Religion & Faith
ust when we think that the recent crop of agnostic and atheistic books, editorials, interviews and testimonials may have inflicted a mortal blow on benighted souls who still maintain the credibility of personal faith and the value of organized religion, something unexpected comes to our aid: real religion.
I am sure that I am not the only one who followed with rapt attention the rescue of skipper Harold Stokes and the crew of the Nautical Legacy after a fire broke out on the fishing vessel a little more than two weeks ago.
The drama that we watched unfold 130 kilometres off St. Johns was heightened by its timing and the difficult rescue, flawlessly executed, after a mayday signal had been sent from the burning ship.
We cheered the success of the search-and-rescue crew as the Cormorant helicopter from Gander retrieved the bobbing men from the ocean waves.
Later, we learned that not all of them wore survival suits. Eighteen-year-old Michael Petten, who jumped into the frigid North Atlantic waters, wore only shorts and a T-shirt, and the others kept him for 90 minutes in their midst.
While the people with suits could already feel the cold creeping through feet and back, Michaels body became numb and was airlifted first when the helicopter arrived.
So far, this story seems to be one of good timing, expert training, flawless execution of a search-and-rescue operation, and camaraderie in protecting your own.
But what could not be overlooked in the reports was also how important faith was to the people at sea and at home.
We had someone looking after us, Stokes told the CBC. He was certainly the master of the sea. And he watched over us.
While the rescue drama at sea unfolded, a prayer chain linked people in the community with God and their loved ones in peril. Prayer chains, as the Reverend Burton Janes, a Pentecostal pastor and historian, tells me, have a long tradition among some Christians in our province. They are conducted locally by volunteers on a list and activated as needs arise. One person calls another until the entire list has been contacted and all pray together for the people in need and their problems.
There is also, in Pentecostal circles, a more formal prayer chain kept at the denominational head office and published in each issue of Good Tidings. In 1946, Pastor Eugene Vaters, the Pentecostal superintendent, mentioned that a prayer chain had existed perhaps since the inception of the movement and once was even international in scope.
The rescue did not end with the crews return. After the successful outcome, the Pentecostal church in Port de Grave convened a special thanksgiving service, in which the skipper publicly acknowledged that it was his faith that had brought him through this ordeal.
At the same time, however, he also emphasized the importance of good equipment and training.
One thing Id like to do, Stokes said at the meeting, is to encourage fishermen to make sure that all safety equipment is working on board our boats and do drills on board.
And Chess Petten, owner of the Nautical Legacy, thanked the rescuers with words that could express only inadequately what we feel for you fellows.
Pastor Moral Bess judged the survival as nothing short of a miracle and gave praise that Gods grace was with the vessel and her crew.
Religious responses such as these do not answer all theological questions about why lives are threatened by such a tragedy and why other people have perished in similar situations.
They do, however, demonstrate that faith commitments are more than intellectual choices, privately held, and that faith in the 21st century can coexist credibly side-by-side with scientific knowledge, technology and human skills.
Faith still sustains people in crises. For the people in need and people at home, faith establishes, through prayer, meaningful links between them, their God and their loved ones.
Such events can even strengthen the identity of the wider community, as the recent thanksgiving service in Port de Grave clearly demonstrated.
Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org