Tribute to his father becomes an unexpected journey of faith

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Submitted by Ken Sawatzky

My father began preaching in the Altona area in 1959. Shortly after his 97th birthday on Feb. 6, 2018, he became ill and was hospitalized for what ended up being the remainder of his earthly life.
A few months before his passing, I asked him whether or not he had visited all the churches in the area.
When he told me he had not, I decided I would visit each one and report my personal opinions to him every Sunday at noon.
One thing I was looking for in particular was a style similar to my dad’s – blunt and to the point.
Previously, a member of the congregation my father preached to told me, “When I left the church after listening to your dad, I always knew where I stood with God.”
The impressions my dad’s sermons left with people, including myself, were unique and powerful. I knew his time was running out so I decided to start with the churches he never attended.
I had no idea what to expect and certainly hadn’t anticipated the profound effect this mission would have on me.
It opened my eyes to seeing the diversity in our own community; how I, my neighbours and friends all seem to have our own comfort zones when it comes to worshipping the same God.
What began as a tribute to my father quickly became an unexpected journey of faith, freedom and personal reflection.
The first church was built in Altona 100 years ago, in 1918, by 14 members of the Sommerfelder Church. This building still stands today, and is owned by the Kiddie Sunshine Centre.
We now have 13 registered churches in Altona.
As I started attending services, the diversity in this community quickly became clear. How we practice our faith and how we interpret the Bible often comes down to what we want to believe and are comfortable with.
Tradition plays a large role, as well. There are churches keeping the tradition of kneeling during prayer. There are churches that have silent prayer while standing and churches that pray on their knees, facing forward, out loud. I have to say, this last one sent chills up my spine. It was the most incredible thing I have ever heard.
There are churches where singing is done without musical instruments and some with loud rock’n roll type bands.
In some churches, people jump for joy while singing and dancing in the aisles, whereas other congregations simply stand or sit to worship.
One thing I noticed about the singing was, in the churches where everyone was seated during worship, the voices were much louder. I believe that is because senior people still love to sing, but if they are unable to stand, their voices get lost in the masses.
The churches varied in size from 10 people to 20 people, a few have 40 to 60 people in attendance, and others have over a hundred. Some churches have virtually no young people in the pews. Most churches still have the message delivered by a pastor or guest pastor, and some don’t have designated congregational leaders. Female pastors lead some churches, and male pastors lead others.
Some are hooked up to satellite and watch the sermon on TV. Some churches have a group reading of the scriptures where they pass the microphone in a roundtable discussion, and some hold the tradition where women do not take part in public scripture discussion.
Some of the churches believe God loves everyone and welcomes everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or lifestyles; others are not as liberal in their ways of thinking. A number of churches are seeking to fill their congregation with the Holy Spirit. One church still practices an old tradition of Protestants and Germans where men great each other with the “Holy Kiss”.
While I was on this journey, I made a point of going into these places of worship with an open mind and did not allow myself to compare one to the other. I made sure to wear my regular churchgoing clothes; regardless of which one I visited, a Harley biker vest was included in the ensemble.
I felt accepted by all the congregations, some more than others.
Throughout all the services I attended, I did not find the bluntness of the gospel my dad used to belt out. The kind where feelings of guilt follow you around for days afterwards…then when you’re finally rid of them, you find yourself sitting in a pew, ready to repeat the process all over again. The kind that wake you up out of your daily fog, forcing you to reflect on your life and how you’re living it.
Sometimes I think we’ve become too cautious and afraid to offend others by speaking truth. If the truth comes out of love, how can it be offensive?
Each church I visited was unique and all of the sermons were delivered very well.
Traditions and a foundation of the gospel are alive and well in our community – my hats off to our local preachers for a job well done.
My dad enjoyed the weekly reports during his time in the hospital. Unfortunately I was not able to visit all 13 churches before his passing, but I assured him I would carry on until the task was complete.
If I can provide one piece of encouragement for our pastors, it would be: don’t be afraid to remind us of our shortcomings. Knowing where we stand with God is a hard thing to accept, but it makes us stronger in the long run.
After all, one of the reasons we go to church is to be taught how to lead a better life, and to prepare us for the next one.