On good old Cape Cod, the artic blasts of snow and cold over the past month take me back to a different time and place. Since I am definitely not a fan of winter, that part of that “different time and place” I had hoped would remain out of sight and out of mind (Forever!), but another part continues to warm my soul. Welcome to “O Little Town of Harrisville!”
Winds driving across Lake Ontario give birth to lake effect snow. That does not sound too bad unless you have experienced it. When bands of lake effect snow set up and blow east, Tug Hill and the villages and towns on and around it are often blessed with a foot of snowfall, sometimes for several days in a row. Season snowfall totals on Tug Hill average nearly 17 feet a year. Harrisville is located on the edge of Tug Hill.
On a warm summer’s day in 1988, my boss called and said, “The Grand Poobah has in mind appointing you as pastor of our church in Harrisville.”
“Where on God’s earth is Harrisville?” I asked.
With a hint of uncertainty in his voice, he replied, “North of Syracuse and east of Watertown.”
I grabbed an atlas. It did not show a Harrisville in New York. With no Google Maps available back then, I went to my car and found a neatly folded, Exxon-produced map of New York. I located Harrisville, 40 miles east of Watertown and 80 miles west of Saranac Lake, on NY Route 3. My heart sank. “What did I do wrong? Why was the Grand Poobah exiling me to Harrisville?”
It got worse.
A couple of days later, I loaded my family in the car and took off on a reconnaissance mission. It was 173 miles from home to Harrisville. After driving for an eternity, we saw a sign that announced “Harrisville.” We drove for another minute, maybe two, before seeing a second sign that read “Pitcairn.” What? Did we miss the turn? We reversed course and drove a bit more slowly, looking for signs of life. Eureka! Just before we crossed a small bridge over the Oswegatchie River, we spotted downtown Harrisville on our left. We made a quick turn onto the main drag and drove past a restaurant, a bar, a gas station, a small store, a bank, a post office, a bakery and a pharmacy. After some additional scouring of Harrisville’s “suburbs,” we found the school, (Grades K-12 all in one building), a couple of churches, a fire station, a bowling alley and a cemetery. That was it.
As we drove home in silence, I thought, “I have got to find a way to get out of this.” But I couldn’t. The Grand Poobah would not be moved. Harrisville was my new church and home. Get over it.
We moved about a month later. Immediately, some strange things happened. I went to the Post Office to sign up for a mailbox. The clerk said, “Welcome to Harrisville, Reverend, we are glad you are here.” The same thing happened at the bank and at the gas station when I stopped to fill up my car. How did they know that I was a Reverend? I did not tell them. My family had the same experience. People knew them, even before they were introduced. It was weird, almost spooky.
There is, however, more to the story. Not only did the good people of Harrisville know and welcome us, but they also gave us the benefit of the doubt. They decided to like and trust us. Their “like and trust” was a gift. It was only ours to lose.
My first Sunday at church, there was not hint of skepticism about the new pastor. They embraced me as if I was one of their kids returning home from college. My children had playmates before the end of the morning and a gaggle of women warmly welcomed my wife. They, without conditions, loved us. The feeling was mutual. Within 24 hours, I fell in love with the good people of Harrisville.
Despite living there less than three years, it has proven to be a lasting love affair. I still get a warm feeling in my heart when I think about gentle Fred and barber Hal or when I get an email from church secretary Marion or follow the Atkinson Family Bluegrass Band on Facebook. I will never forget how they gave a rookie pastor the benefit of the doubt. Their love and acceptance made 17 feet of snow a year acceptable. Even in the long, dark days of winter, they made me feel as if life was a perpetual spring.
We live in such a skeptical world today. Security threats and ID theft make us nervous. Better not to trust anyone. Security rests in being suspect. NEVER give ANYBODY the benefit of the doubt. This may be necessary with regard to conducting our business on the web, but it need not be true with regard to those who live near and around us. The truth is that the vast majority of people who walk this earth are good people. They deserve and need to be given the benefit the doubt. Yes, we may get burned once in a while, but more often than not, when we give the benefit of the doubt, it ignites a spark of love.
That’s the truth, a Divine truth.
John E. Holt, Cotuit, Massachusetts