s charge was a small rural
district, just where the sugar belt gave way to cocoa. He conducted three services
every Sunday, none within a church. Two were held in C. M. School buildings, and the third under the stilt-mounted house of a faithful member. These were the beginnings. With his guidance
and his people’s enthusiasm, all that would change.
The Missionary’s thirty years in Trinidad were an exciting epoch. The
mid-1930's were a hard time, and he saw first hand the labour unrest that threatened to ignite the whole island. Then came a World War, and - more important - the American Bases.
Afterward, universal adult franchise, nationalism, a short-lived Federation, and finally Independence.
These had been years of swift and radical change,
and the Missionary had a well-defined role in all of it. His was the steadying
hand, the quiet voice of reason. His flock looked to him for guidance, and he
did not shirk. Churches were built, and congregations grew. Infants were baptised, grew up, sought Communion, fell in love, and came to be married. Scholars were accepted into Canadian universities, and came to enquire about everything. Families prospered. Students of Presbyterian Schools won Island
Scholarships. Children of cane-cutters studied abroad and returned as doctors
and lawyers. And the Missionary felt a part of all this.
A nation was being born, and the Missionary’s
role was clear. He was no idle bystander.
He was, in his minor way, a midwife at the delivery. But he paid a personal
price for this honour. He had foregone marriage, and he had lost touch with Canada. The former
had been a clear choice, and he accepted it. But the latter had been an accident,
and had happened in spite of his regular return trips every three years. And
it was because of this lost contact with his native land that the Missionary had viewed his coming sixtieth birthday with
Age 60 came, and with it came mandatory retirement
and a mandatory return to Canada. What the Missionary found in Toronto on his return unsettled him for the rest of his life. He was only in
the city for a few days, but that was enough. He knew, finally, that Canada was no longer his home.
And he knew that he was damned to live out his twilight years in an alien land which once was his birthplace.
The last twenty years had been difficult ones. The world changed
constantly, and there was no firm ground on which to stand. At first, he tried
to accommodate the changes. He tried to work with the adults, but could not. He tried to be a builder, as he had been in Trinidad. But there was nothing left to build in the mature church society of
Canada. No churches nor church-halls were needed. No guiding words
nor steadying hand were wanted. The buildings and the people all stood in place,
and the builder felt useless.
Next he turned
to the young, but again he was rebuffed. Youth was fleeing the Church in droves,
and did not want to be called back. He had even attended a peace rally once,
because he truly believed in peace. He had gone to give his support and encouragement
to Christ’s movement, as he saw it. But what he saw shocked and repulsed
him. Peace was the way, but surely this was not the way to peace.
So it was that his waning years became a slow,
digging-in process. He thought often of the island he loved, and wondered if
the winds of change were blowing there too. Resident as he was in the prairies,
he seldom met anyone from Trinidad. But
occasionally a student or a traveller would pass his way, bearing tidings of people and places dear to him. These infrequent visits were always a treat. And like a child,
he thought often of them and treasured them in his heart.
But the world is a cruel place, and not even
an old man’s memories are safe. As the 1970's melted into the 1980's, the
tales he heard were of a far different Trinidad than he had known. The talk now was of much money, and as much corruption. His visitors told of the breakup of families, the struggle over possessions, and the unending quest for
more and more. His first reaction had been disbelief, but deep down he knew it
must be true. In the end he responded in the only way his aging mind could: he
ignored the present and clung to the past.
roused himself from his reverie, and slowly wheeled his chair to the door. As
he crushed the newspaper, it protested noisily. He glanced down, and remembered
reporter was so brash, he thought. So brash and so self-assured. How could he ever know? How could he ever understand? He thinks of Canada as so fine, and of Trinidad as such a savage place. But it is better so. Better that he never know the truth. Better that he never appreciate the uncertainty of the last twenty years. Better that he never understand the anticipation of death, and the longing for snow on the canefields.