Faith Story by Oliver Dingwell

It may be a surprise to you, but when Miriam found out that I would be in St. John’s this weekend and asked me if would share my faith story, I responded with a very adamant no.

            Our wonderful tradition here at Cochrane Street of sharing our faith stories during lent was an idea that Miriam and I decided to implement during Lent 2016 and it has been a wonderful blessing to us all. The stories that have been shared here over the past two years have given us inspiration and insight, challenge and wisdom. I, too, was inspired by the words of various members of our church family and it made me think deeper about my own faith, especially as I began writing applications and lengthy essays for ordination and seminary. However, I have never felt the need, or the desire to publicly share my own story of faith. I think that probably stems from a fear of what some have described as the dirtiest and most taboo word in The United Church of Canada: evangelism.

            However, evangelism does not have to present itself in the same harmful way that we see in The United States of America, where there is an attitude of Christian supremacy, where the need and desire to convert heathens is still at the heart of many evangelical churches. Instead, evangelism can be a public witness to the power of faith in our lives, it can be a testimony to the power of love working in and through us. Evangelism can be an active living out of our faith, speaking out against the injustices of our world that prevent love from being fully realized. Evangelism doesn’t have to be a dirty word.

            I hemmed and hawed over Miriam’s proposal until I eventually decided yes. I hope that my own personal story of my experiences within the church and with my faith are of some interest to you all.

            For as long as I can remember, I have been involved in the church. I have always felt a call to ordained ministry. I legitimately cannot remember a time when the church was not a central part of life – to this day I can count on one hand all the times I missed worship on Sunday morning.

            This relationship with the church, faith, and spirituality, was not the overwhelming trend for the rest of my family. Although my maternal grandparents were faithful church goers and very active members of our home congregation, serving on session, stewards and were members of the men’s club and UCW; they were certainly the exception to the rule.

My parents and my paternal grandparents were not regular churchgoers. Although my paternal grandfather attended church most Sundays he was not heavily involved in the life and work of the church. On the other hand, my paternal grandmother’s faith can be best described as “staunch” atheist. A quick aside, the famous family story is that in her last months, Rev. Clayton Parsons (who some of you may know) came to visit her. My grandmother was not well, and as Clayton went to leave, he told her, “Joyce, if I don’t see you later, I’ll see you on the other side.”

 “Yeah, don’t count on it” was my grandmothers reply. It may have been the only time that Rev. Parsons was ever left speechless.

My parents attended church casually, probably two Sundays a month at best. They did not serve on committees or anything like that. This all changed around the time I turned two. The “terrible twos” I believe they’re called. For whatever reason, I would wake up on Sunday morning and insist that we would be going to church that day. If the answer was no, I would throw wild and now, legendary, temper tantrums. Needless to say, my parents became regular churchgoers pretty quickly – and the rest is now history, Mom now serves as the Clerk of Session and Dad as the Church Treasurer in our home congregation of Humber United in Corner Brook.

            My talent for singing was quickly becoming apparent around this time as well. The story goes that I would be walking around the house, singing (or screaming – it’s not quite clear), at the absolute top of my lungs – “O LORD MY GOD, O LORD MY GOD” over and over and over. My parents had absolutely no idea what to make of this, but it was eventually discovered that I was trying to sing the first line of the introit that my congregation used every Sunday, “How Great Thou Art.”

One year later, at the age of three, I had taken to singing solos of “How Great Thou Art” after church. The organist would gently accompany me and a small, but faithful crowd of grey-haired ladies would sit and listen to me sing the same solo week after week. Soon after this became a regular performance, I decided that I had enough experience – so at the tender age of three, I decided that it was time to join the Senior Choir. And so I did. One of the old Junior Choir gowns was altered and I proudly took my place in the choir loft along with the other members of the choir as I belted out the introit, “How Great Thou Art” each and every Sunday.

There are too many good stories from my childhood regarding church to tell you here – we would be here well into the evening if I had to regale you with all of them. The highlights include: forcing my entire family, including my atheist grandmother, to participate as I played church on Sunday evenings after family supper (complete with actual bulletins and miniature hymn boards that my father had made for me for Christmas) or instead of playing with a dollhouse or actions figures like other children, my Beanie Babies would take part in General Councils and Congregational Meetings – because that seemed perfectly normal to me. 

It was around this time that I also grew deeply suspicious of Sunday School – “why did I have to go downstairs when everyone else got to stay up there? What were they doing up there? What was I missing?” So around age six or seven I stopped going to Sunday School and stayed upstairs for the entire service – which, I think, seemed perfectly normal to the rest of the congregation, I think the only ones who were displeased may have been my parents, not because they objected to me being upstairs, but because they were the Sunday School Superintendents at the time of my revolt.

As I grew older, I was of course, confirmed and began to take on a more active leadership role in the church. At the age of twelve, I chaired my first church committee “The 50th Anniversary Committee for Humber United Church” – looking back on this, I now realize that my mother actually did most of the work, but I was immensely proud to be the chair of a committee. At the age of twelve I was also given the opportunity to lead worship and preach one Sunday when our minister was away – I was so excited for this opportunity. I can still remember that the Old Testament reading for that day was Noah and the Flood, and I compared it to the American reality show Survivor, which was at the peak of its popularity. I called Noah, “the ultimate survivor.” Looking back on the manuscript and knowing what I know now, it was a pretty terrible sermon, but… not bad for a twelve year old.

Throughout high school I took on a greater role within the church: becoming a member of session and becoming the youngest Chair of the Official Board in the history of the United Church of Canada. Also around this time, I began exploring what was happening beyond the walls of my own congregation: I took an interest in the United Church’s commitment to social justice and to living out our faith at all times, just not on Sundays, echoing the words of the Letter of James: “let us be doers of the word and not hearers only.” I started to attend district and conference meetings and sit on those committees as well, and in 2012, I served as a Commissioner to General Council in Ottawa.

When I came to University, I was misled by attending another United Church here in St. John’s (which shall remain nameless), but I eventually came to find this wonderful community here at Cochrane Street. Here I was able to grow and be supported by this congregation of wonderful people and receive mentorship, support, and lots of understanding from Miriam. It broke my heart to leave here in 2016, but I have been lucky enough to find another rich community of faith in Toronto where I can feel supported and encouraged as well, although, it will never replace Cochrane Street.

Now all of this is not to say that my experiences with the church have always been positive. I have often, especially in my earlier years, left committee meetings and church events with tears streaming down my face. There were those who discouraged and even sought to prohibit me from participating in certain aspects of church life when I was in junior high, there were those who thought that I was too involved in the church for a young person, and there were those who discredited my ideas. I have served as a verbal punching bag for clergy and laity alike, and often when I doubt myself, those screams of anger and belittlement still ring in my ears. Being this young and being this active in church means that although I have experienced the best of the church from a very young age, I have also experienced it at its worst.

It may surprise you, that more than once I have thought about leaving the church, about throwing in the towel and doing something else in life entirely. However, in my experience, the call to ministry, the call to a life of faith is like a bungee cord – each time you try and run away from that calling, you get flung back to it. Despite all the negative aspects I have experienced in the church, I have always known that God’s love is so ridiculously wide that I can never escape from that embrace.

I still have no idea what drew me to the church at such a young age or what keeps me here. Perhaps it was the fellowship, perhaps it was the music, or perhaps it was the community friendly and supportive people. Perhaps it is the unending love of God that keeps calling me back, giving me no other choice but to live my life in response to wonderful gift of unconditional love. Whatever it was, it stuck, and it continues to stick.

As I go forward in life, in ministry; my greatest hope is that I can help the church continue to operate at its best and not at its worst. To enable the church to be a place of love, compassion and caring – a place of family and belonging, for people like me, and for people like you. That is my story of faith – a story where God’s love, support, and encouragement is lived out through ordinary people doing extraordinary things. May we all know God’s love in this way. Amen.