Wednesday, December 9, 2015

How Did I Come To Write The Story Of The Scott Mission? Part 1


Back in the spring of 1980, while I was a theology student at Knox College, I took a history course in the Social Gospel of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was an eye-opener—introducing me to Christians who wanted to see genuine Biblical principles applied in society. They went after wealthy church-going landlords whose tenants couldn’t get indoor plumbing and employers who had children working in mines and textile mills. Leaders of the social gospel insisted that the character of Christianity should match the priorities of Messiah.

Those were great stories, yet someone else had drawn my attention. In the centre of our library was a display case with a Torah scroll. It was donated by a Knox graduate, Rev. Morris Zeidman, founder of the Scott Mission on his return from Europe—a trip that had taken place after WWII to his native Poland.

That small Torah scroll with its polished brass breastplate and silver yad (the pointer for use on the scroll) was a touching artifact, reminding me that I wasn’t the only Jew who had attended the seminary. I wasn’t a Presbyterian, but Zeidman was an intriguing figure and his son, Alex—another graduate—was a respected figure in the college. Only a few years before, he’d been the presenter in a distinguished annual lecture series. And who didn’t know the work of the Scott Mission? Its work among the poor and needy was a well-known fixture on the Toronto landscape.

My professor, Calvin Pater, was delighted with the choice of subject. Pater was a remarkably able historian—one of the most adept Reformation scholars in Canada in his own areas of specialty. I instinctively liked him and it’s taken me some time to realize what a profound effect his kindness and encouragement provided. 

I plunged ahead and was genuinely surprised at what I found—a rich history of local Jewish believers whose ministry I could still see echoing in the Toronto Messianic Jewish community where I was a relative newcomer. We were only beginning to emerge—it had been just a few years since the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America had become the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (1975).  We were just beginning the movement of Messianic Jewish congregations, and the term Hebrew Christian was no longer used by my generation. But Morris Zeidman had been advocating for an indigenous, Hebrew Christian church movement in the 1930s.

The name of the Scott Mission—often imagined to refer to the origins of his denomination—is actually named for Zeidman’s mentor; one of the original promoters of Jewish evangelism in Toronto, Rev. John Macpherson Scott. He was the much-loved pastor who oversaw a Sunday School of 1,000 children at Riverdale Presbyterian Church.  Those who attended used to say that he knew every child by name.

Scott had brought Rev. Sabati Ben Rohold to Canada from Glasgow to oversee a new Presbyterian Jewish mission in 1908.  It proved so successful, that within 5 years, Scott had built one of the most impressive mission buildings in North America:  the Christian Synagogue. It boasted a free dispensary and medical clinic, and meeting rooms for its own congregation.

Rohold, the son of a rabbi who grew up in Jerusalem and received excellent rabbinical training, had drawn the young Zeidman to Yeshua and nurtured his faith. In 1921, he left Toronto to open a mission in Haifa.  After graduating from Knox in 1926, Zeidman led the Toronto ministry, renamed the "Scott Institute," until he and Annie founded the newly independent Scott Mission--a non-denominational work, in 1941.

As a student, I worked hard bringing to life the remarkable story of the Scott Mission’s origins, from 1908-1941.  I dredged up reports from every annual Presbyterian national conference and went through piles of documents including old packs of letters from the Depression era still held together with elastic bands in the church archives—which were then stored in the basement of Knox College at the time.  Even the United Church Archives proved fruitful. My final coup de grace was wandering into the Osgoode Hall law library, where a student lawyer finally took pity on me, helped me find the legal case that had Zeidman facing off against his own denomination and showed me how to write the footnote.

After receiving my paper, Dr. Pater was adamant—I must get this published. But I didn’t believe him, or rather, I didn’t believe in myself. 

Years later, because a copy of my essay had ended up in the Presbyterian Church Archives attached to the files on The Scott Mission, references to it kept showing up in books.  I had taken a course with Paul Dekar at McMaster Div. College in Hamilton and in a published essay on Jewish missions in Canada, he devoted a long footnote to my work—insisting that it was essential reading on the topic. One of the important books on the Canadian response to the Holocaust, How Silent Were the Churches, also referred to my research.  These weren’t the only examples. 

Almost a decade after graduation, an elder in our Messianic congregation worked as the chaplain at the Scott. He invited me to speak there during one of their staff devotions. One of the people I met at that time was Elaine Markovic. I also took the initiative to visit Morris’s widow, Annie, before she passed away and spoke to her about the old days. I later attended Alex’s funeral in 1986—a devastating event where hundreds of mourners crowded into the great auditorium of Knox Church on Spadina.

All these connections, though, seemed fleeting.

And then, in 2007, I was praying for a new book project.  My journalism and editing career had been successful enough.  But after I  spent years writing a novel, I had a wonderful writer, Rosemary Aubert, evaluate the manuscript. I'd done well enough, she said—“But publishers aren’t taking first novels like this anymore.” She suggested I write a few more books and come back to it later. In other words, I was about 10-20 years too late. 

I began to pray. In those days, I found that prayer and walking went together.  I was on my usual route through Willowdale’s tree-lined streets when Elaine’s image came to mind. I had heard she was ill. I ought to pray for her.  And then I thought further—she really is the last remaining child of Morris and Annie actively engaged in the ministry—shouldn’t her story be told now?

I prayed about this for months, unsure how to approach her. And then, after we were both leaving a crowded Marty Goetz concert, she was close enough for me to reach over and say: “Elaine, I’d like to talk to you about writing your story.” She knew exactly who I was and took my business card. Months later, and several conversations later, my lawyer had drawn up a contract. 

And that’s how the journey began. I was commissioned to write Elaine's personal story in the setting of the Mission where she had worked for over 50 years.  The book was not to exceed 75 pages and should have been finished by the spring of 2009.  

So how did a book of 296 pp. turn up six years later?  Apparently there's more to tell.