A place to play — and pray 

Practicing religion in a sports-obsessed party town

click to flip through (2) STORY BY DAN FALLOON - A place to play — and pray  Practicing religion in a sports-obsessed party town
  • Story by Dan Falloon
  • A place to play — and pray Practicing religion in a sports-obsessed party town
 

In small communities across North America, roughly the same size as Whistler, one of the most easily recognizable sights is the church steeple, drawing people to it like a beacon.

As higher proportions of the North American population shift away from organized religion, identifying as unaffiliated, atheist or agnostic, and with Whistler's worshippers being less visible in a brick-and-mortar sense, it can be easy to forget about or ignore the faith-filled lives experienced in Whistler.

Though some diversity is wanting, Pique spoke with people of faith about the paths they walk in the resort.

The pastor

Reflecting on his faith journey over coffee at Fix Café, Whistler Community Church lead pastor Jon Pasiuk explains how his move to the Sea to Sky seemed to come together relatively naturally.

The church didn't have a full-time pastor for roughly a year and was rotating in leaders from various churches when Pasiuk was approached in May 2014. Pasiuk was working with Abbotsford's Northview Community Church at the time, and since it was his anniversary with wife Stephanie, they opted to give it a try.

"We came up and really connected well. They said, 'We have seven more weekends we need to fill this summer. Can we book you in?' My home church gave me their blessing to do so," Pasiuk recalls. "If we're going to take that step of faith, then God's going to make it happen. Here we are, three years later."

The dynamic changed fairly significantly as he went from a church with roughly 4,000 people to heading up a group that sees a few hundred people pass through each year to services at the Myrtle Philip Community Centre.

With a base congregation of locals in addition to its ever-changing guests, Pasiuk says, in that way, being part of the group is a classic Whistler experience.

"We have the same transient dynamic, so that means you're always having to say goodbye and always wanting to roll out the welcome mat for whoever comes in with the season," he says. "It's one of the most diverse churches I've been part of, because people come here from all over the world."

Noting Whistler's choices are limited — there's Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church at the end of Lorimer Road and Jesus Rock of Ages Ministry, which serves primarily a Filipino population, out of the Maury Young Arts Centre — he's had to alter his approach to preaching to include more than the church's official Mennonite Brethren bedrock.

"Here, I'm able to say, 'This weekend, we're going to look at this passage of Scripture. We'll read it, I'll explain it, and this is how we apply it,'" Pasiuk says. "We don't get into a lot of the historical debates about labels. We allow Scripture to lead us and guide us. That proves to be a uniting force for us. It's not about what I say. It's not about what our denomination says. It's about what God has revealed for us in this world."

Whistler Community Church's services start with its band playing three to four hymns at the front of the community centre gym, with long rows of chairs on one half of the room creating an auditorium effect. Coffee stations are set up in the middle of the gym behind the seating, and people come and go filling up their java. In the other half of the room, children laugh and play, at least until they're herded off into smaller groups for Sunday school.

As the band plays, many in attendance are on their feet; some sing along as the words project onto the wall. One man raises his arms in the air and sways while others stand, or sit, deep in contemplative thought.

From there, one member reads announcements and reminders, many of the items focusing on other events to attend or connections to be made throughout the week before the next service. After Scripture readings, Pasiuk provides his interpretations, encouraging attendees to stand up for good in their actions and emphasizing that no one person, no one government, can fill in as a leader for God.

On this day, the last Sunday of November, the church hosts communion, both in the nearly two-hour service and afterwards with a potluck.

But in our conversation, Pasiuk also emphasizes the outreach the church does outside those four walls, highlighting an upcoming barbecue planned for those living in staff housing and reflecting on a safe zone the church set up over the Victoria Day long weekend this year. Pasiuk notes how this year friends of Luka Gordic, a Burnaby teen who was killed in a stabbing after being swarmed on the same long weekend in 2015, checked out the safe zone.

"I'm going to be a student of all things Whistler and I need to know this community and I need to understand people's needs and where they're coming from. It's better for me to be not too defined in how I want to do things. It's a learning process, even three years in. I have come to understand that, for our community, the Whistler hospitality is so important," he says. "It's important for us to be ready to help and to serve people wherever they come from. We can't be inward-focused and cliquey and all that. We need to be always watching the door.

"How can we be the family of God that you need us to be right now?"

As well, the church works with Red Frogs, an Australian organization that started after founder Andy Gourley attended a "schoolies week" on the Gold Coast and noticed numerous partiers who needed help getting home. Pasiuk says the church has applied the same model to Whistler with volunteers walking the Village Stroll on weekend nights and hosting pancake breakfasts the following morning.

"Everyone's looking for something. They're looking for life. They're looking for a place to belong. The party scene can offer that to a point, but we know in our hearts that we were made for something more. What we offer is not only a community of people who love and care for each other, but to connect with the God that made us and discover the purpose that He made us for," Pasiuk says.

Though the church community is glad to be welcomed into the Whistler Cay Heights neighbourhood, it will be on the move in future years with a building planned for the White Gold area.

Securing a permanent site would help create consistency in programming, Pasiuk explains, noting it's possible to get a building, for example, for their Alpha "introduction to Christianity" program held for 11 consecutive weeks in the fall and early winter. But it's difficult to get the same building for that duration because of other events and festivals happening in town. It would also help the church facilitate its own programming.

Although people nowadays are connecting in different ways, Pasiuk says there are still many who seek a relationship with God.

"I don't believe people are any less spiritual than they have been at any other time in history," he says. "What we want is people who desire to follow Jesus in their lives. We don't see that becoming any less popular."

The 'recovering pastor'

Though the group has been silent since 2015, for the moment at least, former Church on the Mountain pastor Jeremy Postal has found other ways to keep practicing.

The Lloydminster, Sask. product supports himself and his family primarily through work as a wedding officiant, while also conducting marriage and relationship counselling. Postal also recently relinquished his post as the national director of Snowboarders For Christ.

Now a third-generation pastor — or "recovering pastor" as he describes himself — Postal says it wasn't a path he initially intended to go down. Instead, he hoped to become a pro snowboarder, which wasn't exactly possible on the prairie flatlands. But even after heading west, he heard a call he had to heed.

"It was this thing that I couldn't seem to get away from. I tried, I suppose, to get away from it. With most things in life that really matter, you almost have to give in or let go to really experience it," he says.

After pastoring at the Christian Life Community Church in Abbotsford, Postal and his family came north and started attending Church on the Mountain, with Chad Chomlack and Jack Crompton leading the congregation.

The church briefly shuttered before Postal was approached to head it up, which he did for three years before taking "a rest," as the most recent Church on the Mountain Facebook post reads, two years ago.

Like the Whistler Community Church, the Maury Young Arts Centre-based church didn't draw a hard line with its denomination. However, because of its 4:30 p.m. service time, the congregation was primarily local. As Postal recalls, people would ski all day, have a pint and then go to church.

"A lot of people came to church with their ski boots on, goggles on their head. It was really cool, it was a good vibe," Postal says.

That experience, he recalls, is drastically different from the Fraser Valley.

"It's very, very different here. Abbotsford is very much a Bible belt and the lines are set. If you believe right, act right, you're in. Those lines don't really work here," he says.

"People need to see people. Faith has to be expressed in really real ways. For us, maybe that looked like how we shared communion on a weekly basis, around long tables and long meals. Good food, good wine. Lots of time on the hills together," he recalls, adding there were also a number of volunteer projects the church took on in the community, like planting berries in the alpine as part of a diversionary bear-feeding program.

The world these days, both politically and religiously, has taken to drawing lines in the sand that can't be crossed, Postal opines. Christianity, he adds, is more open than many of its practitioners let it be.

No longer restricted to the confines of a brick-and-mortar location, Postal takes inspiration from St. Bernard, who walked the high mountain passes of Europe with the wanderers and the lost pilgrims.

"Whistler is pilgrimage for lots of people. If I can walk the high mountain passes with pilgrims, I'm going to do that on my splitboard, I'm going to do that on my snowboard and I'm going to do that on my mountain bike," Postal says. "I feel more comfortable outside of the church than inside the church. I don't know exactly why that is."

While some may look at the Whistler lifestyle as one that conflicts with religion, Postal adamantly denies that notion.

"It doesn't clash. It aligns, (but) there certainly are elements that are dark," he says. "When you respond to a grieving mother whose child jumps out of a window because they're high, that's dark. We stand against those things. But there's also a lot of alignment. The rhythm of living well outlined in the Christian Scripture begins with rest — rest well. It moves to work — work hard. It then moves to celebrating often," he says. "Just do this on repeat. We know how to rest. To stay here, you have to really work, especially when you're just getting on your feet in this town. You're working lots of jobs and it's insane.

"And we know how to party... we know how to celebrate. You rest too well, you get lazy. You never get first chair and you're on Netflix all the time. You work too hard, you burn out and you never get to ski. You celebrate too hard..." Postal trails off, the overdoses, alcohol poisonings and other tragedies implied.

While some young people come to Whistler and get lost, he explains, some are able to find what they're looking for on a deeper level. Those who were raised in rigid religious backgrounds can look at other belief systems, while those who grew up without faith can roam as well.

"I think part of what the church can do best is come alongside and say, 'Hey, we want to explore with you,'" he says.

The 'token Jew'

Sabrina Hinitz could very well be categorized under the first category of Whistler-bound folks Postal describes.

Hinitz is Jewish, however, but grew up in a sheltered community. She made the journey west five years ago to find nearly an opposite atmosphere.

"I only had Jewish friends, went to an all-Jewish school, so moving out to Whistler was a big change," she says. "There are very few of us.

"I'm definitely the first Jewish person that a lot of people have met. For my friends, I'm the token Jew," she says with a chuckle.

"I share the holidays with them via food. I'll make all the good food for the holidays and traditional things that they probably would never have tried before."

Hinitz notes a rabbi who had been practicing here left just before she arrived, but the community has been served by Rabbi Mendy Mochkin and his family, who came from New York to Chabad of the North Shore in 2016. Hinitz first met him at last year's Hanukkah celebration.

In the interim, she made friends with the Jewish folks she encountered. One couple, Hinitz notes, invited her over for dinner upon finding out she's Jewish, while another regularly hosts events for the high holidays, like Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

"These are big family things. They're like Christmas and you want to see your whole family, but my whole family is back east all together. It was nice having something here," she says.

She also makes a point of being proactive and welcoming visitors to town, since some travellers post in local Facebook groups looking for fellow Jewish people in the resort.

"It's a hard thing to explain to people — my boyfriend doesn't get it, either — why I want to meet these random Israeli guys. They're always guys. He just thinks it's so strange that I would go meet up with these people," she says. "Being Jewish connects you.

"There's not a lot of us and we all descend from pretty much the same place, Eastern Europe, or Morocco or Spain."

Hinitz adds that her father is Israeli and she's been to the country, so she has another shared connection there.

Judaism makes up a relatively small international community, with only 14 million people, about 0.2 per cent of the world's population, identifying as Jewish.

"Everyone's sort of your family," she says. "They all understand why I might not eat pork or bacon and not give me a hard time about it. I feel less different when I'm with them."

And that sense of community, as much as anything else, is what fills her heart. Hinitz went to a dinner for a Rosh Hashanah event in September, but had to leave around 10:30 p.m. before dessert was even served. She'll attend services in Whistler, like the Chabad events coming up on Dec. 15 and 16, and would attend others if they were available and closer to home.

"Those prayer services, I don't feel so much like I want to pray. I more feel like I want to be part of the community. There are these live-streams you can tune into out of California. They're very reformed, with lots of music and are lots of fun," she says. "If I ever feel like I'm missing out on the high holidays — New Year's, especially, and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur)... Those ones I'll tune into.

"I grew up like that, so I guess it's just more tradition than anything. I'm thinking my family back home are all in synagogue. It connects us all together."

Chabad North Shore is holding a Hanukkah ceremony here in Whistler at the Pan-Pacific Whistler Village Centre on Dec. 15 and 16. A menorah lighting will take place on Dec. 15 at 3:45 p.m. followed by a service at 4:15 p.m. The following day, a service is scheduled for 10 a.m., followed by lunch.

Hinitz explains she has her own beliefs that aren't necessarily traditional, though she has recently discovered a renewalism sect that operates out of Vancouver.

"Their whole belief is environmental consciousness, equal rights for both genders and the LGBTQ community," she says. "Also, there's spiritual enhancement through chanting and prayer.

"I related a lot to all their values and I didn't really realize they existed."

Hinitz says the core beliefs of Judiasm are valuable, but some rabbis' interpretations of millennia-old teachings can clash with more modern values at times.

"'Rest on Saturday' now means 'Don't drive your car on Saturday,'" she says. "They take it to the next level, so I just disregard that stuff, the extras, and go with the fundamental things like love your father and your mother and do unto your neighbour as you would have them do unto yourself. Don't murder and rape people. The core values in there are all very good.

"I think the rabbis that added on all these discussions just took things a little further than they needed to be for the modern-day Jew."

The boarder

Sitting down in a quiet corner of the Cure Lounge, Andy Kerr is about to hit his two-year anniversary in Whistler. The tattoo-sporting barista was head-hunted by Postal to lead the local Snowboarders for Christ (SFC) group and "it's just been a ride ever since."

"It's been cool to come here and find fellow shit-disturbers and shredders," the Terrace, B.C. product says with a chuckle. "This feels like family for me and being able to do ministry and give back has been so, so fun."

Kerr's involvement in SFC is one that stresses service as the group aims to bring a little light to their fellow skiers and boarders. He notes "Love a Liftie" day, where SFC members bring rounds of hot coffee to chilly lift operators, or give chocolates to those in the singles line on Valentine's Day. On tap for this season, he hopes, are social activities like game nights or gym nights, as well as some welcome dinners.

"The idea is to love Whistler better than the locals do, or love WB employees better than WB does," he says. "We want to add value to Whistler, we want to add value to people's lives and we want to add value to the church."

And those meetings aren't necessarily long — often a quick Bible study over a hot drink before a longer shred.

"(We'll meet) for 10 minutes at the Creekside Starbucks and then we'll go get after it."

Kerr, who is currently serving as an associate pastor with Canyon Heights Church in North Vancouver, says living in Whistler with its party temptations can be tough, but he reminds himself of what is truly important.

"The challenge for my faith is in the idea that people can come here and think that they can do whatever they want without consequences," he says. "Watching young adults slide down that rabbit hole is tough, and feeling the pull myself when I'm having a bad day making coffee and I just want to go get after it.

"But I exist to be an example to other people, so I need to keep that in check."

The apologist

Long-time local Paul Jamieson came to Whistler in 1997 just like numerous other folks. He could have stayed where he was and worked from home, but the pow is much better out west.

But after years and years of observation, and getting a little lost himself, Jamieson came to a conclusion: people wrap identity up in skiing, snowboarding, and other things that are constantly changing. Those identities, as well, could be easily lost.

"I've got friends that ride motorcycles and all wear jackets and get tattoos, but if you stop riding a motorcycle, are you still a motorcyclist? If you stop skiing because of an injury, or something else that takes you out of it, what do you go back to rely on? Because if you lose that, you lose your identity," he says over tea at Cure.

Jamieson worked in the local hospitality scene for years, but after starting an online reselling business, freed up time to listen to Christian podcasts on a daily basis. It also allowed him time to think about the modern world.

"I noticed a lot of things that seemed to be going against God's plan," he says. "I decided I should look into God. If everything seems to be going against God, I should look into it and see if this God is really true. It didn't really take me very long to find that the evidence for Jesus' life, what he said and what he did, is pretty insurmountable."

These days, Jamieson volunteers regularly with the Whistler Community Church, donates to charities and sponsors a child in India. He's also stopped watching movies and television, though he still closely follows his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs.

"I always try to do what's right as long as I don't hurt other people," he says. "Truthfully, if you were going to live out a life of always doing what was right, you would have no shirt on your back, no shoes on your feet, no money in your wallet and you would end up in the worst place in the world because you would keep trying to help people every time you saw someone."

Of importance to Jamieson is finding evidence for God's existence, and preparing a hard case for Christianity as an apologist.

And he believes the Bible is true, but stresses people need to examine a hypothetical: "If you were to find out everything about the Bible was true, the story of Jesus, the story of God, heaven and hell — if you found out that all of that was the truth, would you become a Christian?" he says. "If someone says, 'If I still found out it was all true and I wouldn't become a Christian,' then that means that their choices and their lifestyle are put above the truth.

"(It's) a very heavy question to ask people and have to consider."

Jamieson was raised Catholic, and when he reevaluated his spiritual life, returned to Catholicism before shifting to the Whistler Community Church.

He says these days, he's much less quick to anger, even in the face of friends calling believers of any stripe "idiots."

Jamieson also warns against embracing spirituality solely as "faith without consequence."

"You can technically do whatever you like, but what does it matter? There's no reward or price to pay at the end of it," he says.

And in a town where people have often left their families and other support systems, he thinks the church can provide a valuable support network that will encourage them to live more fulfilling lives. Older and wiser than when he arrived, he's now more interested in activities like welding than becoming more proficient on his bike.

"I've seen a lot of people come into this town, get chewed up and leave with no skills," he says.

***

As some people make their way out of the city and into the wilderness, they find an opportunity to connect with the wider world. Postal describes the Bible as a story of restoration, not only for relationships but in nature as well.

"It's a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively. That creates an openness to spirituality and faith, peeking around the corners," he says.

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