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My great cloud of witnesses

Old photo of church and members

Reflecting on All Saints Day, retired pastor John E. Harnish remembers his family and the church community that birthed his faith and is grateful.

Retired Pastor, Michigan Conference

I came across this old picture of the congregation of the church in Ramsaytown, PA, where my mother grew up. That’s Mom — the little girl with the white hat under the green arrow. Her father, whom we called “Pup,” is on the far right, just barely in the picture, and her mother, whom I never knew, is under the yellow arrow in the back row. If I study it closely, I could probably identify her five sisters among the girls in the front row.

Ramsaytown hardly exists anymore. It was a company town for the coal miners and their families — just a few houses are left. The last time I was there, the church building was still standing but hadn’t been used in years. Mom, Pup, and the rest of their large family are all gone now, but on All Saints Day — November 1 — I thought about them and the Ramsaytown church because this is where my faith came from, passed on from generation to generation. They are part of my “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1, NIV).

Robert Redford’s masterful A River Runs Through It, based on Norman Maclean’s novella, is one of my all-time favorite movies. One of my favorite lines is when the Presbyterian pastor says that a Methodist is nothing more than a Baptist who learned to read. The final scene is set in a different state with a different context, but for me, it could be speaking of Ramsaytown and the coal country of western Pennsylvania:

Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.

Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fisherman in western Montana, where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.

I look back and give thanks for my great cloud of witnesses.

Last Updated on November 8, 2023

The Michigan Conference