I had just fallen asleep, comfortable in my bed on an unusually cold June night, when the call came over my pager: a four-year-old boy, lost.
Many hearts leapt into throats at those words. Over the next few hours, almost 100 people from various services, most of them volunteers, gathered at the scene. In teams, we searched ditches, woods and fields. The temperature dropped to near-freezing. Zippers migrated to chins and brows furrowed. Sleep would be postponed; day jobs would wait. No one was leaving until that boy was found.
I am a United Church minister, ordained in 1999 and currently serving the Lower and Middle Musquodoboit Pastoral Charges in Nova Scotia. A year ago, I also became a volunteer medical responder, a brand new volunteer category designed to help fill gaps in the shortage of volunteer firefighters in rural Nova Scotia. Until I joined their ranks, it never occurred to me that there was this nocturnal band of quiet volunteers riding in sirened vehicles and responding to emergencies.
Why do they do it? Why do I do it? It’s all about call. It’s about ordinary village folks with day jobs, like Tim Flemming who works advising farmers for Agriculture Canada. But when the sun sets, he is transformed by his volunteer firefighter’s uniform into a middle-of-the-night worker battling in the fields of vulnerability. I am not sure whether Tim or many of the others would say they are called by God, but they sure do talk the language of call.
For example, not long ago, a representative from Halifax Fire asked whether offering an honorarium would be an effective way to recruit more volunteers. The volunteer firefighters told him it was a bad idea. People would begin to volunteer for the wrong reasons, they said. People should just want to do it because they feel called to serve their communities, they said. The representative nodded and sighed.
Five hours after that call came in for the missing boy, he was found at the bottom of a swimming pool. From the boy’s house, anguished cries tore through the night. Volunteers comforted one another.
Tragedies like this one wound us all. Yet, that is “call” — the inclination to put oneself in the service of community at its most vulnerable moments. All of the volunteers returned to their day jobs, exhausted. For me, that involved touching base with those most affected by the loss, then making some kind of meaningful, interpretive connection on Sunday morning to worried and wondering congregants. Where is God when a child dies?
Sometimes call also means having to admit that you do not fully know. You can only bear witness to a group of men and women who willingly gathered in the middle of a cold night, folks whose hearts rose in response to a radio message, then collectively broke.
And they will do it again, knowing their hearts will surely break again, for that is the nature of call from the One whose heart breaks open for us all.
Rev. Linda Yates is a minister and volunteer medical responder in the Musquodoboit Valley, N.S.