Faith and gratitude
Humanity, humility, thirst for learning served Alfred Bell well as father, church pastor, prison chaplain
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/10/2019 (1221 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Alfred Bell dedicated his life to bringing light to some of the darkest places on Earth.
Born to missionary parents in Tibet, a disputed region within the borders of China, in 1936, Bell would grow up to follow in his parents’ footsteps: he would spend his life sharing the word of God to others.
As a child, his family was twice forced into exile, both before and after the Second World War. By the time Bell was roughly 15 years old, his family had settled in Canada for good.
In his early 20s, Bell met Marie, the love of his life and future mother of his children. Their marriage lasted 61 years and produced three kids: Faith, Dorothy and Steve.
When they were in their mid-20s, they relocated to Calgary, where Bell opened Fairview Baptist Church.
“He was a Baptist and he remained a Baptist pastor his whole life. He was the kind of guy who held dear to the traditions he grew up with, but he held to them lightly. He worked with Catholics, he worked with the Jewish community, he worked with everybody,” said his son Steve Bell, an award-winning Christian musician.
“He was a lover of people. He was not an ideologue. He had a profoundly hospitable and humble spirit about him.”
In 1965, the young family moved to Drumheller, Alta. While Bell relocated there to pastor a church, he soon found himself volunteering at the local prison.
By 1967, administration asked him to become a full-time prison chaplain, which he would remain for the rest of his career.
Bell’s long career in that role took him to Stony Mountain Institution in 1972, where he remained for several years before being transferred to Edmonton and, later, to the East Coast.
While many people might be nervous or worried about the work, Steve Bell says his father loved being a prison chaplain and was grateful for the opportunity to have an effect on people who were going through the most difficult and darkest chapters of their lives.
“In terms of working with the guys, I don’t think he ever saw it as a challenge. He really loved them. He was absolutely un-scandalized by human weakness or frailty. He was attracted to people just because they were human beings,” Steve said.
“He had this ability to hear your story, take your wickedness or badness from you, then find a way to give it back to you as a gift. He valued other people’s personhood. Broken people or hurt people were not a scandal to him at all.”
One story that sticks out in Steve’s mind, which he says typifies the type of man his father was, stems from his time as an up-and-coming musician.
At the time, he was playing in bars and nightclubs in Winnipeg and said he was nervous to tell his father about it since, as he put it, “Baptists don’t tend to be drinkers or smokers or cussers.”
“I didn’t know how to tell my dad this, because I thought he would be disappointed in me. When he finally realized what had been going on, he found an excuse to come to Winnipeg and showed up in a club I was playing in then sat with me and my friends the entire night,” Steve said.
“Later that night when he was getting out of the car, I said, ‘I can’t believe you came here.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘How can I not? You’re my son.’ That totally exemplified the kind of father he was, the kind of person he was.”
In his spare time, Bell dedicated himself to lifelong learning. He held a strong belief that the secret to life was to keep learning until the day you die.
If the plumbing acted up in the family home, he would purchase a book and learn how to fix it. If there was a need for electric work, he would do the same.
At one point, Bell took a tailoring course and made himself a single suit by hand. Having crossed that off his bucket list, he took an art class and created a painting.
During his prison years, he often did needlepoint while chatting with inmates.
A few years after his retirement in Winnipeg, Bell had his first brush with cancer. While it was expected to take his life, he eventually went into remission.
In 2018, however, new symptoms appeared and he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and was told he had two months to live; he lasted seven.
During his final months, Bell displayed a sense of serenity and inner peace that emanated from his faith, his son said.
“His faith was this: whatever else he believed, he believed God was good. Details aside, like what happens after you die — who gets in and who doesn’t — he believed in his DNA that God was good and you could trust God with your life and your death,” Steve said.
“There wasn’t a moment I’m aware of where he was sad about his demise and was afraid to die. He was grateful for every moment and trusted God. He believed in the end this all goes into the hands of pure goodness and that can’t be a bad thing.”
Bell died July 31 at the age of 83.
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.