Beloved reverend moving on

Rector Harold Munn walks down Quadra Street leaving the Church of St. John the Divine behind him. Some of the street-entrenched people he helped attended his final service

Rector Harold Munn walks down Quadra Street leaving the Church of St. John the Divine behind him. Some of the street-entrenched people he helped attended his final service

Harold Munn, who officiated at his last service Sunday, always opened the door to the homeless community

It seemed a grand adventure to a little boy of seven.

After a chance Sunday-morning visit to the church in Lytton, B.C., young Harold’s father decided he’d found home.

Eric Munn left his cushy posting as a priest in Victoria, packed up his family and moved to the rough, rural area.

“I could ride my bicycle everywhere, there were trains all over the place and I loved trains,” recalls Harold Munn, who is moving on from his job as rector at St. John the Divine Anglican Church.

What he didn’t understand at the time was the sacrifices his parents made, or the calling his dad felt to look after the congregation in the decrepit church.

Eric regularly left on multiple-day trips on horseback, visiting the remote villages in the Fraser Canyon without road access.

“He drank water out of mosquito-infested barrels, because the people did,” says Munn. He watched his father take the concerns of First Nations people very seriously, in an era when few did.

“The result was that I grew up taking such people seriously, because I thought that was normal,” he says, breaking up in a hearty laugh at his naïve perspective.

Munn brought these lessons to his own ministry, first in the Yukon, then in Edmonton and finally in Victoria.

He expressed interest in the opening at St. John in 1998 due to its reputation for having a very active congregation.

Munn helped take this social engagement to the next level.

“In the late ’90s, homelessness was becoming a visible issue and St. John’s was at the epicentre,” he says.

While the church always operated a food bank, it began opening its space as a homeless shelter.

Among other outreach programs were an evening drop-in centre and dinner for street youth and a mentoring program that matches people newly released from prison with volunteers.

It’s about putting faith into action.

“I think that faith is about becoming more and more aware that there is a deep goodness underneath the universe,” says Munn. “You can’t prove it, but it makes a huge difference if you start trusting that.”

Since human society is intended to be good, the logical consequence is that everybody deserves inclusion and dignity, he explains.

To have faith but not act on it, is like believing in air “but deciding we’re not going to breathe.”

“Harold has a passion for social justice that he has extended in a very holistic way into the community,” says rector’s warden Kathleen Gibson, who has been involved with the church for 50 years.

Last September, Munn organized a conference called City Street Church. It brought together government, social agencies and the faith communities, with the goal of partnering in a common cause.

“It was the first time that the church had been acknowledged as an equal player,” Gibson says.

Rev. Brenda Nestegaard Paul of Grace Lutheran Church got to know Munn through the Victoria Downtown Churches Association, which she now chairs.

“He is a very humble person … but he is not shy to speak when he needs to speak, and when he speaks you listen because it’s not something that he does constantly.”

When homelessness is on the doorstep, you can shut the door or you make the decision to advocate, says Nestegaard Paul. “Harold chose the latter.”

Last Sunday Munn held his final service at St. John the Divine.

Married with two adult sons, he is moving to Vancouver, where he will work part-time at the University of B.C. teaching theological students preparing to be ordained.

One of his sons may be one of his students.

A few years ago, Munn gave his son a glimpse into his late trailblazing grandfather, Eric.

The two went to Lytton. They visited a village, now with road access, and saw the abandoned church, complete with the ramshackle addition built to house Eric when he spent the night.

“We stood in that village and thought, ‘Holy crow – he came here in the 1950s – unbelievable.’ I would imagine no white person had ever volunteered to go to that village, except for the RCMP,” says Munn.

The next morning, father and son went to the only restaurant in town that was serving  breakfast.

Soon, First Nations people started filing in. “After a while, I began to realize they were looking at me, expecting me to make some contact,” Munn says.

“They knew where I would have to have breakfast, so they turned up (and) started telling stories about my dad.”

rholmen@vicnews.com