Text: Hebrews 11:1-2, 12:1-3 (“a great cloud of witnesses”)
The photo on the slide behind me is of my grandfather, Mackenzie Rutherford, at age 61 years. It was published in a Belleville Ontario newspaper in 1951 the day after he and my mother were caught up in a bank robbery in Colborne, which is the town nearest my grandparents’ farm.
I came upon this photo recently while doing an Internet search. It startled me because I remember it well from childhood. A framed copy of it hung in the upstairs hallway of the house where my grandparents had retired in 1960.
I did this search because Kim was reading a book called “Fatal Intentions: True Canadian Crime Stories,” and one of the criminals it profiles is Edwin Alonzo Boyd. Boyd was the head of the notorious Boyd Gang of the early 1950’s when he was probably the most famous criminal in Canada .
Kim remembered me saying that my grandfather had been hurt in one of Boyd’s robberies, but noted the book didn’t mention a robbery in Colborne. So, I did a search for the Boyd Gang and Colborne and found grandpa’s photo on the website of the Colborne Library. It is taken from a book called “How Firm a Foundation: A History of the Village of Colborne.” Beneath the photo, it says “Mac Rutherford sporting a bandage after being slugged by a member of the infamous Boyd Gang during a bank robbery.”
This story has special resonance for me because of the role it played in sparking the relationship between my father, James Clare Kellogg, and my mother, Mary Rutherford.
In 1951, my mother was a school teacher in Belleville. On the day of the robbery, she had gone to a bank in Colborne with her father to withdraw money for a weekend shopping trip to Buffalo NY with some girlfriends. While they were in the bank, Edwin Boyd and his gang robbed it; and when one of the gang members demanded that all the people in the bank lie down on the floor, my grandfather Mac refused, which is why he was pistol-whipped and knocked unconscious.
Despite the fright of this experience, the next day my mother got on the bus to Toronto to meet her friends. But on the way, she stopped at the farmhouse of my uncle, Lloyd Kellogg, which was on the highway to Toronto and across the highway from the farmhouse where he and my father had been raised by my paternal grandparents. My mother was a close friend of Lloyd’s wife, my aunt. In fact, she had been one of my aunt’s wedding attendants in 1949. So, my parents already knew each other. They had grown up on farms about 40 km apart, and had crossed paths many times. But they had never dated.
That Saturday, it so happened that my father was also visiting his brother and sister-in-law. In 1951, he was a newly ordained United Church minister about 50 km north of the family farm. When he heard my mother tell the dramatic story of the robbery and the attack on her father, he volunteered to drive her the rest of the way to Toronto.
This two-hour drive was the first time my parents had an in-depth conversation. Soon, they were dating. A few months later, they were engaged; and just over a year later, they were married.
Remembering this story brought to my mind the vagaries of life and how the wounds and blessings from the past are often intertwined.
Last week, Kim and I watched a 2011 movie about the Boyd Gang. Called “Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster,” it dramatizes Boyd’s criminal career. I recommend it. Boyd is played by Canadian heartthrob Scott Speedman. A snowy Sault Ste. Marie subs for 1950’s Toronto; and I think it tells Boyd’s story fairly well. I was disappointed, however, that my mother and grandfather didn’t make an appearance!
The film displays an epigraph over opening scenes of battles from World War II, which reads “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.”
The movie shows Edwin Boyd struggling to adjust to life as a bus driver in Toronto following his time in the Canadian army in Europe in WWII.
My grandfather was also a veteran. He was badly wounded in France in 1915; and I imagine this might have played a role when he was caught up in the 1951 robbery.
Boyd, a bank robber acting out some of the trauma he had experienced in combat, couldn’t intimidate my grandfather. Perhaps my grandfather decided he wasn’t going to obey a criminal in 1951 having stood up to the Germans in 1915.
It is also likely that I wouldn’t be here except for that robbery, for my grandfather’s foolish courage, and for the conversation that Boyd’s violence sparked between my parents.
This doesn’t mean I am grateful that Edwin Boyd was a bank robber or that he knocked my grandfather unconscious. But it does show in a sharper way than I had previously realized how the trauma of war marks my family’s life.
When my mother died three years ago, I reflected on how her life and that of my father were influenced by World War One. The Great War of 1914-1918 had revealed to millions both the evil nature of empire and a previously unseen potential for ordinary people to unite from below and so create a world of abundance and peace. In my mother’s case, these revelations came through her father.
In my father’s case, these revelations came through one of his teachers, the Rev. Dr. Paul Tillich, who was himself traumatized and transformed by his experiences as a Lutheran chaplain in the Germany army in 1915, and who taught my father theology in New York in 1948-49.
My parents lived in a kind of no-man’s land between the trauma of imperialist war and the possibilities for liberation. So do we all.
On this scary weekend of Halloween and All Saints Day, many around the world are anxiously waiting to learn the results of the U.S. general elections on Tuesday and praying they don’t lead to civil unrest.
We love the world even as we wish it didn’t include war and racism, or physical violence and robbery. But this is the only world we have.
Me and my siblings may have been “raised on robbery” to use the title of a 1974 Joni Mitchell song. But that doesn’t mean we don’t give thanks for our ancestors and the many ways they bless us, even when they also transmit the trauma of their wounds.
In today’s reading from Hebrews the author talks about a “great cloud of witnesses,” by which he means the saints of Israel’s past. But the heroes the book of Hebrews lists contain figures who are at least as violent as Edwin Boyd – Joshua, who leads the conquest of Canaan, King David who murders a man to have his wife, Elijah who murders the priests of Baal, and so on.
This weekend, we remember our ancestors, but we don’t need to do so uncritically. Canada, like Israel and all other nations, has a history filled with sinners as well as saints. So do most families, I suspect.
And yet our ancestors and their checkered lives have led us to this blessed moment. It may be a moment marked by war, crime, and pain, but it is also one lit up by kindness, solidarity, and compassion.
Who knows what wounds or blessings the voters in swing states like Pennsylvania and Florida will bequeath to their descendants when they vote on Tuesday? Regardless, the world shaped by their actions will be the only place their descendants will experience love. I pray that our descendants will find time to honour our efforts to bless them with our lives, twisted though they may sometimes be by pain.
The lives of my grandparents, my parents, and all of us are attempts to make real our sacred values despite the legacy of violence we inherit. May our stumbling efforts to forge families of love raise us too into that great cloud of witnesses who will guide the generations to come.
May it be so. Amen.