Play examines church politics

Reverend Jonah
Blyth Festival
Until September 1

Southcott Pines resident Paul Ciufo is a financial planner in Exeter by day, playwright by night. His first professional stage production, Reverend Jonah, premiered at the Blyth Festival last weekend to positive reviews.
Ciufo’s story-line: “Reverend Jonah is a brand new minister out of seminary. He shows up at his first church in a fictional small town in Huron County called Gilvray.
“He’s the darling of the church at the outset. Then he encounters a woman who was pushed out of this church 10 years before because she started living with another woman. The United Church generally is in favour of being tolerant and accepting of gays and lesbians so he says, ‘You have to let me make this right and bring you back into the church.’ And that’s when all hell breaks loose.”

As told to Casey Lessard

I knew a minister who came into conflict with the powerful families in his church and who was pushed out. It was really devastating to him. That really prompted me to want to write about conflict in churches.
A lot of people believe the church is supposed to be this loving place and sometimes it’s just a place of just vicious politics and people jockeying for power. All these worldly things and negative things about us as people – there should be no place for that in the church.
I also had a relative who was a minister; I was close to him growing up and he struggled with addiction. He died quite young. I think I’ve always wanted to write about him.
Ministers are often such giving people and spend all their time helping people. Sometimes they can become quite blind to their own problems and their own burdens. It can take a great toll on them.
The title character Jonah is struggling with an addiction and some other burdens and he doesn’t really attend to those things because he’s so focused on what he has to do as a minister.
The stakes are extremely high because the minister’s guidance doesn’t affect the wealth of shareholders in the here and now – it affects the immortal fate of the congregation and their very souls. They have a huge burden. Biblically it’s spelled out that they are held to account like a shepherd for his flock. The minister feels a great responsibility for the congregation on a very high level.
Early in my research I watched this amazing documentary about a woman who was a United Church minister and I very vividly remember her being at her husband’s birthday party and the phone rang. Someone had just suffered a tragedy and needed comforting and she had to leave. It really is all consuming. It’s very tough to escape the demands of it. It’s unpredictable.
Not everyone is of one mind and conflict is inevitable. It shouldn’t happen in a church. Idealistically you’d hope there wouldn’t be that terrible conflict that you often hear about, like how a minister leaves and half the church leaves over an issue that was dividing a congregation.
When people are mistreated in that context, a place that’s supposed to strive to be kind and loving and above things like jealousy and greed, maybe it cuts even deeper.
I know a woman who many years ago had a child out of wedlock and her church would not baptize her child. She has never been back. When she saw a public reading of my play a year ago – it was read out to about 50 people so it wasn’t a production with costumes – she was in absolute tears afterwards. It stirred all that up about how hurtful being rejected by a church can be.
Perhaps we’re idealistic about churches. If you have idealized expectations of a church and they are dashed, maybe that’s what wounds so deeply. Look at people who are harmed by ministers or priests. That person is supposed to be a representative of God. That person is supposed to be nothing but kindness and love and comfort. Your expectations are so great and your hope is so great.
My sister, who lives in Saskatchewan, goes to a church where a homeless man in the church stands and talks to the Member of Parliament who attends the church. That to me is what church is all about. What happens out in the world should all be stripped away because none of that is important to God.