Their story would have made an agreeable Ensign article were it not for that later development that ruined its beauty. Oh, believe me, I was tempted to censor the second part. But it would feel like cheating. Besides, the aftermath carries the morale of the story.
It all happened many years ago in that minuscule branch I attended during my graduate studies. Their names were Gerard and Etienne. Both men were Flemish coalminers in this already distant past when thousands of pit men descended daily in the Walloon shafts in Southern Belgium.
I was somewhat familiar with the work in the deep darkness, having known as a child a talkative coalminer. He lived in the vicinity of our countryside summer cabin and often came to make some extra money, clearing garden paths or pruning trees. I was fascinated by his activity in the depths of the earth and he enjoyed introducing this 11-year-old city boy to his world. One summer my parents asked him to dig a deep water pit. For days I watched his labor. He used the endeavor to teach me the principles of excavation and reinforcement. Each day at noon, after spooning up the bowl of soup my mother brought him, he would draw, in the heap of sand and clay next to the pit, layers, shafts, and drifts – naming their varieties and characteristics. As the water pit grew deeper, he installed a drum with hoisting rope, built a little platform over the gaping hole and had me empty the buckets next to the shaft. My imagination, nurtured by my mentor’s vibrant descriptions, did the rest. Amidst a dozen miners I stepped into the cage. We were wearing our hard-hats and headlamps and down it went, down and down, to the lowest junction, some 3,000 feet deep, from where the black bowels with bolted roofs, sparsely lit, split out. We sat down, tight to each other, in a track-mounted carrier which took us rumbling through a lengthy haulage way, further and further away from the exit’s safety. Then, at a cross-cut, we walked into a drift and followed the meandering coal vein, until we reached the front chamber where labor would begin — blasting, drilling, hewing, digging, and loading ore and muck.
– Wilfried! Dreaming again! called my mentor from the bottom of the pit.
I grabbed the bucket filled with moist sand and emptied it.
All right, you wonder, where is Gerard and Etienne’s story? Well, I had to clarify that when I got to know those two Mormon coalminers in that tiny Flemish branch, two familiar spheres merged in my mind, the marvels of the Gospel and those of the subterranean world. Besides, that world and its symbols are at the core of the religious part of the story. I would never have fully understood its dimension without my childhood’s experience and the words of my mentor, who, next to the details of mining, also taught me the victory of those who labored in the darkest depth — the victory of human dignity over conditions aimed at destroying it.
Etienne had been a Latter-day Saint for a longer time than Gerard. He was one of the very first Mormon converts in this Flemish city, mid 1950s. One may wonder what brought this tall and skinny workman, from socialist stock, rooted in a realm of drinking and swearing, to accept the message of two young Americans, to give up tobacco and alcohol, and become a persuaded and persuasive Latter-day Saint. Six months after his baptism he was ordained a deacon, as was customary at the time, then was advanced, semester by semester, until an elder. Though one of the two missionaries presided over the tiny branch, Etienne was quickly called to give talks and lessons to the handful of older sisters, stalwart souls, who had dared to abandon almighty Catholicism to cast their lot entirely with this infinitesimal cult, meeting in a small and shabby rowhouse, on a street called Gibbet’s Hill.
Then entered Gerard. He later told me his conversion story in detail. He was from the same area as Etienne, worked in the same mine, on the same night shift, with the same expertise: securing the safety of newly excavated drifts, by timbering, arching, cribbing, beaming, bolting. Every day, late afternoon, they left on one of the old company’s busses that took Flemish mineworkers to Wallonia’s black region, the land of triangular slag heaps set against a grey horizon, of steaming washboilers and grit-spewing chimneys. Fourteen hours later, a sooty bus would drop off the worn-out men, coal dust still in their eyelids, in spite of the soapy showers right after work.
Gerard told me: “There were eleven hundred mineworkers in our mine. We all drank and swore. Except one: Etienne. He was different. He was proud to be different. I was curious why he seemed so happy, so we talked, during our breaks in the mine, about his religion. We chose a quiet corner in a drift. There, at a depth of 4,000 feet, I heard for the first time about the celestial kingdom.”
Etienne the proselytizer was a master at comparisons. For Gerard he illustrated doctrines, principles and ordinances with all that the mine had to offer. Heading into galleries and drifts is like life: one needs directions, air and light to give purpose and safety to the journey. Revelation is receiving instructions from a geologist, who can probe beyond the walls and within the strata, pointing out where the best beds of thick coal will be encountered. The worker has to accept it in faith and first drive through worthless mudstone or friable rock to reach the promised solid ore. If he then hits the purest anthracite, it is like the fullness of the Gospel. But dangers are looming. Infractions to safety rules are the sins that can destroy us. The various kinds of wall and roof reinforcements – Gerard and Etienne’s daily duty – became symbols for assorted commandments: segmental colliery arches for chastity, bolts with threaded expansion shells for tithing, wooden lagging for the Word of Wisdom.
Baptism? Through a narrow, unlit incline Etienne took Gerard to a sump — a large underground excavation to collect water. Within that cavern his portrayal of the ordinance visualized how two figures in immaculate white stepped into the dusky basin, while the surrounding walls mirrored the reflection of the lamps on the water, suggesting the presence of angels. If they had had permission and apt clothing, Etienne would have baptized Gerard right there.
Etienne did baptize Gerard a few months later, but in their home town’s swimming pool. Then, every six months, a priesthood ordination followed.
– After eighteen months, Gerard told me, I was a priest. It was such a wondrous occasion to be able to bless the sacrament for the first time. I still remember the hymn we sang: God Our Father, Hear Us Pray.
A semester later he was an elder too.
For two years I met every Sunday with that handful of Saints. Gerard taught the priesthood lesson to Etienne, the missionaries and me. Then Etienne took over for Sunday School, as our group expanded with two or three older sisters. Etienne could preach for an hour, in a peaceful, enchanting way, as if he had assimilated sermons from childhood. The mining metaphors were never far away.
During the week I attended my graduate classes — I recall vaguely Rudolf Boehm’s course on the phenomenology of Husserl and Roger Dragonetti’s course on medieval literary techniques. But each Sabbath I delighted more in the handshake, the smile and the words of two coalminers, in a small living room, called our chapel, on Gibbet’s Hill.
Here the sweet story would end. I was tempted to leave it at that, but do we draw sufficient lessons from idyllic events turning into quiet routine?
And so, one Sunday, towards the end of my stay in that city, it happened. I cannot recall the precise reason nor the circumstances, because it happened so abruptly, so totally inconceivably that it struck me dumb, as well as the missionaries and the older sisters. It was, to pursue the mining imagery, as if a whole gallery caved in, shattering arches, bolts, bars, wedges, poles and planks. Or as if a methane explosion engulfed the mine.
Across the Sacrament table, Gerard and Etienne were yelling at each other.
Only years later, after witnessing similar incidents with members in the mission field and having gained a modest insight in the meanderings of some converts’ psyche, did I understand what was, actually, a simple affair to elucidate.
Gerard had been called as branch president, Etienne had remained Sunday School president. And so, somewhere, somehow, relations had been altered, expectations sprained, sleeping ambitions awoken or frustrated. In the primitive Church realm at Gibbet’s Hill, devoid of long traditions in callings and releases, the tension burst in its rawest form. There came no end to it. In spite of numerous reconciliations, quarrels continued to break out. Eventually, both men became inactive.
However painful, what I learned was beneficial. Certainly, people accept the Restored Gospel for valid reasons. But some, I presume by and large unconsciously, unintentionally, also fall for the charm of recognition and appreciation from the community they enter. And a few, notably in immature fields, are attracted to the prompt opportunity to lead and preach. In time that seductive enjoyment may prevail over other feelings. It is stimulated by our lay organization, where anyone can be someone, or at least think to be someone — priest, elder, president, counselor, teacher. It is stirred by our pulpit rhetoric, when leaders praise each other, but by so doing also foster envy, while omissions trigger resentment. It is encouraged by as simple a thing as seating on the stand. Those among us who are totally unaffected by such sentiments are as innocent as they are mature.
In the mission field the matter often pervades the small assembly. The conversion process lifts discarded or frustrated human beings to a new life, but that includes both the satisfaction and the temptations of its splendor. We say a calling keeps a convert active. True, but I have also seen scores become inactive, partly or even mainly, because of callings and their unintended consequences.
Gerard and Etienne… Two coalminers I remember with deep affection. I learned much from them, both from their dedication and from their human foible. I will not refer to D&C 121:37-39. It was not that these good men used their callings to cover their sins, or to exercise unrighteous dominion. But in their primitive Church context we probably failed in providing sufficient guidance and warnings. That distressing process persists today in many young units. As the Church expands into new territory, in particular in countries where hierarchical relations are deeply ingrained in patriarchal, nepotic, tribal or single-party traditions, the training on how to handle callings and releases deserves, I believe, special attention.
At the same time, to counter any negative taste this post may leave, it is obvious that no other Church provides as much opportunity to all its members to learn to serve, cooperate, guide, obey, accept, and to grow. Callings are an essential part of that enhancement, but entail challenges and risks.
Commenters, no doubt, could point out that the conflictual intricacies of leadership relations, and ambition-driven strategies, veiled and sly, are not limited to the immature realm of the mission field. I’m not inviting anecdotes to illustrate it, but I would welcome constructive suggestions for the benefit of us all.