Sir Wilfred Thomason Grenfell

Psalm 107:23-32

2 Kings 2:19-22

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

Mark 6:45-56

“The service we render to others is really the rent we pay for our room on this earth. It is obvious that man is himself a traveler; that the purpose of this world is not ‘to have and to hold’ but ‘to give and serve.’ There can be no other meaning.”

“Theology is what one comprehends, religion what one does.”

~Sir Wilfred Thomason Grenfell

When one begins to look at the life of Wilfred Thomason Grenfell, it becomes clear that he put both his theology and his religion to good use, and probably “paid his rent for his room on Earth” many times over.

Grenfell, a surgeon, qualified for both his MRCS and MRCP medical degrees from the London Hospital Medical College in 1886, graduating in 1888. One of his mentors in surgery was Sir Frederick Treves, most commonly known as the physician who cared for John Merrick, “The Elephant Man.” In an era when surgeons literally collected patients as medical oddities and exploited the hospitalized poor as personal guinea pigs for innovative and radical surgical treatments, Grenfell chose a completely different path. He had the credentials and connections that could have landed him a lucrative Harley Street practice or a prestigious spot at one of London’s famed teaching hospitals; instead he devoted his life to the care of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Early in his career, he joined the Royal National Mission to Deep-Sea Fishermen, both becoming a master mariner, and outfitting the mission’s first hospital ship. He served from Iceland to the Bay of Biscay. In 1892 he traveled to Labrador, where he found the poverty and disease of both the English and native population astounding and troubling. A prolific fund-raiser, he used both his medical collegial connections and his social connections to garner money for the establishment of hospitals, nursing stations, schools, orphanages, and social welfare centers throughout Labrador, as well as a seaman’s institute in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Grenfell was clear that these facilities were to be available for not only the Caucasian inhabitants, but for the native Inuit and First Nations populations there, a move which often provoked criticism by his peers. In more recent years, however, the criticism has been that Grenfell’s centralized services and emphasis on a static community changed the culture of Labrador’s First Nations people, who were originally nomadic. Nevertheless, the Grenfell missions were well received by the residents of Labrador at the time.

Grenfell’s theology was, to be sure, a practical one. He saw service to the needy as a form of faith that opened us up to greater moral power and freedom, as well as something that transcended dogma. He saw emulating the life of Christ as far more important than debating theological principles.

“Then, if you are ‘losing faith in the Gadarene pig story,’ you won’t miss that one miracle so much if you have to abandon it,” he wrote. “For, if it is not irreverent to say so, you will have a dozen solid facts you could swear to in a court of law from your own personal experience, which will be ten times more helpful to yourself and to other men today than your final decision as to the fate of those unfortunate animals. If you have the evidence of ‘that which you have seen and heard’ to give, instead of being ruled out of court by the majority of men because they appraise your evidence as unconvincing and inadmissible as mere book knowledge, you will be the most valuable witness for the Christ, and the most dangerous foe to the devil of doubt…. If you are anxious to help others to retain faith, get out and do something for Christ’s sake.” ~Grenfell

Our readings today reflect Grenfell’s connection with the sea in three places–in the 2nd Kings reference to the “wholesomeness” of salt water, in Psalm 107’s imagery of the power of the sea invoking us to call out the name of God, and in Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus gets in the boat with his terrified disciples and calms both them and the raging wind upon the waters. Our Epistle reminds us of the myriad talents that can be used to exalt the name of God by doing the work of the world to bring about the manifestation of the Holy Spirit for the common good.

We are living in a time where nature bares her teeth throughout the world, through vicious hurricanes and tsunami-producing earthquakes–and can live out Grenfell’s vision of spreading the Word of God by spreading human care and kindness to the victims of nature’s wrath. God is, indeed, present in human form amidst nature’s violence. How will you choose to be a slice of God’s presence in the storm today?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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