Reuben Warner was my roommate in the St. Boniface Hospital during my first hospital stay in January 2001. He had arrived a day and half before me. He had been blocked for a few weeks, he was bloated, he was diagnosed with a circumferential tumour high on his descending colon. If memory serves, he had his colostomy earlier than I did. I don’t think his surgeon resected his tumour when she did his colostomy, but I believe he had his major surgery much sooner than I did. He had some complications and was still in the hospital when I came back in February 2001.
I stayed in touch with him after we left the hospital. He had cancer treatment which seemed to go well. My wife and I had dinner with Reuben and his wife Phyllis a couple of times. Something went wrong in 2002. He returned to the hospital – in fact to our old ward. I visited him once. He was in pain and we didn’t talk much. He died suddenly, before I could visit again. I have never asked what happened.
When we met in 2001, I was 45, and I think he was in the second half of his 50’s. He was from Trinidad, he had gone to sea, and had somehow arrived in Winnipeg. He had gone to work in a brewery, joined the Union, and had become a senior hand and a shop steward. I am not sure how he met Phyllis, but it may have been through a church. She was a young widow with 4 children. They got married, and a daughter, who had grown and married and presented them with one grandchild, to that point, if my memory serves. They had also raised at least one of their grandchildren. Reuben and Phyllis had several grandchildren. He had enough service to retire before the company closed its last brewery in Winnipeg. He belonged to an independent evangelical Church called the Springs of Living Water or the Springs Church. He was involved in several volunteer ministries for his church, including marriage preparation classes, marriage counselling, and something related to coordinating security for their large building around their large services. He told me that he had once attended a church called the Calvary Temple and had left if for a more welcoming church. He had a great deal of respect and affection for the lead pastor of Springs, Leon Fontaine.
I have several memories of our time in the hospital. We shared little insights that different nurses have given us on exercises that we could to in bed to maintain muscle tone and circulation. We talked about our doctors, pain control, exercise and cancer treatment strategies. We didn’t talk about our anxiety, but we shared the experience of sickness and surgery. I met Phyllis and their daughters, and we often had small chats about our families. I remember the first or second day after my first surgery. He had two or three men from Trinidad visiting. I was drifting in and out, listening to discussions of the merits of different steel bands and musicians and memories of the Caribbean.
I liked and admired Reuben. He was a little shy, a little reserved but he made a point of greeting people and extending a hand of friendship with sincere goodwill. He appreciated life and had a positive outlook. He was proud of himself, and he took care to exercise, to groom himself, to consider how he presented himself, even in the hospital. He didn’t complain. The nurses liked him. When he was mobile, he greeted everyone. Most of the patients who were on the ward for more than a day or two knew him and welcomed the chance for a word and a smile. His thoughts were for his wife and his children and grandchildren.
He had many visitors from his church. It was a large church with many assistant ministers and lay ministers. One minister and some of his friends made a point of visiting in the evening and praying with him. Some of his friends from church wanted to pray at other times, and he always accomodated them. I was not in position to go anywhere to give him any more privacy and after a couple of days I realized that he didn’t mind if I heard. They were usually quiet, and I heard more than a few free-form intercessionary prayers. He was perfectly open about his faith, but he did not make it an issue. If he was evangelizing or recruiting, he did it by living his faith and living in his church. He shared his opinions in the course of conversation, and spoke about his pride in the Springs Church, and his involvement, but he did not try to discuss religious ideas. I recall only one or two times when he wanted to talk about the Bible. When I was leaving the hospital in January, when we all thought we both had cancer he shared some thoughts about the meaning of one of the Psalms in our lives at that time. I know that he prayed for me. He came down the hall to see me the day my surgeon told me that I did not have cancer and he was beaming. We had private moment of shared joy and relief. I never asked if he thought his prayers had worked, and he never showed any surprize that I was spared from the rest of the awful process of cancer treatment.
He contradicted some of my worst stereotypes about North American Christian fundamentalism. I had believed that the churches were racially segregated. Reuben’s church was happily multicultural. I had seen fundamentalists as intense and fanatical about their ideas and feelings about God and the Bible. Reuben’s life was joyful and purposeful. Many fundamentalists appear to be rule-bound, controlling, intolerant people, living in fear of breaking a church rule or convention and critical of everyone outside the church. Reuben was friendly. He knew his own values, he didn’t like immorality, but he was ready to receive a stranger and forgive. I think his faith and his church helped Reuben to be a happy and inspiring person. He embodied so many social and religious virtues. I can’t separate him from his beliefs and say that I respected the man in spite of his faith, although I disagreed with his church’s theology on many points. His steadiness in his faith and his loyalty to his church were among his endearing qualities.
Fundamentalists disagree in principle with worldly values, liberalism and modernism. Reuben’s church was socially conservative. Fundamentalists are almost, but not quite a distinctive sub-culture. Fundamentalism can be quite modern, embracing modern technology, administration and psychology and culturally comfortable in its worship services. The Springs Church had a modern organization and was well-organized in its ambitious plans for church growth and development.
Reuben tried to share some of his joy in his church with me. He gave me a tape cassette of their lead pastor explaining some of the messages in the Bible (God’s judgment on degenerates is evidenced by his destruction of cities, peoples and civilizations in Biblical times) and he invited me to visit their Church at Easter for the performance of a rock-opera style Passion Play called “The Victor” which had become an annual event in his church. The Springs Church was, in spite of its careful presentation, a typical fundamentalist church, full of loathing for identiied immorality and immoral practices and groups, ready with the scourge.
I wasn’t convinced and Reuben never pushed. Reuben’s life was a paradox to me. He was a likeable, interesting man who belonged to a church that taught some poisonous and primitive things. How does a good man find such comfort in such a harsh and bitter church?