Grow somewhere we’re needed
Some events are so widely, simultaneously and deeply felt, they become etched in our collective minds forever. We know exactly where we were, what we were doing and who we were with.
When I found out Princess Diana had died, I had just come downstairs on Labour Day after having stayed up way too late partying (the only party I was ever invited to in high school). I was ready to enjoy my final day of summer vacation…quietly. Standing at the kitchen counter, pouring a glass of orange juice, I turned on my family’s 40 year old radio and heard the news.
When I found out a plane had hit the World Trade Centre, I was 18 years old and had just moved to Toronto. I was vacuuming our tiny basement apartment when my friends (American citizens) frantically yelled for me to come upstairs. We sat in the bedroom of their father’s house—the only room with a television—and watched, our bodies frozen in horrow, as the second plane hit the tower.
Years from now, if anybody asks, I am certain I’ll be able to tell them exactly where I was and what I was doing when I found out Gord Downie had died. My husband and I were driving from East Gwillimbury to Toronto. We were listening to Boom 97.3 (because we’re old now) and I noticed the station had played two Tragically Hip songs in a row. “Oh no. I wonder if something has happened…” So I checked my phone, and there was the headline. My husband and I sat there, sad and crying, the rest of the drive into the city. Then we consulted with the others involved with the worship service we were leading to add “Bobcaygeon” to the liturgy; a tribute to its writer.
I became a Tragically Hip fan shortly after moving to Toronto and immersing myself within the songwriting community. As I began writing my own compositions, I found myself pouring over Gord’s lyrics; lyrics about Canada without falling into the trap of promoting a nationalist religion. Musings about God, the justice system, our relationship to Indigenous peoples and hockey—sometimes all in the same song! I have heard The Hip played in seedy bars and history classes, rowdy cottage parties and church sanctuaries. The music has something for almost everybody. It’s accessible, but the option to seek more is there for those who wish to dig deeper.
But even more than his music, I loved Gord Downie for being the person who finally took the conversation about how settler culture has affected Indigenous peoples to a whole different level. An emotional level. A visceral level. With his incredible telling of the final days of Chanie Wenjak, the horror of the residential school system was taken out of the realm of statistics and became manifest in the body of a small 12 year old boy who was just trying to get home.
There is much to say about the fact it took a white man to do this—after all, Indigenous peoples have been sharing their own stories of neglect and abuse within residential schools for years—but Gord was able to take the platform provided to him after his cancer diagnosis and use it to advocate for reconciliation—not as an abstract concept, but as something real in which all of us have a part. Gord set out a call to action—do something. In many ways, the news of his imminent death sparked a possibility of healing for so many others throughout the country.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think on these things. Whatever you have learned and received and heard from me, and seen in me, put these things into practice. (Phillippians 4:8-9)
We’ll have the opportunity to laugh and cry and celebrate Gord Downie’s life next month with:
Courage: A Liturgy Exploring Strength in the Face of Fear
featuring music by The Tragically Hip
November 26, 2017 7:00pm at Sharon Hope United Church