By Cameron Roxburgh
This article is the fourth in a series on missional lessons from Henry Morgentaler. Start at the beginning here.
I had taken the red-eye flight from Vancouver to Toronto. Even back then I was getting too old for such things, but I wanted to spend some time with Henry, and this was the only way it was going to work.
I got into the rental car and headed out for a meeting, and then towards a neighbourhood just north of downtown Toronto. How would this encounter turn out?
I pulled up in front of the Morgentaler clinic, aware of such awful feelings inside. Little did I know how many tears I would shed that day. As if it came naturally to him, Henry had been inflammatory already. When I had called from the airport, he had insisted I meet him at his clinic. I tried to think of another place on earth that I would less like to be. All the way there, I wrestled with whether I wanted to even show up. Almost everything in me told me to steer clear, but there was a growing sense that God’s holiness did not mean that He withdrew from the world, but rather entered it to redeem it. Was I not sent to do the same? Yet another missional lesson. I recalled Jesus with the woman at the well, or the one caught in adultery. I remembered the reputation of Jesus as being a friend of sinners. I reflected on my own sin and need of God’s grace. I walked into the clinic and asked for Henry.
I was not kept waiting long. My little Jewish friend came quickly to greet me. He seemed genuinely pleased that I had come. This was his turf, and I had come to him. He would have known how uncomfortable I would have felt, and how badly I did not want to be there. But my presence spoke volumes to him. I am quite sure that there was a level of pride in him that he got a pastor to come into his territory, but there was also a level of respect that I had not run away. He insisted on giving me a tour.
I am very sure it did not last more than ten minutes, yet it felt like ten weeks.
I paid little attention to what he said. Most of what I saw and experienced would be not a lot different than any hospital clinic on the surface, but I could almost touch the darkness in every room. “This is where…” Ugh. Get me out of here. And then it got worse.
He ushered me into the recovery room where a 15-year-old girl was recovering. I looked into her eyes and saw deep pain. It took every ounce of energy I had not to burst into tears. Henry was talking with such calm and with an air of success. I wondered how I would be able to stomach the upcoming lunch, let alone the conversation I would have with him.
The tour finally ended. I had said so few words, and yet communicated so much. It was time for lunch.
Henry’s favourite place was a block away. It was a little Japanese restaurant that served Sushi. Great. I hate sushi—at least the raw fish part. But they had a Teriyaki bowl and I got excited about that. We ordered and settled into a 90-minute conversation. I mentioned that I had seen the CBC special and even read a biography about him, and with only a little embarrassment he launched into his opinion of the television special.
We talked for a while, with most of the questions coming from my side of the table. I asked about his growing up years and then medical school. I asked a little about his family, and then had the nerve to ask about his times in jail. I was surprised at how comfortable he was with me and how he held very little back.
Several times he wanted to know my opinion of his clinic, as if he were looking for some kind of affirmation of what he did. He didn’t get what he was looking for. Once again, I found a way to steer away from the subject without rejecting him. I was growing to value Henry, even if I was so vehemently opposed to what He did and what he represented. I was convinced it was God at work in me as I knew I would not have been able to demonstrate that kind of grace on my own. Another lesson. God gives missionaries the words they need at the times they know they need them.
The conversation took a sharp turn and went much deeper as Henry began to pour out his emotions. My lack of validating his work seemed only to plunge him deeper into a reflective state of evaluating all that he had done. He began to weep at the table. He told me of how much he felt hated. He expressed pain not only at the loss of family, but the lack of real fulfillment. He was such a polarizing figure that never felt loved for just being Henry. “Although I have never believed in a God like you do, I cannot help but wonder, if there was one, whether he could ever forgive me for who I have been. I wonder at times, if I have spent my whole life in the pursuit of completely the wrong thing.”
Time stopped. Now there were tears in my eyes as well. Had I heard this correctly? Now what would I say? I knew the grace of God and the depth of his love went further than mine ever could, but did I really believe that it could stoop as low as to embrace Henry? Yet another missional lesson. The love of God goes to the very depths of the depravity of humanity. God was at work in Henry’s heart as I sat and watched the inner turmoil on full display.
I shared with my friend about who I knew Jesus to be. I told Henry of a forgiveness that extended even to him. We sat and talked for a little while longer and then the window closed. He came up from the depths of despair and was back in control of all that made him tick. Or so he thought. He was composed now but it was time for lunch to be over and for him to go back to work.
“When are you next in Toronto?” he asked, extending the invitation to come to his house for a meal and meet his wife and son.
“Soon,” I replied. “How is your ping pong these days?”