This article was originally published by The Mennonite World Review

Canada’s curling clergy put faith, fellowship on ice

WATERLOO, Ont. — David Martin couldn’t catch a break.

Even when he made a perfect shot, his opponent caught a lucky bounce and beat him.

Things went so bad, his teammates started quoting the Psalms. “You can’t say our cup runneth over,” one of them said.

Gerald Heimpel, left, and Reid Kennel sweep a rock on March 5 during the Friars’ Briar, an annual Canadian clergy curling tournament held this year in Waterloo, Ont. — Emily McFarlan Miller/RNS
Gerald Heimpel, left, and Reid Kennel sweep a rock on March 5 during the Friars’ Briar, an annual Canadian clergy curling tournament held this year in Waterloo, Ont. — Emily McFarlan Miller/RNS

In the end, however, Martin —who, when not “skipping,” or leading, a curling team, is executive minister of Mennonite Church Eastern Canada — was gracious in defeat.

“God must’ve understood his ego needed it more than mine,” Martin joked afterward with a group of onlookers.

His response sums up the spirit of the Friars’ Briar, a clergy version of the Tim Hortons Brier, the annual Canadian men’s curling championship, which ended March 8.

The five-day co-ed clergy curling tournament has been held parallel to the Brier since 1978, usually traveling to the same provinces as its more competitive counterpart.

It tweaked the spelling of the event to stay out of trouble with the Curling Canada-sanctioned tournament. It also ended March 6 to give curlers the chance to return to their pulpits.

And it lends itself to puns about the rather un-kosher- sounding “hog line,” the “temple of brooms” and letting he who is without sin “cast the first stone.”

The idea for the tournament came during the late 1970s, a divisive moment in Canadian history, according to Martin.

“Clergy at the time . . . basically said, ‘We can do better than that in the church,’ ” he said. “ ‘Why don’t we build some east-west bridges and do something fun together and bring clergy together across the country?’ ”

The Frozen Chosen

This year, the Friars’ Briar drew 18 teams of four curlers each from across Canadian provinces and Christian traditions — including Mennonite, Lutheran and United Church of Canada — to the KW Granite Club on the University of Waterloo campus. The event, which ran March 2-9, also drew a small crowd of fans from the nearby First United Church of Waterloo to cheer on the team led by their pastor, Kellie McComb.

Rabbi Cory Weiss was the tournament’s lone Jewish curler. He won its 2020 Amazing Grace Award for single-handedly keeping the event interfaith.

Weiss, a rabbi at Temple Har Zion in Thornhill, first came to the Friars’ Briar in 2016 with a team of rabbis and cantors who curled together Monday mornings in the Greater Toronto Interfaith Curling Club. They called themselves the Frozen Chosen and wore jackets emblazoned in Hebrew with the phrase, “Blessed is my rock,” a nod to Psalms 18:46.

Weiss has been back every year since — this year, as vice skip on a team led by a retired United Church minister.

In between tournaments, the rabbi has preached at churches led by clergy he has met curling and organized benefit concerts with a blended synagogue-church choir.

“So a lot of good comes out of the group beyond just having fun curling,” he said. “We know that if we want to talk to Christian colleagues, we have them to talk to, and if they want to talk to Jewish colleagues, they have them to talk to.”

The tournament gives clergy the chance to enjoy some fun and games, according to Pam Bartel, president of the Friars’ Briar Association board and skip of a team in this year’s tournament.

It also gives them a chance to learn from one another.

Bartel said she has learned while “broomstacking,” or sharing conversation and usually a drink with other curlers after a game, how differently Christians and Jews approach Scripture. She has also learned how similar clergy jokes are across traditions.

“I think that we’re stronger for the dialogues that we have with each other,” said Bartel, a layperson who works at Mennonite-affiliated Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo.

The spirit of curling

In addition to sliding rocks down a sheet of ice and sweeping in front of them to guide them straighter and farther toward a target-like “house” at the other end, curling emphasizes good sportsmanship, known as the “spirit of curling.” That includes exchanging handshakes with opponents before, and broomstacking with them after, a game and being honest if one “burns,” or touches, a rock as it travels down the ice.

Those are opportunities for clergy to practice what they preach, according to Bartel.

“We talk grace and mercy, all of those things that the church teaches, but you get out on the ice and you get an opportunity to practice those things,” she said.

At the Friars’ Briar, each team must have at least one curler who is a member of the clergy or connected to a faith-based organization as its skip or vice skip. Those rules have loosened up since the earliest Friars’ Briar, according to Reid Kennel, who works for Mennonite Central Committee and plays second on Team Bartel.

Kennel, 25, said his friends are interested in the kind of conversation and community that comes with Friars’ Briar. The tournament has become so important to him that he had the Friars’ Briar logo — a broom-wielding cleric in a billowing robe perched on a speeding rock — tattooed on his ankle.

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