Sanctuary Quandary. fiction by Mitchell Toews

mjt head shot

Sanctuary Quandary

When I was quite young, I read somewhere that all places of worship are sanctuaries. Literally.

I took it upon my bored, 1963 Saturday morning self to investigate. Empirically.

I reasoned that if they were to offer sanctuary, churches would have to be open. Unlocked, so that anyone who sought sanctuary would be able to enter and be protected. My litmus test would be to see if the churches of Hartplatz were indeed open.

Our small prairie town was well-equipped to test my theory. In an easy one-hour stroll, I could check the status of a dozen churches.


“Mitchell! Waut jefft?” Mr. Vogel said, his big bass booming. “What gets you up so early on a Saturday?”

“Morjestund Haft Gold emm Mund…” I said, reciting a Plautdietsch expression my mother had taught me, hoping to impress him with my eloquence and telling of the beauty of the morning.

I also told him about my experiment.

“Apprise me of the results, when you publish your paper…” he said, sparkle-eyed. He slid a chocolate bar across the counter. I agreed.

“Oh,” he added as I left the store, my treat half-unwrapped. “A study on how to keep the squirrels out of the bird feeder? Next Saturday?”

As I made my churchly rounds, my dismay grew. I had gained entry, unbarred, to four sanctuaries but had jiggled unsuccessfully on the door handles of five others. Three more had functions underway, so I disqualified them from the results. That meant less than fifty percent were unlocked! And this was in 1963 rural Manitoba, where the Royal Bank, Obraumtje’s Jewellery and the cheese factory might have their stock and barrels locked, but for the most part, the town’s front doors were as open as a crypt on Easter Sunday.


Flash forward to years later, to the aftermath of yet another gun massacre. Yes, yet another — they happen all the time now. First the one in Texas, high in a tower, long ago. Then the horrible day in Quebec. Then more and more. Today, in a synagogue. Presumably, the person with the automatic weapons — the would-be “active shooter” — was able to just walk right on in. Early on a November Saturday morning, with the sun shining bright in a big city in 2018, not in a Mennonite village in 1963. An armed man was able to enter the sanctuary and in so doing, make it a sanctuary no more.

This made me remember my 1963 experiment and wonder about how to create a sanctuary. Locks or no locks? Or maybe the building is not the answer? Indiscriminate restrictions, like indiscriminate freedoms, offer a false sanctuary, it seemed to me in 2018.

In reports concerning today’s tragedy, I read that a former government official, a (living) expert on mass killing, suggested that places of worship would have to seriously consider aggressive security measures — that churches should be made “hard targets.”

This hard target proponent, this death-by-gun expert, this unflinching sooth slayer did not suggest making it harder to get guns in the first place. Instead, he only recommended making it harder for armed gunmen to get into the buildings where the people were.

Well, okay. But… how? And besides, isn’t that just more of the same logic as locking the sanctuary? Too little, too late? Not fixing what is really broken?

A little shook up and feeling like shit, and not liking death experts very much, or not at all, I prepared my written report, as promised long ago for my old friend, Mr. Vogel. On this early morn, with no gold adorned, I wrote my epistle to him:

“Dear Mr. Vogel,

Wherever you are today, sir, I have to report that my 1963 open church door experiment has failed,” I began. “I found more church doors locked than open, even in friendly little Hartplatz.

God, if you happen to see Him, may want to also consider some alterations to His grand experiment. He’s probably received the many thoughts and prayers — every day or two, a new rash of them — but it seems like maybe He needs to add some “hardening” to His church buildings. He must harden His sanctuaries. Not only should they be locked, but they need some modern military technology too. That’s the prevailing wisdom, these days. Schools — even elementary schools, I’m sorry to say — nightclubs, universities, grocery stores, and theatres all need retro-fitting, while He’s at it.

Sorry to have to report this to you, at this late date, but we’re assured it is the only solution.

Tjindheit, audee; Scheide deet weh… Childhood, adieu; a parting to rue. Mitchell”


Originally published in Lunate Fiction. December 2019. (An 860-word version, titled “Holthacka’s Quandary.”)

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Mitchell Toews has placed work in 100 literary journals and anthologies since 2016. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, he is a finalist in The Writers’ Union of Canada’s 2021 Short Prose Competition for Emerging Writers, the 2022 J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction and the 2022 Humber Literary Review/CNFC Canada-wide Creative Nonfiction contest. The author is currently working on his debut novel as a protege to Canadian novelist & playwright Armin Wiebe through a “Mentorship Microgrant” sponsored by TWUC.

Mitchell’s collection of short stories “Pinching Zwieback — Prairie Stories” will be published in 2023 by At Bay Press of Winnipeg.

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Published by darcie friesen hossack

Darcie Friesen Hossack is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers. Her short story collection, Mennonites Don’t Dance, was a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Award, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading Evergreen Award for Adult Fiction. Citing irreverence, the book was banned by the LaCrete Public Library in Northern Alberta. Having mentored with Giller finalists Sandra Birdsell (The Russlander) and Gail Anderson Dargatz (Spawning Grounds, The Cure for Death by Lightening), Darcie's first novel, Stillwater, will be released in the spring of 2023. Darcie is also a four time judge of the Whistler Independent Book Awards, and a career food writer. She lives in Northern Alberta, Canada, with her husband, international award-winning chef, Dean Hossack.

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