At the end of yet another year, I cannot help but think of several individuals whose faith and presence enriched my life but whose own life has drawn to a close.
Early in the year, on Jan. 6, Presbyterians in St. John’s offered a Service of Thanksgiving for the Reverend Dr. Sheldon MacKenzie, who for many years had been a colleague of mine in the Department of Religious Studies at Memorial University, and who later lived in retirement with his wife Jay near their children in Chilliwack, B.C.
Sheldon, or “The Chief,” as I called him affectionately, was a native of Nova Scotia, ordained for the Presbyterian ministry. In the time-honoured University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland, he completed his doctorate in New Testament under one of the most distinguished 20th-century scholars, Prof. Matthew Black.
In 1972, Sheldon exchanged the pulpit ministry at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (“The Kirk”) in St. John’s for a full-time professorship, teaching biblical studies in the Department of Religious Studies at MUN. Here he joined other colleagues who also had the necessary academic credentials but who came from a variety of churches: Anglican, United Church, Roman Catholic. While they served as instructors in a secular university department, the prior denominational commitments and experience of these teachers were appreciated as an asset rather than a liability, this all the more since they were educating teachers in what was then still a denominational school system.
Later, as Queen’s College resumed its training of students for the ministry in the Anglican Church and elsewhere, after a decade-long hiatus, Sheldon joined the faculty of theology as an adjunct professor.
As a colleague both at MUN and Queen's, I came to value Sheldon as a most able communicator of a subject that demanded intellectual scrutiny but raised many questions for its students.
My colleague had an eye and ear and depth of feeling for the academic challenges and personal transformations that students faced in their lives. He believed that the questions that biblical criticism and theology posed for students would ultimately be beneficial to a mature faith. Knowing the drama of integrating new ideas in so personal a matter as one’s faith, he was always available for his students and seriously interested in their religious and intellectual quests. As I observed from close quarters Sheldon's teaching success, I could not but admire this quality in my colleague.
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Shortly after I arrived in Newfoundland, Sheldon introduced me to another friend whom I lost this year, Richard Beaton. At first, I did not know what to make of this CBC broadcaster in a large fur coat, but his broad and engaging smile led me to trust him and I was rewarded for it. Richard, born in New Brunswick, had a long career in radio and television broadcasting in Atlantic Canada, Frobisher Bay, and finally in Newfoundland, where he lived with his wife Marilyn and their two daughters.
From 1979 until 1990, Richard Beaton hosted an early Sunday morning CBC television show, “Dialogue,” in which he interviewed clergy and other individuals on religious and ethical topics. The show’s title proved appropriate, as it featured in discussion the religious and human spectrum of a changing province.
Often, Richard would call me before a show to discuss its subject, and he also invited me to participate in several of them as a guest. I shall never forget an insightful discussion on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Newfoundland’s joining Canada, in which Greg Power, one of the political participants and supporters of Joey Smallwood, shared with Richard and me his reminiscences and views on the role that churches and religion played in the debate over confederation.
Richard was never a combative journalist, nor did he rival the rhetorical flourish of a few of his colleagues, but the questions he posed in his calm radio voice, with an engaging smile, encouraged people to share their views and insights on faith and being human that otherwise might have remained locked up in their protective personal shells.
“Dialogue” successfully brought people into conversation on matters of “ultimate concern.” “Dialogue” might also be the best word to describe Richard’s own character and strength in that he facilitated communication between people without threat, bringing out the best in a conversational partner.
As we paid our last respects at the funeral home, the large number of people engaged in conversation about what Richard had meant to them showed the lasting power of this promoter of religious and human dialogue.
Hans J. Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at MUN and can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.