Memories, August 26, 2019

By Kenneth Bagnell


Many of you kindly read my now-and-then columns so I want you to know that I’m near the age of 85. It’s time to tell you that  years ago in the 1950s, I graduated from Pine Hill Divinity Hall in Halifax. I was ordained in 1958. The United Church placed my bride and me in a beautiful part of New Brunswick with five, yes five, congregations. I had met my dear Barbara at Mount Allison where I began, prior to Pine Hill and its theology courses. Once I graduated with two degrees we married and were placed by the Church, in a corner of New Brunswick, near the green of Fundy National Park. (I had been ordained two weeks before and married a week before; I was 24 years old, Barbara 23.) We lived in a small pleasant village called Riverside, with the church a minute from the manse.

The “pastoral charge” as most call it, was Albert-Alma and, I expect you understand that with five churches, the minister had a  busy week in all levels from pastoral visiting to sermon preparation, in which I write and rewrote to get the sermon to be (a) understanding, (b) relevant (c) interesting (d) assuring. The ministry is a both a pleasure and a demand: good preaching, good pastoral visits, and good cheer. A young man or woman who goes into the ministry because he/she likes to be successful and thereby takes a longer look at (1) the work (2) the visits (3) the sermons.  The truth is this: “The purpose of being in the Christian life is not primarily to be happy…” A week or so ago I smiled and told another young man who is now in his early years: “Tell your ministry friends that the purpose of the Christian ministry is not ‘just to be happy.’”

Life in the ministry was going very well for us and my neighbor next door was actually the local Catholic priest. He — Father Leo Hines — and I became friends and back in 1959 we and the community speculated on the building of a modest hospital. The community was backed by the New Brunswick government, and local people called for it. Hence Father Leo and I drove to Fredericton to speak to the provincial treasurer. Subsequently, he and his fellow politicians, agreed. It was erected by 1961 and is still successful.  Recently, I’m told it’s very active with professional facilities and purpose. It’s now Albert County Health and Wellness Centre to the credit of today’s community. It now provides primary health care, promotes healthy lifestyles and so on. So be it: within the five small communities (Hopewell Hill, Riverside, Albert, West River and Alma) the priest and I did our meager best .It became an impressive local hospital with a description that’s significant: “The Center offers many of the same services as larger health centers including: family physician, nurse services and so on…. (It’s address is now 8 Forestdale Road, Riverside-Albert). The priest and the minister and the citizenry did alright.

Recently — the first week of June 2019 — Barbara and I, now in our eighties, flew to Moncton and quietly drove through the city and on to the highways that lead to and through the villages.  We drove all the way to Fundy National Park, and the village called Alma that is almost  part of the park. There are now many changes: the church I preached in every Sunday is now — get ready — a brewery, but the Alma United Church in the years I was its minister – 1958 to 1961— each summer brought at least a half dozen ministers from the US, all with their wives. My friends, I could tell you many a story but I have the space and time for but one that you will never forget.

It was the summer of 1960, and Alma United Church was often filled in July and August. Naturally, once I delivered the service, the sermon and its benediction I met everyone at the door and shook hands. Many Americans introduced themselves as pastors or preachers. One, a very respected minister-scholar named Professor Harold DeWolf, spoke to me at the door. I perked up at the name and I replied: “Are you the author of the popular “Religious Revolt?” (I actually had another of his several books at the manse.) He smiled widely and both of us stepped aside where we talked and talked and talked. We talked so much I had to say “just stay aside for a few minutes.” When all was calm, Barbara and I invited both to tea next day at our manse up the long winding road.

It was a truly delightful experience, one we will never forget. During Barbara’s tea, Dr. DeWolf asked: “Am I right that black people are not permitted in the cabins of Fundy Park…?” I said that was nonsense. They were fully welcomed. He slowly shook his head and said, “We wanted to bring my most brilliant student and his wife to Fundy Park. He and she are black and I got a letter saying ‘you and your wife are welcomed but not the other couple.’ ” I told him to give me the letter and we’d deal with it so it’d never happen again.  So that was that and he and his wife shook our hands said goodbye and strolled out into the darkening evening. The brilliant young student was Martin Luther King.

Many years later, 1962, I was shocked when Toronto’s highly respected rabbi and a friend, Rabbi Gunther Plaut, asked if I’d like to interview a famed minister who would, in three weeks, speak in Holy Blossom Synagogue. The minister was a great and famous preacher, his name being Martin Luther King. As many of you know I did meet him at his hotel, set on King Street east, and in the early evening we slipped out the front of the hotel and into the back seat of a taxi, and talked.  We talked as the limousine moved northward for the lecture he’d give at the Bathurst Street’s Holy Blossom Temple. I then mixed with the packed synagogue and later Martin wanted to talk some more with his interviewer.

So be it. I put my arm around Rabbi Gunther and so did Martin. We all shook hands and Martin and I waited about five minutes until the taxi pulled up. He said we’d meet again.  In the morning, one of history’s greatest men, would fly away and with him was history. Yes, but there was something else.

Events in history were yet to come for him, for us and for the world. It was April 4, 1968, when the word heard by radio and television, that Martin Luther King was assassinated by a dreadful man with a dreadful gun. Martin was dead. The world was shaking. And for me it was more than shock. He had become a friend. Moreover, I had been appointed to the Editorial Board of The Toronto Star the country’s largest newspaper. The four or five members of that board gathered early on the Star’s lower floor on King Street in Toronto. Obviously, there was much shock and pain, maybe especially for me.  The fine members of the editorial board were silent until I spoke quietly that I knew him, liked him and respected him. There was silence but it was serious when the senior editor looked directly to me and said: “Ken, go ahead…. to your office…” I did. So that morning The Star with its editorials was across the city and on its way across the country. Then as the years passed, I was invited, now and then, to speak at various churches, schools, institutions always about his life, his character, and his brilliance. The editorial I composed in about twenty minutes is still in my small home office. The memory of a truly great man will never leave me.