Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Memories in a Canadian Coal Mining Town

Part 1

On a recent Sunday evening my wife, Edna, and I, along with some friends, attended a Cross Country Tour concert featuring a Celtic Family, the Barra MacNeils, from Sydney Mines in Nova Scotia, Canada. Sydney Mines is another coal mining community across from my home town, New Waterford, on the other side of Sydney Harbor. The concert was called, ‘An East Coast Christmas’. It brought joy to my heart and tears to my eyes as they talked and presented music about Christmas in a Cape Breton Coal Mining Community. The haunting melodies they sang in English and Gaelic stirred memories of a time long past, a time of faith, a time of growth.

So when I was asked to contribute an Advent or Christmas article to the Former Salvation Army Officers blog, I thought about my experience of growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in a Coal-Mining Community in Cape Breton, Canada. And my next thought was of one of my favorite books of Scripture, Isaiah, especially the verse in Isaiah 9:6: “A child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests .They name him Wonder-Counsellor God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace,” because the Christ of Christmas changed me!
In 1950 I was born in New Waterford, a coal mining and strong faith-based community with a population of about 10,000. In addition to the 3 coal mines operating in New Waterford and the surrounding area, there were 3 Roman Catholic Parishes, a United Church, an Anglican Church , The Salvation Army Corps (community church), and a small synagogue. Of the 10,000 residents over 9,300 of them were Roman Catholic, but the faith groups cooperated in many ways. Growing up in that environment the focus of Christmas was not about gifts and Santa Claus, although he was thought of and gifts were exchanged. But in the hardscrabble environment of coal-mining towns Christmas was about observing the coming of Christ, the celebration of which culminated in the Christmas Eve services in every Christian Church. For me that meant attending Midnight Mass with all its pomp, including the lingering smell of incense, the lighting of the Christ Candle in the Advent Wreath, and the wonderful music and words that reminded us that our Savior has come.
The concert music also caused me to reminisce about the years I had strayed from my strong faith when I had entered the world of alcohol, drugs, radical left-wing politics and activism in 1968. 

I ran away from God, but God did not abandon me. Until I returned to faith in October 1973, I had moments when I almost turned back to God, but I persisted in my resistance until I reached the lowest point in my life. 

June 1973 I started holidays in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I resided. After I got sober I moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, which was 2200 miles west of Halifax. I was lost, forlorn, and suffering and had no recollection of how I had arrived in Winnipeg.

[To be continued…]

John Stephenson,
Former Salvation Army Officer (pastor)

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