Jonah’s journey to Nineveh, and mine

Eric Friesen, a long-time host on CBC Radio, reflects on facing his fears of talking about his faith in a public sphere. Photo: Contributed
Eric Friesen, a long-time host on CBC Radio, reflects on facing his fears of talking about his faith in a public sphere. Photo: Contributed
Published January 6, 2015

A call to serve as part of my Christian faith has nagged at me since childhood.

I grew up Mennonite in southern Manitoba, and the obligation to serve was welded into our conscience from an early age. Having been an Anglican for almost 30 years now, I think of myself as a “Manglican.”

For a long time, I thought it was enough for me, as a public broadcaster, to be a witness to my faith in a secular world. If you were a regular listener of mine, you probably figured that I was a person of faith. But since I left the CBC five years ago, my platform has changed.

First, a confession: every decision I’ve made to serve has been a case of confronting an inner fear. It’s a little like Jonah, who was afraid to go to Nineveh-he needed some coaxing from God. Getting swallowed by a whale may be a little dramatic as motivation, but sometimes we need a big push.

One of the ways I serve Christ has been to co-host a book club at Collins Bay Institution, a medium/high security prison in Kingston, Ont. I was invited to do so by my good friend, the Rev. Carol Finlay, an Anglican priest from Toronto, who has created Book Clubs for Inmates, an incredible prison ministry in every federal institution in Canada.

For the past 15 years, I’ve had a home on Amherst Island, located 10 km west of Kingston. You can’t spend a lot of time in Kingston without passing by these huge federal prisons. I can see the lights of Millhaven Institution from my home; I regularly pass by Collins Bay and Kingston Pen. For years, I sometimes felt a visceral fear just seeing them and thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

But God called me, through Carol, to enter that fearful place. Collins Bay is a scary place full of scary men. It is also full of really interesting, smart, generous men who have been damaged by their dysfunctional family upbringing, by mental illness, by sexual and physical abuse, and by substance use. I have come to like and admire some of these men, whatever they’ve done. I’ve had murderers, drug dealers, members of the Hells Angels and con men in that book club. Opening their minds to great stories has given some of them hope-hope for redemption, hope for a change in their lives.

I also volunteer at St. George’s Cathedral in Kingston, by preaching on occasional Sunday mornings and by hosting events. It’s the preaching part that scares me. What can I possibly do, as someone who hasn’t been through divinity school, to honour that pulpit that has seen so many great men and women of faith speak movingly each Sunday? Still, I have gulped and swallowed hard a couple of times, and faced that fear.

The third way I serve is through my broadcast role in Winnipeg, where I have been involved in launching a new classical and jazz station, Classic 107. Part of what I do is host six hours of music on a Sunday morning, and for the first time in my broadcast life, I can fully express my faith. When I was with CBC and NPR in the States, as public broadcasters we had to be careful in expressing our views. I developed a good ability to self-edit. But now I work for a private broadcast group, owned by a Mennonite man of faith and run by senior executives who are all churchgoers. I can talk about the historical context of music that isn’t just academic or musicological, but is in fact rooted in the passion and conviction of faith.

Still, my old fears of stepping over the boundaries are still there. I’ll be honest: I worry about my image. Will I be considered some sort of a religious nut case? Will I be lumped in with the outrageous TV preachers in white three-piece suits? What is my radio persona? How can I project what I think of as a legitimate faith in the 21st century, appealing to those Christians I respect and holding the respect of those who don’t have faith?

Fears are real, as much as we might not want to admit them. We can’t simply will them away. We have to confront them, deal with them, because the important decisions or challenges of our lives are where we meet our deepest fears. And so it is with Christ’s call to us to serve. What is the value of our service if it doesn’t cost us, heavily, in finding courage where courage is hardest to find?

Eric Friesen is a broadcaster, writer and speaker on music, culture and faith. He was a long-time host on CBC Radio and Minnesota Public Radio (NPR) in the U.S., and is now consultant to the new Classic 107 radio station in Winnipeg.



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