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Letting old ways die

The church’s anniversary is the prime time to ask, 'How could we be more alive?'

By David Wilson

Normally, anniversaries are a time for reflecting upon the past. But ever since a visit to Vancouver this spring, I’ve been wondering if the United Church’s 85th anniversary shouldn’t be mostly about focusing on the future.

The idea came to me at First United, the historic church mission in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Ministers Rev. Ric Matthews and Rev. Sandra Severs were discussing changes at First United since my last visit several years ago.

The most obvious was the dismantling of the sanctuary and the installation of dozens of bunk beds. In one sense it’s not a huge departure — for years, far more people have used the sanctuary as a place to sleep than they have for worship. In another sense, though, it represents a major shift in thinking about the meaning of church. Through their day-to-day contact with the poorest of Canada’s poor, and after much reflection, Matthews, Severs and others at First United have come to believe that being church does not always require the trappings of church. Church can also be a community dedicated to welcoming people from the margins — just as Jesus did.

Turning the sanctuary into a dormitory is just the start. Two years from now, First United hopes to break ground for a project that will transform its building at Hastings and Gore into a multi-purpose facility with one overarching goal: to create a physically and spiritually inclusive community committed to overcoming the alienation that curses so much of the Downtown Eastside. The current white stucco building, known to locals simply as “the church,” will give way to a multi-storey structure that emphasizes belonging, whether it’s in naturally lit common areas, meeting rooms, shelters, transition units, apartments or a chapel that reflects a diversity of faiths. The price tag is $31 million. Some of the funding is in place, but private donors and municipal and provincial governments need to come through with more.

Outwardly, there won’t be much about the project that says “United Church” or “church,” period. Yet, to quote part of First United’s mission statement, it is fully “grounded in the call to be both Christ for others and to recognize the Christ in others.” 

As I listened to Matthews and Severs, it occurred to me that the church’s 85th anniversary would be an excellent time for every congregation in the United Church to do some deep reflection — to ask, Are we alive? How could we be more alive?

Congregations enjoying good health will affirm that the foreseeable future should look like the present. Others will admit their days are numbered. These may well be the most important congregations in the United Church today. Imagine the energy, creativity and resources that could be set free if congregations with little hope of surviving were to decide in this anniversary year that something good should come from their inevitable demise.

The United Church exists because people of faith were not afraid to let old ways die and embrace radical new ideas together. That spirit survives in initiatives like the redevelopment taking shape at Hastings and Gore in downtown Vancouver. If they were around today, I think the United Church’s founders would approve of it heartily. And I think they’d be doubly pleased if the rest of us took a cue from First United and began thinking seriously and creatively about what it means to be the United Church, 85 years on.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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