There's no place like home
…especially when it's the place to house your faith in God
Story and photos by Chris Woodall
There's a thing you can do with your hands that I learned ’way back when I was a wee lad.
First, fold your hands together so the fingers are interlocked inward. Then extend your index fingers with the tips touching, and line up your thumbs side by side.
Ready? Here goes: "This is the church, and this is the steeple. Open the doors (spread your thumbs wide) and see all the people! (invert your hands and wiggle fingers wildly, for this is a vibrant congregation)."
Ahh, if only having a place of worship was so easy to obtain.
More accurately, having a formal — permanent — place to hold religious services to celebrate one's belief in a Higher Power is something very much on the minds of the faiths in Whistler.
United Church, Anglican, Catholic, Mennonite Brethren, or Jew: all are in a kind of accommodation flux. Depending on the denomination, services are held in a school gym, a dilapidated rotting shell of a building, or a community hall in anticipation of a more official location.
They are all, as well, working toward the day when they'll have a special sanctuary where the flock can gather.
But what of it? Just how important is it — and is it important in the first place — to have a formal religious meeting place to speak to God?
All the faith leaders Pique Newsmagazine spoke to agree that it's not essential to have a building in order to worship God according to the doctrines of each faith.
"There's nothing in the Bible that says you have to have a place to worship. When the necessity arises that we have to say mass in a place other than a dedicated place of worship, it's still pleasing to the Lord," says Father Joe Dablem of Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church, recalling attending services on the sands of New Guinea as a soldier with the American Army during the Second World War.
"But believe me, I'm delighted to have such a place," he says of the two-year-old community hall at the foot of Lorimer Road that doubles as the Catholic church. That accommodation will make do (and the consensus is that it does "make do" very well) until plans to build a formal church on the same grounds come to fruition at some point in the future.
If Intrawest didn't already have designs on the patch of land occupied by the Skiers Chapel in Creekside, the sad physical condition of the grey A-frame structure has forced the Interfaith Chapel Society into its campaign to raise funds for a new building to go up between municipal hall and the BrewHouse. The state, a church and hedonism… a curious combination of neighbours to be sure.
United Church minister Harlene Walker likes to think of a community church as a "well" that becomes a focal point for people to gather.
"The image of a community church as a well has ties to Christian and Jewish history," Walker explains. The circular shape of the well opening also brings to mind a sense of native spirituality in the healing circle: a circle of wholeness that attempts to balance elements of your emotional, physical, mental and spiritual states.
"If each of these areas are maintained equally well, one becomes a whole person," Walker says.
The more exciting aspect of the coming Interfaith Chapel and Meeting Place for Walker is right there in the name: it is a unique facility that won't serve just one religion, but will be home to Anglican, Jewish and United Church services. Each will have a storage area to house their sacred objects when not in use. Indeed, the whole east-west orientation of the building caters to the needs of faiths that attach importance to those points of the compass.
The whole concept of a place of worship serving a variety of faiths may even be one small step toward universal harmony. "I look forward to getting over the barriers of exclusiveness that Christianity may have thrown up around itself over past generations," Walker says.
Also gathering to the well will be people with other needs, just as the Skiers Chapel in Creekside served other groups such as the food bank and Alcoholics Anonymous. The new facility will be home to a teen centre, a day care, Whistler's arts community, and have music rooms and other communal spaces.
Imaginations are being sparked in many minds by the new interfaith chapel. "It's amazing how people who've 'never darkened the door' (for services at the Skiers Chapel) have phoned the Chapel Society to offer donations," Walker says.
"It's important to have a place to act out our rituals," Walker says, noting how the cenotaph fills that role for Remembrance Day ceremonies. "Rituals lead us to the meaning of who we are. When the flypast of the helicopters occurred, it was the trigger that led us to the meaning of the day."
When the move happens, having a new home to worship in will have bittersweet memories. "Regular parishioners are looking forward to the move," Walker says. "We won't have to walk into a cold unserviceable building with no toilets and no running water for coffee."
But occasional visitors to the Skiers Chapel have had a different take. "They have memories of Christmas services, of weddings and baptisms," Walker says. "They'll probably miss the stained glass window more than the building.
"For example, a visitor told me, 'you must love working in this building.' I told her, 'no, I don't'," the United Church minister recalls. "The building is rotting, it's in bad shape. Even if it is durable enough to move to a new location is another question."
A move might be in the cards for the Whistler Community Church (Mennonite Brethren), whose members currently meet at the Myrtle Philip Community Centre.
Celebrating services in Whistler since 1979, they have submitted a proposal to the municipality that will see them develop a permanent house of worship for the dawn of the next millennium, says pastor Tim Unruh.
The community centre as a religious facility has worked out fine, Unruh says. While services are held in the half-gym on Sundays, the Whistler Community Church also holds a youth night of activities on Fridays.
"Regardless of whether we get into a building or continue with the community centre, we have a great ministry going on," Unruh says. "When people let Jesus into their lives, He makes a difference. Whistler is a prodigal place. Part of our mission here is to help people get their head straight."
The Mennonite Brethren had shared the Skiers Chapel with other faiths until 1993 when they started meeting in a small room at the community centre.
While everyone at the community centre for other reasons are welcome to attend Whistler Community Church services, "often people milling about at the centre are surprised to see there's a religious service happening," Unruh says.
There's no doubt that multiple users can be disruptive, although pastor Unruh is keen not to be too upset about it.
"There's a little bit of give and take on events (held at the same time as the Mennonite services), Unruh says. "On one Sunday we were having our church service on one side of the half-gym and on the other side people were setting up for a boxing match."
For a while, the community centre was home to Catholic masses as well as Mennonite services. One can conjure a Monty Pythonesque image of the two faiths walking into their halves of the walled-off gym and then trying to out-preach or out-sing hymns over the hubbub of the other until both groups are making so much noise they have each forgotten why they were there in the first place.
"We love it that the Catholic church has built its own facility," Unruh says for that very reason.
The centre has other benefits. "There's plenty of room that gives us a chance to do classes around the service," Unruh explains. "It's a more relaxed atmosphere, so people will stay around long after the service is over to chat over a cup of coffee."
But there's no denying his flock have a hankering for a separate and permanent house of worship. "If I can gauge the mood, obviously people like the idea of having their own facility," Unruh says.
How soon the proposal before municipal planners will result in a structure is still uncertain. "We have the same realities as everyone else," Unruh says of the other faiths being able to afford land in Whistler. "It's not a case of 'we blew it,' but like everyone else, there were windows of opportunity we missed in the early 1980s."
It may still be in the best interests of his ministry, at the end of the day, to keep using the community centre, Unruh says. "We've been a long-established ministry in Whistler. Whether we operate out of the gym or out of our own facility, the decision will be a good one."
Building the community hall that is also where Catholics hold mass proved to be that kind of "good decision" for that faith. While the long-term plan is to build a separate formal church dedicated to worship, the hall is where it's at for now.
"One of the things it did was to bring people out of the woodwork," says Father Dablem of the hall's first days. "I believe you can worship anywhere, but there's a thought you weren't going to church if it was in a school hall."
When Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church opened its doors, "people I'd never seen before were showing up," Dablem says, acknowledging that people can be inspired to renew their faith when they have something tangible to attach their faith to.
"I get a lot of calls from Vancouver about what time mass is," Dablem says of the building's popularity.
There's no denying, too, that the place is attractive in its own right. "In the past we cut out the Saturday mass during the summer, but we got close to 200 people for both masses this summer," Father Dablem says. "On Labour Day we had to open the side doors and turn on the outside speakers to accommodate the crowd."
Lapsed Catholics have been encouraged back to the church by "re-membering" or attending programs that reminds them what Catholicism is about. Some who've been away for quite some time, for example, are surprised at the number of changes that came out of Vatican II. "Some people didn't realize we don't do services in Latin anymore," Dablem says.
The community hall use of the facility encourages a wider involvement with Whistler at large as concerts and other events are held there. Birthday parties, dance classes and weddings using civil or services conducted by other religious denominations have also made use of the hall.
At the end of the day, however, a faith is only as life-affirming as the people who make up the faithful.
"The church is not the facility, it's the people who gather together," says pastor Unruh. "It doesn't matter if we meet in a field, in secret, or in a building: we'll meet where we can."