Ben Garren, a 23-year-old layman from North Carolina, is testing a call to ministry by serving for a year as a catechist to eight churches along the coast of Labrador.
Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Nfld.
Can a call to ordained ministry survive a Labrador winter? That is what young Ben Garren is finding out as the 23-year-old from North Carolina fills in for a maternity leave position in rugged Mary’s Harbour, Nfld.
The story of how Mr. Garren journeyed from the bosky confines of Chapel Hill, N.C., to the rocky shores of Atlantic Canada provides a look at how the long arm of the church can reach across borders, the extraordinary opportunities it can offer young people and a glimpse at the workings of grace.
“What gets to me about Labrador is that you can’t depend upon the ground texture,” said the man unaccustomed to such winter weather adventures as snow, sleet and freezing rain. “After falling for the first two weeks, I bought creepers,” he said, referring to spiked soles that strap on to boots and provide traction on ice.
Mr. Garren spoke with the Anglican Journal at an annual meeting, held in February here, of the six Anglican parishes in Labrador. (See the April Journal for an account of the meeting.)
He was sensible enough to head for his new location with long underwear, with one modification. “I had to dye it black so the turtleneck top wouldn’t show white under the cassock,” he noted. Since he is not ordained, he cannot wear full clergy vestments. His position is called a catechist, or Christian teacher.
Until recently, it appeared that Mr. Garren was headed for a chemistry lab. While studying at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (he was awarded a bachelor of science degree last year), he became aware of another possibility. “At the end of my freshman year, I started thinking of not going into science,” he said. “I knew I was getting a chemistry degree. But I began to question what I wanted to do with my life.”
Mr. Garren has had a close relationship with the church since childhood, attending an Episcopal school until grade 12 and participating in annual youth conferences. In university, he said, “I found myself doing pastoral counseling. People would come to me. I talked with someone suicidal. It was very difficult and draining, but I found a sense of fulfillment – more than in the lab.”
Church also had a deeply personal meaning. “My parents divorced when I was four” he said. “Church was a haven when home was chaos. And I was finding that I had a penchant for the theological sciences alongside the physical sciences.”
Mr. Garren spoke with Rev. Phil Jacobs, spiritual director of the St. Michael’s youth conferences held in Massachusetts. “He asked me, ‘Do you like the cold?’ I said I don’t necessarily mind it,” said Mr. Garren. Mr. Jacobs had been in touch with Rev. Alexander Daley, rector of St. Paul’s church in North Andover, Mass., who collects used vestments, altar cloths and other items for the Newfoundland dioceses and is often in touch with their bishops. Mr. Garren’s resumé was passed on and so it came to pass that he received a cell phone call while in a Mexican restaurant in Chapel Hill from Bishop Donald Harvey, the ebullient, now-retired bishop of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador. With the mariachi band tootling in the background, Mr. Garren learned that Rev. Gail Thoms-Williams was going on maternity leave for one year and the eight-church parish named Battle Harbour (which is actually based in Mary’s Harbour) needed a spiritual leader.
“I talked about it with everybody and there was general agreement that if I wanted to discern a vocation to the ministry, there would be no better way to do it – ‘see if you can survive this and still want to be a priest,'” he recalled.
Since last September, Mr. Garren has served about 1,000 Anglicans in eight churches scattered along the southern coast of Labrador, where the decline of the cod fishery has caused hardship. Territorial archdeacon Jennifer Gosse or another priest flies in from Happy Valley-Goose Bay to administer the sacraments.
But it is Mr. Garren who takes care of the day-to-day needs – traveling up and down the coast in a 2001 Ford Escape that has clocked 20,000 kilometres in six months, leading prayer services, meeting with lay leaders, conducting funerals, visiting the sick.
He copes with loneliness and isolation by e-mailing friends and is in contact with diocesan clergy.
Though generally accepted, Mr. Garren’s placement has been an adjustment process for all concerned. Pauline Russell, a member of the parish who runs a crab fishing business with her husband, said in an interview that while parishioners would have preferred an ordained minister, “the crowd is pretty easygoing” about accepting the young layman. Some members wondered initially “why we have to go to the States to get a catechist” and others felt that while his leadership at services was welcome, some concerns went unheard and “what he’s going to do, he’s going to do anyway.”
Mr. Garren himself is under no illusions that he was a perfect choice, if such a thing exists. “This is not the academic end of the Anglican Communion. Being Anglican here is like being Jewish – it’s what you are. These are land-educated people; they have such a tactile knowledge of Anglicanism. There are gifts the people here need that I lack – cultural idioms, the way people say things – that are very specific to the people and to the land. If I had more of an earthy, rooty culture, I could empathize more,” he said.
But they go on together, the Labrador seafarers and the young man from Dixie, each accommodating the other’s speech, rhythms, emotions and ideas about church. Come June, Mr. Garren will head back down south, perhaps to pursue a career in ministry, perhaps not. Before he came to Labrador for a year, he had never heard of it. Now, it is possible that the Labrador experience will last a lifetime.