A prophet-bearded, wrinkled figure dressed in clothes made from hemp sometimes walks the streets of Guelph, Ontario. When he does, people take note.
“Old Wally’s really something,” they’ll tell you. Meaning that he’s something different. Something unusual.
If it’s a warm day, you might see him stop somewhere innocuous and smoke a bit of the good stuff. “Bless this,” he would say, after. And he wouldn’t be joking. For him the plant is sacred.
Because of his rather unique views, Reverend Walter Tucker has achieved legendary status. I first heard about him from a friend of mine in Waterloo. While we passed back and forth a stick of delicious bud, he told me about the old preacher’s fight for marijuana legalization. In his words – framed in white clouds – Walter Tucker was a “marijuana missionary”, whose church revered cannabis as a holy sacrament. “Old Wally has a vision”, he told me. A vision of a community (indeed, an entire world!) strengthened by the moral fiber of hemp, sanctified by its smoke. I butted out the joint and thanked him for a remarkable story. I didn’t really believe it until Reverend Tucker appeared in the local media.
In January the “Kitchener Waterloo Record” recorded the transfer of an abandoned IMICo (International Malleable Iron Company) foundry site to Reverend Tucker’s church, the Church of the Universe. According to the article, the site had been deserted in 1989 by American industrialists who laid off 230 employees and left a big mess for the city of Guelph. The next owner, John Long, purchased the site for a dollar in 1992 with the intention of dismantling it and cleaning it up. After some disputes with the city, however, he donated the property to Tucker’s church.
And suddenly – if one is to believe the local papers – residents were up in arms. The land was (said the city) polluted, and people (supposedly) feared that the church would do nothing to clean it up. The “Kitchener-Waterloo Record” and the “Guelph Mercury” quoted community-minded marijuana-phobes who said they were worried about Tucker’s plans to grow hemp on the property. The reverend wanted to grow enough to provide church members with clothing, food, and sacrament.
I decided to call Reverend Walter Tucker himself and listen to what he had to say. After several communications with his answering machine it became apparent to me that he probably wasn’t available by phone. Frustrated, I left for Guelph and the fabled IMICo site unannounced.
At the site, barb-wire fencing prevents the curious from getting too close. You can yell over it for hours and nothing will happen. Reverend Tucker’s name echoes back to me from burnt-out buildings and odd metal structures that rise from the ash. I wonder if he’s in there.
After about a half-hour, a member of the church (named Harry) appears, with a friend. They seem suspicious of me at first, but we smoke the “peace pipe” and all relax. Harry agrees to introduce me to Reverend Tucker, if we can find him. We wait.
“Here look at this,” Harry says at one point. It’s a pamphlet produced by the church, which unfolds into a map of the IMICo site. The word “HEMPIRE VILLAGE” is written at the top of the page: the church wants to convert the site into a self-sufficient community based on the production and manufacture of hemp. I hand him back the pamphlet, and we wait some more.
Finally the churches first prophet emerges from somewhere deep in the old Foundry. Slightly bent but surprisingly agile for his years, eyes squinting in a creased grin, he unlocks the gates and welcomes us onto hallowed grounds. He wears a multi-coloured beanie, blue jeans and a beard. Harry makes a deal with the reverend to remove scrap metal from the site and split the profits with the church. The Reverend plans to use the proceeds to rejuvenate and clean up the site. Having struck a bargain, Harry leaves.
Reverend Tucker and I share some smoke, and then John Long — who donated the land to Tucker — shows up. I ask them about pollution in the area and they laugh. I’d received similar reactions from local residents when I asked them the same question. One woman had showed me her vegetable garden: “We all have them,” she told me, “because the soil in the area is so good.” Another had a father who worked in the foundry for thirty-five years without a single health problem. Local residents definitely did not seem “up in arms”. Yet none of them wanted to be identified. “It’s political,” the woman with the garden said, “my husband could lose his job.” Meanwhile, Tucker and Long have been drinking the land’s well-water since the city turned off the utilities some months ago.
Since that time there have been numerous fires. Reverend Tucker believes his church is being persecuted because of their belief in the sacredness of marijuana. John Long shrugs and says, “The fire department stood there for an hour, before they finally got the water on. They were warming their hands.” In a few days, I will read that Reverend Tucker is suing the city for negligence. But right now the good reverend only smiles, and invites me to help him get water.
On the way to the well, I try to envision Tucker’s plans for the place: the old age home, the schools, the recreational centres, the fields of cannabis and manufacturing lines producing hemp cloth. And I try to imagine a church-house. It’s Sunday, and I can almost hear an organ playing, smell smoke drifting up from the pews, out of the stained glass windows, and into the marijuana fields. Then Reverend Tucker taps me on the arm, and I realize where that sweet smell is coming from. Breathing smoke he says, “The well’s over this way.” We continue walking.
I take the opportunity to ask him about the church’s use of marijuana. Has the government granted the Church of the Universe the right to use the plant as a sacrament under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?
“Who could give me the right to smoke?” he asks me, a note of indignation in his voice “who could possibly give me the right to participate in God’s divine gift?” I don’t know, who could give someone something that they already have?
We have reached the well, and the reverend starts up the pump’s gasoline-powered generator. We walk to the next room, where a hose is gushing clear, clean-smelling water. I am thirsty, so I take a drink. It tastes fine.
I want to know more about what kind of culture will emerge in “Hempire Village”. And, seeing as it will likely be populated by members of the Church of the Universe, I ask again about the church’s use of marijuana. But he doesn’t like the word “marijuana”, and tells me so. “A lot of people call it marijuana.” he says, “Our sacrament is the Tree of Life. We wear holy clothing made of the Tree. We ingest it into our bodies. We smoke of the Tree into our bodies for our health’s sake.”
Not only physical, but spiritual health. For him, the Tree of Life is a sacrament equivalent to “the wine of the Catholic Church, or the mushrooms of the Church of the Psilocybin”. And when he says that, I imagine families peacefully harvesting rows of hemp, eating hemp seed for breakfast, wearing clothing made of hemp, and smoking it as prayer: an entire culture revolving around the church’s sacred Tree of Life.
“The government says we only smoke it to enjoy it,” he says, “well that’s part of God’s plan also. I wouldn’t deny that. It’s my job to enjoy God’s gifts. It’s my job to spread God’s word.” In Reverend Tucker’s religion, the sacred Tree is a central element in church weddings, last rites, and even baptisms, in which the oil of the Tree is used to anoint the child’s forehead.
Reverend Tucker is quiet for a while. Then he hands me a nugget of melted iron — rubbed smooth like an old prayer-bead. “If you look at it long enough, you’ll see all kinds of things in it,” he says.
To me it only looks like a bead of melted iron, until I remember his dream to exchange iron for the church’s future. Then I see an entire new world growing in fields of hemp.