Saturday, March 15, 2008

A New Church Home Part II

(Disclaimer: Some of the following information is based on my memory of what I've heard and been told in the past. My memory has been known to make mistakes. If someone reading this sees any inaccuracies, please inform me either in a comment or via e-mail.)

The church is in the heart of the neediest part of town. Prostitutes wait for customers beneath the church windows. Drunken brawls take place outside the tavern across the street. Too poor for other drugs, sniffers carry paper bags hiding baby food jars of glue--five dollars a pop. Homelessness, poverty, violence, alcohol, drugs, gangs and murder are common fare.

Winnipeg Centre Vineyard was founded by David Ruis who had (and, I'm sure, still has) a passion for the oppressed, to bring them the justice and mercy of God. For this reason, the location of the church is intentional. What better place for a house of God than in the centre of hell?

The brick building is an old tractor factory, four stories high. Looking from the outside, it is easy to see that the fourth floor has yet to be refurbished. The windows are old, cracked and dirty. I haven't yet visited the upper floors but the main floor is impressive with massive wooden beams two feet wide supported by square, wooden pillars that block the view of those unfortunate enough to sit behind them. The interior walls are brick and to one side of the sanctuary platform is an enormous weigh scale that has been preserved intact. Behind the platform are the old truck bays with all but one door closed and blocked up. Above the sanctuary are pipes of assorted sizes, uses and ages. I've sat in my metal folding chair looking up and wondering.

What a variety of people! Suburbanites with pricey haircuts and the homeless with tangled hair; white and aboriginal; babies and toddlers galore, many twenty- and thirty-somethings and only a few grey heads. Jeans are the most popular attire and no suits. It's a casual and very comfortable, inviting place to be. At the back is a constant flow of people coming and going in and out of the building or from one place to another. No one seems disturbed by the activity and sometimes it's encouraged.

I think of one recent Sunday. First a young couple were being introduced to the congregation as new members. After they told a bit of their story the pastor directed them to a corner and invited those in the congregation who know the couple to gather around them and pray. While people were moving to do this, he called up a number of couples who had babies to dedicate. After each family said a few words they were sent to various places in the sanctuary to also, separately, be surrounded by those who knew them to pray for them. While this movement and prayer was happening, the pastor started the baptism. Three women were baptised by immersion in what looked to be a temporary tank holding what was obviously very cold water. They each deserved a medal for being brave enough to walk into the tank and be dunked under and, again, as each left the tank, family and friends were invited to gather around them to pray.

There's always about an hour of singing and worship to begin with but after that, it's a bit unpredictable. For instance, for the Sunday described above, there was no sermon--the service ended with communion. Other times we've been directed to get into groups to discuss something that is being preached on or to pray for each other. Every service ends with an opportunity to be prayed for.

So why have I fallen in love with this church? I'm not really sure but the following elements are part of it: I know many of the songs (don't laugh at the smallness of this--music is important!); people are free to dance and move to the music in an attitude of worship; the lack of homogeneity and mix of polished and rough, rich and poor, sophisticated and simple; it doesn't matter how you're dressed, you're welcome.

This is a church that does what it preaches and is successful in doing it. In the two and a half months I've been attending, a woman living in one of the near-by "flea-bitten" hotels (known more for the quantities of alcohol served not for their inviting rooms) has been baptised, a woman who had just gone into detox phoned the pastor during the sermon and he held up his cell phone so we could all give her our encouragement, a former prostitute from beneath the church windows has now been 5-months crack-free and is hoping to begin school in the fall to become a pastor.

I think the final deciding factor for choosing this church, however, was this past week of prayer. That in itself deserves its own post and so I will stop for now and continue the story another day.

Thank you, God, for this church that doesn't mind getting itself dirty in meeting the needs of the disenfranchised, the poorest of the poor, those with the ugliest lifestyles. Thank you for a people who honour you in the way they treat others: with dignity, love and the humility of Christ. Thank you for a church that has chosen to step out of the box to do what you've called it to do.

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