Back to Christmas 2005. It is not a Christmas I am looking forward to. It has been a lousy year, and I simply want to forget all the things that have gone wrong. Christmas promises to cast them in sharp relief, as Christmas is wont to do.
By Christmas Eve, I am ready to find a dark corner and hide. Trudging off to a Christmas Eve church service is not an idea I relish. My wife, however, makes it clear that she and the kids will go with or without me. Offhandedly, she mentions that Ken Whiteley, a blues and gospel musician whom I greatly admire, is going to play at the Christmas Eve service at Emmanuel Howard Park United, not far from our home in west Toronto. I think about it and conclude that misery is no fun without company. I get my hat and coat.
A steady stream of people make their way along the dark, icy streets to the big old church on Roncesvalles Avenue. Inside, the sanctuary is filling up quickly with fidgety kids, pale and stressed-out parents, adoring grandparents, the well-to-do, the poor, the homeless, the confused, the lonely. It is hot, noisy and chaotic.
At the front of the sanctuary, Ken Whiteley and his son Ben are tuning their guitars and testing the church's crackly sound system. I notice he has brought along a couple of friends, Amoy and Ciceal Levy. Amoy and Ciceal are gospel-singing sisters whose soulful harmonies were forged in a storefront church in one of Toronto's grittier neighbourhoods and who continue to stir hearts in big suburban Pentecostal churches and recording studios across the city. They're among the best gospel singers in Canada but have never quite managed to earn a living from it. Ciceal is a stay-at-home mom with three small children. Amoy works as an auto-impounder for the provincial roads department. Balancing the day-to-day grind with singing is hard. I once asked Amoy how they manage to do it. "Because, honey, we believe," she answered, "we believe."
No processional or anthem formally kicks off the service. Rather, it seems to start naturally from the energy already there. The minister, Rev. Cheri diNovo, who has since been elected to the provincial legislature, stands serenely in her pulpit, taking it all in. She holds out her hands and calls the assembly to order with a simple, "Welcome, everyone."
The service is loose, almost free-flowing. Whiteley and the Levy sisters are seasoned performers and can feel the electricity in the air. From their first number, they channel it, amplify it and send it back. Whitely pounds out the gospel rhythms on his guitar while the sisters rock and sway and drive the beat with tambourines and sharp handclaps. Their harmonies soar up into the rafters. I look around and see that some of the people in the sanctuary aren't sure what to make of it. But it isn't long before they're clapping and singing along with everyone else.
It's raucous and ragged, unlike any Christmas Eve service I've seen before, yet I feel a strange and lovely calm wash over me, a sense that I am meant to be here, that all of us are meant to be in this hodge-podge place. It occurs to me that Bethlehem 2,000 years ago was a hodge-podge place, too. I close my eyes and grant Christmas 2005 permission to pass through my defences. The travails of the past year can wait. What matters now is this moment, this night. It is anything but silent, but it is holy.
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