How It Feels to Be Sick and Alone at A Missionary Residential School

Judas Priest, Jaundiced Eyes and My Sacrifice for Jesus

In Ken Monk’s The Scream—the famous and influential painting, which, until recently, was the sum of what most Canadians knew, if that, about residential schools—First Nations’ children are depicted being forcibly separated from their parents by representatives of the Catholic church and Canadian state. The scream in the title is on the face of the child’s mother as she watches her child carried away in the arms of a priest.

There is only one aspect of the Christian evangelical boarding schools—such as the one I was forced to attend from the ages of 12-17—that was uniquely more horrific than the cultural genocide depicted in The Scream. In the Christian version, the parents are not trying to stop their children from being taken away from them.  In a Christian version of The Scream, the parents are smiling. They want their children to be taken away. They are not just complicit; they believe separating children, as young as seven, from their parents is Holy. Sending them to another country for nine months of the year to be raised by the church is of God.

When I was sixteen and living in the Alliance dormitory in Quito, Ecuador I was diagnosed with hepatitis A. I realized I was sick the day before the diagnosis, when I was out for dinner with two missionaries from Chile who happened to be in Quito on church business. They had looked me up as a courtesy to my parents, of whom they were colleagues, and taken me out, on a school night, to a good steakhouse in Quito.

Visiting missionaries, trips to steakhouses—these things almost never happened. Indeed, I remember it happening only this once. When the steaks came, I cut into mine, put a medium rare bite to my mouth…and realized I couldn’t eat. The meat revolted me. Every time I tried to put the meat in my mouth my mouth involuntarily closed and I started to gag. The two missionary men across from me noticed this and asked if I was well. I said I was and then tried to eat the greens and then the grapes they had brought for me, both with the same result.

The next day I awoke still unable to eat. My dorm parent took me to the adjacent hospital for bloodwork. Later that afternoon, as I sat in some tenth-grade class or other, two officials interrupted and told to come with them. They told me I had hepatitis A, an extremely contagious disease, and that I would be quarantined to my room effective immediately. My parents were informed via telephone. We did not speak. They did not visit.

My room in the dorm was the same as every other room in the dorm. There were two built-in bench desks pressed up against a window overlooking a sporting field. Two single beds. One door led to the hallway, another led to the bathroom which was shared with the residents of the next room over. Four boys to a toilet. During my quarantine I had it all to myself.

I had everything to myself. I had no t.v. I had no radio. They were not allowed. I had no phone to make or receive calls. I had no relatives in the country. I wasn’t allowed out and visitors weren’t allowed in. For six weeks I saw one person—a man who my parents had told me was now my “dorm dad.” (A creepy term, dorm dad, deployed by the Alliance for seventy or so years so that Christian parents could abandon their parental responsibilities while telling themselves that they hadn’t.)

I was too sick to move except to get up to use the washroom. I read fantasy fiction and listened to Judas Priest on a cheap Walkman knock-off. I wasn’t supposed to listen to Judas Priest. But my dorm parent never asked and if he knew he let it slide. I was pretty sick. I was really sick. I could tell by the look on his face when he looked at me. I could tell because I saw my face in the mirror of the bathroom I—for the one and only time—had all to myself. My skin was yellow. My eyes were vivid and cartoon yellow, so bright that when I saw them, I could feel my yellow skin start to crawl.  There were other extreme symptoms but they’re grosser than I feel like recalling right now.

My body healed itself. Implausible though it will seem to anyone who knew me as an alcohol-dependent adult, there was once a time when my liver was among the strongest and purest of all of my organs. After six weeks, the hepatitis went away. But the loneliness that crept into me then never left. My mind just left me for places and in ways that you can understand if you’ve spent time in solitary confinement and that you can’t if you haven’t.

Heptatitis A is rarely fatal, and I was never going to die from it. But let’s suppose it had killed me. If I had died it would have been a death changing nothing. The school would not have shut down. My parents would not have left Chile. What would have happened, is my parents would have used the tragedy of my death to fundraise. Pastors of Alliances churches all across Western Canada, in particular, would have delivered impassioned sermons about the importance of missionary work, the dangers of spiritual warfare in places yet to be claimed for His Kingdom. Giving would have gone up. A lot of good Christians would have specified that their monthly tithe should go to the important work the Snowsells were doing in Chile.  

My body kept right on going after hepatitis, but almost everything else inside of me (that wasn’t already dead) died during the six weeks of hepatitis solitude. I’ve been lying in a single bed, staring up at a ceiling, asking why my parents abandoned me every day of my life since then. It’s thirty-five years later and I’m still trying to wake up and get out of that room.

If you’re outraged at Canada and the Catholic church for residential schools—good, you should be. All of us should be furious. If you’ve ever attended an Alliance church, you should be equally angry with what the Alliance did to its own children. There may not be physical graveyards to be discovered, but Christian boarding schools produced a lot of living dead people like me: so lonely for so long, so deprived from normal family and societal relations that full re-integration later is not really possible. If anyone cared enough to track us all down, they’d be shocked/not shocked by what we’ve had to endure, the ways in which we continue to suffer.

The Alliance has apologized once. I guess that’s all we rate.

Screaming for Vengeance: Soundtrack to my solitude.