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The Knock on the Manse Door

My Evolving Ecumenical Experience

The Knock on the Manse Door

by Rob Hankinson

“Ecumenism” in the United States is often thought be a Christian word, signifying a relationship among different kinds of Christians. Not so for Rob Hankinson, a Canadian pastor and ecumenical/interfaith leader who said to TIO that today “my definition of ecumenism involves the whole world, more akin to the original English translation of the Greek, ‘oikoumene,’ something bigger and even better than ‘when a nice Catholic girl marries a nice Protestant boy.’”

The United Church of Canada’s “Mending the World” details an approach to “Whole World Ecumenism,” which some would call ‘whole world interfaith.’ Ecumenism for the United Church of Canada assumes that “God is creatively and redemptively at work in the religious life of all humanity.” In the following story, Hankinson tells how he came to understand that truth. ED

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Lac La Biche – Photo:    ceasol, C.c. 2.0, sa

Lac La Biche – Photo: ceasol, C.c. 2.0, sa

I arrived at my first United Church of Canada pastoral charge (Lac La Biche, Alberta) as a freshly minted (ordained and settled) minister on August 1, 1973. During the month of July I had driven 5000 kilometers (3100 miles) from Halifax, Nova Scotia, my home and the home of my “alma maters” – Dalhousie University and the Atlantic School of Theology. Along the way I got married to Mary Elizabeth Norton in St. Lambert, Quebec. The cross-country trek, tenting no less, was exhilarating. The arrival in Lac La Biche was interesting, the last 25 miles driving on “soil cement’ adding to the interest.

For the first few weeks (months?) in our new hometown, I experienced a certain degree of “culture shock.” Lac La Biche was not Halifax, nor Montreal, nor Toronto, where my partner had been a librarian the previous year. It did hold, however, a peculiar charm.  It exuded a pioneering spirit, and it was situated on a big lake – the second biggest lake in northern Alberta. On a windy day there were white caps on the waves, and a displaced Maritime lad could take a little comfort and, almost, feel at home. The adventure had begun.

At the Front Door

The adventure ramped up considerably before the end of my first month “on the job.” There came a knock (no doorbell) on the front door of the manse one morning. Opening the door I encountered a Middle Eastern gentleman, somewhat shorter and a little older than me, who, with a smiling face, introduced himself. “I am Ahmed al Sharkawi.  I am the imam of the Lac La Biche Mosque.  I would like to join the ministerial.” My ecumenical experience was about to evolve.

Entrance to Atlantic School of Theology – Photo:    AST

Entrance to Atlantic School of Theology – Photo: AST

I was a graduate of the Atlantic School of Theology, Canada’s first ecumenical theological school (Roman Catholic, Anglican, and United Churches being the founders), and I grew up in a multi-racial city with a small Jewish population. I had a friend in grade two whose parents were from Lebanon and whom my parents named “Mohammedans.” But all that was a long distance from and a long time before that August morning. And a lot less up front and personal.

I invited Imam Sharkawi into the manse’s living room. The conversation began and my ecumenical education continued. Ahmed was from Egypt, an alumnus of the University of Cairo. Up to a year before our propitious (providential?) meeting, he had been the headmaster at a Muslim Boys’ School in Madras, India. The University of Cairo had transferred Ahmed and his young family from Madras to Lac La Biche, Alberta to serve as “teacher” to the substantial (“highest Lebanese population per capita in North America”) Muslim community in the second oldest (1958) mosque in Canada.  Any notions I harbored of how great my culture shock was soon vanished.

I remember well our conversation. I told Ahmed: “I am the new kid on the block. I don’t know if there is a ministerial.  If there is one, I don’t know how open (i.e. ecumenical, from the Greek ‘oikoumene’ meaning the whole wide world) this ministerial is, or might be, in welcoming a ‘non-Christian.’” I promised I would find out and get back to him, whatever the response.  He told me he lived in the “little house” next to the mosque on Highway 36, and, to come and “visit me anytime. I am lonely.” We had reached our first point of human contact and solidarity.

To my delight I discovered there was a ministerial, “alive and well.” I found that (a) there was no impediment whatsoever to “widening the circle”; (b) the United Church ministers had been active members for as long as there had been a United Church presence in Lac La Biche (the Methodists from the 1850s onward); and (c) it was expected that I would attend the regular monthly meetings. Finally, “Would you kindly invite Imam Sharkawi to our next meeting?”  My ecumenical experience was advancing.

For the next four years (1973-1977) the Lac La Biche Ministerial ecumenical organization made a positive contribution to the town’s faith communities and to the community at large.  A global, multicultural, multifaith worldview replaced parochialism in ministerial conversations and activities. During that time, Fr. Jules Laberge (the town’s much loved and highly respected Roman Catholic priest), Rev. Malcolm Herman (the district’s faithful Anglican rector), Imam Ahmed al Sharkawi (world citizen and diligent teacher), and I, the novitiate pastor, not only struck up a unique friendship but also engaged in an active fraternity of community service.

We coordinated interfaith pastoral care at St. Catherine’s Hospital; held multifaith “Ten Days for World Development” workshops and events; organized and conducted Marriage Preparation seminars for the community; successfully lobbied the Provincial Government to appoint a Marriage Commissioner for the town and district  (in order that the citizenry might have a choice of wedding celebrants and ceremonies); and became the local arrangements committee for the annual Lac La Biche Music Festival.

During those years our ministerial meetings were blessed with great camaraderie, exceptional “fellowship,” and international cuisine. My friendship with Ahmed, and our respective families’ friendship, grew. Relationships were nurtured with the Lebanese and the Muslim community. And my horizons expanded, my ecumenical experience evolved!

I left Lac La Biche and moved to Edmonton (to be Associate Minister at Robertson-Wesley United Church) in 1977.  Ahmed stayed on for another year as Lac La Biche Imam before moving to Princeton University for some sessional teaching.  He had been challenged with some health issues for many seasons, and, upon his return to Alberta, we would visit with one another when he stayed at the former outpatients’ residence at the University Hospital on his “too frequent” visits for treatment. Ahmed has since died. One of his children is an accomplished physician at the University Hospital.

I suggested earlier that my meeting Ahmed may well have been providential.  I am bold now to state that it was. My encounter and time with Ahmed, and through Ahmed his community in Lac La Biche, have enriched and shaped my life and my ongoing ecumenical experience. Thank you Ahmed for that knock on the manse door.

Header Photo: Lac La Biche – Photo: Wikimedia