I know I haven’t used this blog much lately, but I felt like there are some who would like to read this. This morning I presented the devotional for the Harbour Light Christmas service. While I was preparing the devotional, I had a half-remembered story stuck in the back of my brain, but I couldn’t remember any details. I went searching for the story online but couldn’t find it – I found these pictures instead. All pictures are from the January 11 1954 edition of Life Magazine, and were taken by George Silk. You can find the article here: https://goo.gl/X4p111
A Shantymen Legacy Christmas
Imagine a wooden boat, an old fishing troller, tossed about by the waves on a dark and stormy night. Imagine three men inside, peering into the darkness, hoping against hope to see the flash of a lighthouse, signalling their way into a safe harbour. Now, this alone would not be an unusual sight – these waters are home to many lonely fishing vessels, men scratching out an existence along the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island. But this ship is different. For cargo instead of fish or ice is a box full of Christmas gifts and ornaments. Tied to the mast is a fine pine tree, ready to be given to a family that has never had a Christmas tree. These three men are not fishermen, but Shantymen; they consider themselves missionaries; men of God, travelling with the intention to share a little Christmas cheer with the isolated communities along the coast.
Finally, they see the light. The youngest of the three, Earl Johnson, says a silent prayer of thanks as he hangs on to the ship’s rail, shifting his weight as the ship rolls along with the swell. All three break into a spontaneous Christmas carol as they pull into Ucluelet, which is a Nuu-Cha-Nulth word for ‘Safe Harbour’.
There in Ucluelet they distribute the few gifts they have, along with the Christmas tree. They are invited to participate in the Christmas Eve service, held in a little house that the Shantymen helped the town purchase and establish not long before. They share the good news of Christmas, much like we’re doing here This morning.
Last month I had the chance to attend the wedding of my best friend growing up. His grandfather performed the ceremony – a man named Earl Johnson. It was Earl and others like him that set up little churches in Ucluelet and Tofino in the early 50’s, where the townsfolk of those small villages would gather to sing, eat, and pray together.
The little church in Ucluelet became Christ Community Church, and became a temporary home to my dad in the 70’s. Dad was running from a broken family and a series of bad choices, trying to find somewhere he could find some peace. He wound up living in the back of Christ Community Church, where he eventually met my mom. Both found their way because of people in that church.
Some years later a little boy would sit on the floor of that church, asking a pastor far too many questions for a Christmas Eve. I can still remember his laugh as he would attempt to answer questions he’d never even considered. The other kids would look at me skeptically, wondering why I couldn’t just shut up and listen to the story.
Earl and others like him shaped my faith – a faith not focused on systems or buildings, but a faith built on people – people willing to brave the cold and the wet to reach out their hand to their fellow human. Every Christmas I reflect on that boat that carried Earl and others like him up and down the coast, searching for a lighthouse and a friendly face, and on the faith that compelled them into the lonely places of the world, convinced that the birth of Jesus meant something so important that everyone should know about it. That is the legacy that brought me here – a legacy not of rulers or commanders, but a legacy of shepherds, sailors, and refugees.
Even Christ did not come as a ruler, but as a baby – as a baby to teenage mother, a baby that people whispered about – who’s his father? He was born before Joseph and Mary were married – is he a bastard? Yes, Jesus was born into a dirty stable to an unwed teenage mother – and this is the person I call Christ the King. This is the king that steers my ship – his hand is on the rudder, and all he asks of me is that I keep moving forward. So here’s to those rough around the edges. Here’s to those brave enough to face their fears and to move forward through the storms that life throws at them. And Merry Christmas, one and all!