239 Days in America

A Social Media Documentary following 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912

Day
153
 | 
September 10, 1912
Oshawa, Canada
Storify Feature

Jim Loft and the Man on the Train

JIM LOFT WOULD NEVER meet ‘Abdu’l-Bahá personally, nor would he play a role in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s travels across North America in 1912. Yet Jim would experience, and recount throughout his life, one of the unique tales about that historic journey.

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On the afternoon of September 9, 1912, four-year-old James Loft — or “Jim” as he liked to be called — sat on a fence just outside of Oshawa, Ontario, alongside the railroad tracks. Five hours earlier, a train had left Montreal, beginning its fourteen-hour journey to Buffalo. It had stopped in Brockville near the Thousand Islands about 10:30 a.m., and was now making its way west across the north side of Lake Ontario.

At about 3:30 p.m. near the town of Oshawa, Jim watched the train hurtle by. Through one of its windows he saw something that so overwhelmed him that he fell backwards off the fence and onto the grass below. He described what he saw as “a man wearing a long flowing white robe waving from the train.” Later in life he would explain that this was his earliest surviving memory.

Jim Loft was born on July 13, 1908. His ancestral home was the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory but he grew up in Oshawa, Ontario. His father, Newton Loft, lost his leg in a train accident when Jim was just a young boy. The family would camp at the side of the road where his father made and sold wicker chairs. But chair sales couldn’t support the family. Jim went to work at the age of twelve, claiming to be fifteen so he could earn a legal wage.

Jim was greatly affected by the prejudice he encountered growing up an aboriginal in rural Canada. Years later, his daughter, Evelyn, wrote: “[H]e knew he was Indian. But not the kind he was called by ignorant people. . . . He said it just wasn’t from children or his peers. It came from so-called religious ladies.” Though submerged in a society that had little regard for him, Jim believed from childhood that racial equality was a just principle, and he later noted that he felt a strong pull to spiritual matters. During his difficult teen years, he would often ask God’s help to inspire him to help alleviate the poverty, oppression and alcoholism that plagued his people.

On October 23, 1931, Jim married Melba Whetung, who was raised on the Curve Lake Ojibwa First Nation. Like Jim, she had a keen interest in spiritual topics. It was Melba’s friend Emma who first spoke to her about Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Melba was the first Canadian of Aboriginal descent to join the Bahá’í community in Canada, followed soon after by Jim. The vision from Jim’s childhood soon became clear. “Now I know who that old man was,” he said. “It was ‘Abdu’l-Bahá when he was in this country.” It had taken Jim Loft decades to make the connection.

In 1949, Jim and Melba settled on the Tyendinaga Reserve and dedicated themselves to serving and supporting the First Nations community. Despite grueling poverty, they were unswayed in their dedication. For Jim, the memory of the man in a flowing white robe waving to him from the train inspired him to his final day.

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  • Dean Hedges

    “earliest surviving memory” , indeed this is a wonderful part of our soul

  • Winnie

    Even today, I frequently hear of people who have a passing contact with the faith initially, but latersomething happens that causes the seedto take root. This was the case with me personally. That is why we should never be discouraged if our efforts seem to be futile. We never know when that seed is planted only to remain dormant until a later “shower” stimulates it begin to grow.

  • Gwendolyn

    I love your daily reporting of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s journeys in North America. Today’s brought tears (of joy) to my eyes as the thought of a singular wave from a train affecting a member of our human race touched me very deeply.

  • Louise Profeit-LeBlanc

    First seed planted for First Peoples of Canada! For those who have not yet read the book entitled “Return To Tyendinaga” you will find out more about this beautiful native family and their contributions to the history and growth of the Faith in Canada. Thanks for making sure it was included in the Canadian section of the beloved Master’s travels.

  • David Bulman

    This is a very special story which somehow touches us deeply. A receptive, innocent heart suddenly struck by something — like a bolt of lightning coming out of the clear blue, and from a passing train! ‘Abdu’l-Baha — we must wonder if He was drawn to wave specifically to this little boy. After all when you are looking out of the window of a train for hours, you tend to get tired of waving at every passerby. So it seems to me that the wave was very likely targeted for this special little boy.

  • Riaz Mowzoon-Mogharrabi Age 11

    I liked this story because it showed the impact that ‘Abdul’-Baha’s presence can make even on a small child. I’m amazed that Jim’s first memory was seeing ‘Abdu’l-Baha on train at a distance and amazed more that he recognized ‘Abdul-Baha many years later as an adult.
    I will try, like Jim, to help people when I grow up.