23 August 2003

Loss of faith revisited

In my personal library are two privately-printed, soft-bound volumes (booklets, really) devoted to Hancock, Michigan, Remembered, written by Clarence J. Monette. Hancock is located in the beautiful Keweenaw Peninsula that juts out into Lake Superior as the northern-most contiguous point of the sparsely-populated and heavily forested Upper Peninsula. My maternal grandfather was born there.

I was particularly interested in volume II, Churches of Hancock, including the history of what is now called Gloria Dei Lutheran Church. One of its predecessor congregations was the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church, established in 1880, just two years prior to the arrival of my great-great-grandparents from Finland. After recounting the beginnings of the congregation, the author turns to the membership.

Membership rose to impressive figures. In 1914, there were two thousand-four hundred baptized members in the congregation, over half of them children. Not only was there the Hancock church building, but numerous preaching stations in chapels and private homes from Boston to Pilgrim; Sunday School programs were conducted for some one thousand-two hundred and fifty children.

Among these 1,250 children was my grandfather, who turned 9 in December of that year. I have in my possession both his baptismal certificate and his confirmation certificate, dated 1923, when he was not quite 18 years old.

By the time I came along my grandfather was no longer a believer and seemed to consider himself an agnostic, if not an outright atheist. With the Great Depression, two failed marriages, and a brother lost to war behind him, he somehow found himself unable to believe, despite his upbringing in a christian home and what appeared to be a vibrant church community. As the final decades of his working life were spent at a General Motors assembly plant near Detroit, his real commitment was to the labour union movement and to what can only be described as socialist politics.

Remarkably enough, however, no self-respecting society of agnostics would ever have taken him as member, because the need to believe in something transcending our earthly existence was too strong in him. This came out in eccentric ways, as he gravitated towards a variety of paranormal phenomena, including UFOs, extrasensory perception, telekinesis, communication with the dead, past lives, &c.

My grandfather has been gone for just over a quarter of a century. I now wish I had had the presence of mind to ask him why he found it so easy to believe in such a hodgepodge of peculiar notions yet so difficult to believe in the shed blood of Jesus Christ for his sins.

I treasure these church documents, printed and handwritten in the Finnish language. A large part of me hopes that, on the Last Day, I can simply bring these out, show them to God, and say, "See? My beloved Grandpa was baptized and confirmed in your church. He is one of your own!"

Of course, such matters are out of my hands. All I can do is to trust him to God's mercy and leave it at that.

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