By Neil Earle
Julius Caesar wrote the famous line, “All Gaul is divided into three parts.” When I was growing up in hockey-mad Canada in the 1950s you could say, “All Canada was of two parts.” You either cheered for the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Montreal Canadiens and never the twain would meet. More citizens play hockey in Toronto than any other city in the world – including Russia – even though Montreal can lay claim to being the game’s spiritual home.
Imagine my elation and delight when my wife and I were assigned to Toronto in June 1994. I’d already visited the flat city spread out along the north shore of Lake Ontario three or four times but to actually live in the nation’s largest city and the home of Maple Leaf Gardens (our version of Madison Square Gardens) – this was an assignment to treasure! As it turned out it was a culmination for my wife and me and our 21 years working in Canada and – what an eventful eight years it was.
Apart from the working side of a busy pastor with 1200 people there were all the cultural highlights the city had to offer. Usually every week we’d visit an older repertory movie theatre where they’d play the Golden Oldies – “Key Largo,” “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” etc.
Overall, there were three great highlights of our time in Toronto.
The first would be different aspects of the pastoral job itself. I’m thinking especially when we opened up a support group for people struggling with various addictions and setbacks in 1987. This was the most rewarding part of ministry in a big city. One person transferred in from another city just to attend the meetings. My highly-educated team of elders and I worked with 20-40 people across the city in a twice-a-month series of lectures, counselings and feedback sessions modeled after AA, NA and other caring agencies. Out of these experiences came a chapter in a book titled, Mending Broken Relationships.
The second highlight had to be the exposure to the 60 or more different nationalities that made up the exceedingly diverse city of Toronto and our church. We blended the different ethnic groups into a full-scale musical troupe called the Outreach Players, featuring Broadway songs and patriotic melodies. I’ve never laughed so hard since, as I did at some of our rehearsals. This was life at the heights for a frustrated performer such as myself – “There’s no business like show business!” The goal was to learn a production and then visit seniors’ centers and nursing homes to perform – pro bono! I knew Outreach just had to be a highlight of the cast members’ lives. It certainly was mine!
A third highlight was the chance to study at the University of Toronto, Canada’s largest, from 1989-1992. When I left for England in 1968 it was knowing that I could have studied for an MA in History at the “U of T.” Now here I was, back in 1989, at my boss’s urging doing what I had missed 20 years before. Mission accomplished! It was like picking up where I left off in the 1960s – majoring in American history and meeting some great professors. What an enriching experience studying under Jewish professors who had heard Martin Luther King and others who had left the United States during the Watergate years.
It was fun to be the “old guy,” “the keener,” in many classes and interact with students a generation younger. I came away with great impressions of the next generation. As long as they cheer for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the future is secure.