8. Into the North
After a bit I heard a bell ringing; it was time for supper. This time the Tabernacle was filled with people! One hundred and fifty people sat down around those rough tables to share their supper meal together. What a sight! There were large numbers of children, adults of all ages, families and singles. They talked and laughed happily, joy and peace shining on all the faces. I was enthralled.
8. Into the North
Jim Buerge asked me to take a cage full of pigeons up to his brother, Del. Jim had called the border and had fulfilled all the requirements they told him in order to take the pigeons across. However, when I arrived at the crossing at Sumas, Washington on a Friday evening in early April 1977, I learned that a Canadian vet would have to inspect the pigeons before they would be allowed to cross. The Canadian vet would not be available till Monday morning. So I turned around to go back, only now the American customs balked at my bringing the pigeons into the States. So there I was caught in the no-man’s land between two countries. The Americans soon believed my story and allowed me to proceed. I spent the weekend in a motel in Sumas.
On Monday morning, Jim flew up with his children, Pamela, Tony, and Tim. He took charge of the pigeons, so I did not have to worry about that part. However, when I went to the counter to ask for a visa, I made a mistake. I asked a question. I have never asked a question when crossing a border since. I asked, “What do I need to do to obtain a work permit in Canada?”
“Work?” the lady asked. “Work? You will not work in Canada!” At that point she was unwilling to let me through. Jim came in and talked with her; finally she was persuaded to give me a three-week visa on strict conditions. I had to post a $100 bond and lose the money if I was not out of Canada in three weeks. I had hoped to spend three months, so this was a disappointment to me at the time. She also said, “You can make your bed, but you cannot help wash the dishes or anything else. You may not work in Canada.” I since learned that the border officials take a narrower view of things than do the immigration officers who supervise visitors in the interior. I was free to proceed north.
I drove up through the Fraser River canyon and across the Cariboo country to Prince George. This was the first time across a road I would travel literally dozens of times in the future. We spent the night at some friends of the Buerge’s in Prince George, and the next day, Jim had Tony ride with me the rest of the way. We crossed the Pine pass and descended into the Peace River country. I was amazed to see solid grain farming country with tall silos this far to the north. It was the end of winter. There was still snow on the ground, though it was disappearing, and there were not yet leaves on the trees. It was the season of mud.
We drove north on the Alaska Highway from Fort St. John. Soon most signs of civilization disappeared. The pavement ended at Mile 93. At Mile 95 we turned west from the highway onto a primitive gravel road. We wound up and down for forty miles into the foothills of the Rockies. There was a bridge across the Halfway River, but none across the Graham. We came to a stop on the banks of the Graham River. I caught glimpses of log cabins on the other side. There were a number of vehicles parked on this side and a dirt road running down to the water. The ice was mostly gone, but the river was not yet high from the spring melt in the mountains. We honked the horn and waited; it was late afternoon. The spruce trees were green and dark, the poplar trees still leafless. The Graham River was a fairly large river, strong and full. This was an utterly new experience for me. Adventure beckoned, calling to the cry of my heart.
After a short wait, we heard a tractor coming through the trees on the other side of the river. It soon appeared and plunged right into the water, pulling a long wooden hay wagon behind it. The water came up only to the tractor axles. The gravel bottom of the river had been smoothed to make a good ford. We put our things on the hay wagon and stood up, holding onto the rail in the front. There were no sidewalls to the trailer. We bounced across the river, wound through some trees on the other side, and then up a short embankment. Graham River Farm opened up before us.
The community was like nothing I had ever seen before. All of the buildings were made of logs, roughly hewn together. On our left was a mechanics shop, to our right was a long, low building I would soon learn was called the Tabernacle. Just beyond it was a newly completed two-and-a-half-story building. On the nearer side of the Tabernacle was a row of small log cabins stringing out into the distance. This row was on the edge of an embankment overlooking muddy and partly snow-covered fields that would become the gardens during the summer months. Beyond the tabernacle were three more rows of cabins, and beyond them, in the distance, I could see some large barns. The cabins themselves were unique. They were small, most about 20’ x 20’ or 25’, all only one story with a low lean-to roof. They looked like rows of chicken coops, more than thirty in all.
We stepped through a rough-hewn door into the Tabernacle. I found myself looking out across a dining room with a low wood ceiling and log walls. The room was probably about 30’ wide by 70’ long. There was a large wood stove not far from this entrance and the room was filled with rough wood tables with backless benches on each side. On the right was the counter dividing the kitchen. I had never seen anything like it before.
Someone took me to a cabin whose occupants were away. I would be staying here for a few days. The cabin was low and dark. After a bit I heard a bell ringing; it was time for supper. This time the Tabernacle was filled with people! One hundred and fifty people sat down around those rough tables to share their supper meal together. What a sight! There were large numbers of children, adults of all ages, families and singles. They talked and laughed happily, joy and peace shining on all the faces. I was enthralled. We shared a simple meal together. I don’t remember what it was, but I’m sure it was potatoes. I have eaten a lot of potatoes. I was greeted pleasantly, but no one made a big deal out of my being there.
There was no electricity except a generator in the welding shop. The tabernacle had propane lights, and many of the cabins had one propane light in them. Otherwise kerosene lamps were used. I slept that night in a cabin by myself. The next morning after a hearty bowl of cracked grain for breakfast at the Tabernacle, I went to the work circle where the men received their assignments for the day. I don’t remember what my first detail was, probably firewood, but I went to work. I began to meet the people. I had known Del Buerge and his family in Oregon, and had greeted them the evening before, but I did not know them well. All the rest of the people were complete strangers to me. It would take a long time to put together names, faces, and cabins.
For the next few days I went to the meals, worked with other men on whatever assignment I was given, and slept by myself in my cabin. No one invited me over to visit; no one talked with me about what this place was all about. I felt a bit lonely. Finally, after several days, I was moved to a cabin belonging to Bill and Dot Ritchie and their son Rohn. They were away from the farm, but a single young man named Harleigh Knapp was also staying there. He had a bed in the entry and I took Rohn’s bed. I now had someone to talk with, although Harleigh was not the most talkative person and neither was I.
One of the jobs I did was to work with Tabor Mercier, a husky big-hearted man, on the firewood sawing detail. He had a large saw blade mounted on the front of a tractor. The blade had a platform in front of it. Tabor hoisted short lengths of log up onto the platform and swung it into the blade to make stove-sized pieces of wood. The members of his crew, including myself, handed the lengths of wood up to him, helping him get them on the platform, and then caught and stacked the firewood as it was cut. Another job I did was to go with Doug Witmer and Mallory Smith, young men my age, down to the grain bin. There we hooked a belt up between a tractor and a hammer mill, a device for grinding grain. The size of the screen would determine whether we produced flour for bread or cracked grain for breakfast cereal. My job was to fill and lug buckets of grain from the grain bins to the hammer mill and to help tie the sacks and stack them when they were full. All of it was good, hard, basic-to-life sort of work.
The community had two services a week, besides the morning devotions. There was a sharing service on Wednesday night during which any member of the community could go up and share. The main service was on Saturday night during which only the elders preached. The praise services were long, strong, and anointed. I could sense the presence of God like I had never known. I did not understand most of what I heard. And the few things I did hear, I thought were really weird. One girl stood up and shared that she was learning that her life was really in her brothers and sisters. I thought “No way, my life is in Christ.” I had forgotten that Christ was also in the people around me. Another brother shared that we needed to walk out the righteousness of Christ. I thought, “Baloney, Jesus is my righteousness and I don’t have to do a thing.”
Harleigh suggested I attend a Bible study one evening at Ian and Isabelle Still’s cabin. Ian and Isabelle were from Scotland and had immigrated to Canada specifically to live at Graham River Farm. I soon learned that most of the other people at Graham River were from the states: from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New England, and had also immigrated to Canada to live at Graham River. Ian and Isabelle were a lively, good-hearted couple who spoke with a strong Scottish accent and laughed a lot. They were also very serious about the word and the truth God was speaking. They were unusual in the community in that they had only one child, a son, Gavin. Most of the families had five, six, seven children each. We were studying the book of Revelation. Isabelle made the comment, “Wasn’t it so silly when we used to think that heaven had literal streets of gold?” I thought, “What are you talking about, of course heaven has streets paved with gold.” She went on to say that the golden streets in John’s vision were teaching us that when we come to the fullness of all God has for us, we will be walking in the very nature of God, of which gold is a symbol. I had never heard of such a thing.
Somebody gave me some tapes by a man named Sam Fife. I had never heard of Sam Fife, but I took the tapes to the cabin and began to listen. It was only a few minutes before I slammed the tape recorder off and said loudly, “Baloney, this stuff is nonsense.” Harleigh looked at me quietly, and said, “We can only walk in the light God gives us.” I did not know what he was talking about. There was a problem for me, though. Sam Fife was the first preacher I had ever heard who spoke with the authority of the Holy Spirit. Something inside me was drawn to the anointing in which he was speaking. I spent a number of evenings alternately listening, and then slamming the tape recorder off and fuming.
Finally, I worked one day with a crew of men cleaning the manure out of the pig barn. One of the men was Dan Kurtz, one of the elders. During a break, aside from the others, he asked me, “Daniel, where is Christ?” I hesitated and did not answer. He reached out a rough, tender finger and pointed it at me. “He is in you!” he said quietly. I knew from what the Lord had shown me the year before that it was true. Christ lived in me! That was the first word of this new strange-sounding teaching I was able to receive.
I was at Graham River for about two and a half weeks. I had to return to the states by Greyhound bus. I was glad at that point that I was allowed to stay in Canada for only three weeks. I was overwhelmed with the strangeness of it all, and I had much to think about and hash through in my own heart. I did not understand most of what I had heard and did not think it was true. I did not know why God had brought me there. I had the naive idea that maybe these people were in bondage and God wanted me to help them understand the “truth.”
Before I had left Oregon to go to Graham River, the pastor of Skyline Assembly had taken me aside to share his “concerns” about this group I was going to visit. He had been there for a short visit. “They believe there are three groups or levels in the church, and they are the top one of the three,” he said. “Be very careful.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I had heard something about this concept at Graham River. It was now one of the many questions I had.
Upon returning to Oregon, I did not return to my previous job. I tried two other jobs, but both ended quickly. It seemed every direction was a dead-end.
Meanwhile, I searched my Bible. I had heard a number of things that had shaken my “Christian” beliefs to the core. I had to know what the Bible really said. Every spare moment I was not working, I was in the word, looking, searching, and seeking to understand or to refute. I noticed something unusual. From the beginning of the Bible to the end, there were three divisions or levels of things: three feasts held by the nation of Israel, three parts of the tabernacle, three levels of fruitfulness - 30 fold, 60 fold, and 100 fold, and so on. I began to realize that three levels was a Biblical concept. God was speaking something important.
I had no problem with the teaching I had heard about overcoming sin. I believed what Jesus said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God; with God all things are possible.” Certainly, God could do whatever He wants.
Looking back, it is evident that the brethren at Graham River had some things wrong. Although I still believe that Bible teaches overwhelmingly concerning three experiences God has for His people: justification, sanctification, and glorification, and that He will have a people who will walk in the fullness of Christ in this life, I do not believe any particular group or sect can lay claim to being the people who will do this. But what was also evident to me at the time was that I had never seen a people who were so dedicated to a vision, or so willing to sacrifice everything valuable in this life to be a part of the kingdom of God. Whatever mistakes may have been made at Graham River or any other community I have been privileged to be a part of since, those mistakes were made out of misguided sincerity or personal weakness, never out of a lack of commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ.
And so there I was, again in a dead-end place. I was beginning to see the Bible more clearly than I had before. I knew something was there beyond my acquired understanding of Christianity. I was simply waiting on God for the next step. Then, one day in early June, I walked into a store in Albany and whom should I meet but Jim Buerge! He had flown down again by himself to wrap up some business he had been unable to complete earlier. “Hey,” I thought, “maybe I can go back to Graham River!”
And so I did.