I shared this reflection as one of the storytellers at the “Rhythms & Rituals Conference” put on by the Cultivate Collective this week held on the UBC campus.

In my liturgics class at Huron College in London, Ontario, we had to prepare and lead what we liked to call “faux liturgies” in an imaginary context. As students, we entertained ourselves by making up funny names for these fictional churches. My personal favourite was one “Our Lady of Perpetual Motion,” located in Somewhereville in South West Ontario.  

For my part, I invented a little Anglican church where I knew there wasn’t one back home – Whistler, BC, and called it St. Bernard’s. Get it, like the dog?! Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

For those who are not familiar with Anglicans, in our first placements, we are sent to do apprenticeships, usually for a year or two, that we call curacies, often in larger churches under the eye of a helpful, experienced priest.

And where did I end up being sent, as the “curate-in-charge”?

St. John the Divine, Squamish. St. John’s, whose parish boundaries – the geographic area of responsibility – included Whistler. The irony was delicious.

I laughed but knew that I was absolutely not interested in doing anything in Whistler.

St. John’s is a lovely little community that has been in Squamish for over 110 years. While always small, about 20-25 years ago, it had been a particularly vibrant, happening place. But around 2009, it experienced a bit of a decline, probably familiar to most of us, and made the decision to move to half-time paid, ordained leadership.

In 2019, after 10 years of various half-time ministers, they decided that if they were to make a go in this quickly growing community, having a full-time paid priest who lived in Squamish might be the way to go.

St. John’s is a smaller, older congregation in (at least when I began) the statistically least religious town in BC.

5 years on, maybe we are a little less small, a little less old. Maybe.

But it is still the situation, again, maybe like all of us, where we check in every year and ask the question, are we going to make a go at another year of full-time ministry together? Sure. Let’s do it.

The faith of this community in this inspires and humbles me, and I consider it a bit of a miracle, and certainly a sign of God’s often unexpected and surprising abundance, that we have been journeying together for 5 years now, even it were to all end tomorrow.

To finish painting the picture, 7 months into my time at St. John’s, still making it all up as I went along, COVID-19 hit, and we identified and began a major roof project (which we are just wrapping up now).

All to say, I was not thinking at all about starting a new church…

But then, I met one person from Whistler. And then another. And another. And in speaking with them, there seemed to be a curiosity, an interest in exploring what a worshipping community in Whistler might look like. I started having more conversations with others, with colleagues, and with my parish council, and (sometimes I felt unfortunately) only heard encouragement and support.  

And so, during the pandemic, we began a months-long process of prayer and discernment, all online, to test, to dream, to plan for what this all might look like.

Part of me also wanted to test these folks’ convictions a little. I’m no church planter, but I do know that we didn’t have resources and that more importantly, I didn’t live in the community. So, if this had any hope of working, would need the commitment and work of those rooted in the place.

Taking inspiration from the multi-point ministry that is common in most places across Canada in the Anglican Church, we imagined a small community of folks, a worshipping community, in Whistler, not a self-sustaining church, not necessarily very big, but certainly worth me going up the highway every week to serve as part of the parish of St. John the Divine.   

After months, a vision and plan took shape. The only thing we struggled with was a name… After giving space for everyone’s ideas and creativity – we were coming up with options like, “St. John the Divine Squamish Anglican Church Worshipping Community in Whistler,” what’s the acronym on that again – I hesitantly brought up St. Bernard’s (like the dog, get it?!)

God laughed, I’m sure. St. Bernard of Menthon (of the dog’s fame) it turns out founded hostels in dangerous passages through the Alps for poor, lost and weary travellers. What better vision than this sanctuary in the mountains in a place that is so busy, transient, and precarious.

So, we did it. We began meeting, every week, following a simple liturgy. We started by worshipping outside. And then inside, renting a room in the centre of the village when it got too cold and dark. I started to try to go up regularly, to begin just being in the community. We told the story in Squamish at St. John’s, who prayed about this parish initiative.

Though my wonderful leadership team were committed, and prayerful, and inviting, we remained very small. Yet, it was beautiful.

But then, folks moved away. And quickly it came down to me and one lay leader. I asked them, do you want to keep going? Do you want to reimagine, refresh, retry? And at least at that time, they expressed to me the desire of their heart for the more established community of St. John’s in Squamish, but that if I really wanted to continue, they would do it…

At that point, I realized that without the resources, time and money, without living in the community, this was something that we needed to end. And so, we did. We laid St. Bernard’s down and let it go.

I had always said (to myself and others) that we needed to be prepared for St. Bernard’s both to fail and to succeed, but it was still hard and sad to have things go in a different direction than what we had imagined and worked for.

But, that is not the end of the story. Some green shoots shot up, quite quickly. At about this time, we were connecting, in Squamish, with a number of families with young, young children. And so, we decided to begin a “tot time.” A weekly drop-in play group for toddlers and infants with their caregivers.

That might seem like a small thing. But I truly think laying down St. Bernard’s made space to pick up this opportunity for ministry in Squamish. And even more than that. Prepared our imaginations and our courage.

St. John’s, I would argue, would not be the most likely candidate to begin a new worshipping community, but we did it, even if it did come to an end. We did it, little old St. John’s. And so, why not us? Why couldn’t we do this other thing, imagine a group that connects and serves families in our neighbourhood – a town where there are so many new young parents often disconnected from extended family and community. Over a year and a half into this next chapter, we have connected with and served dozens of families, and built up a beautiful, supportive community.

And I don’t even know if there should be nails in the coffin of St. Bernard’s in Whistler, or whether flowers may spring up from it yet. I was just up in Whistler visiting, and I continue to connect with residents of Whistler and Pemberton who desire connection and church community. I am curious, excited and hopeful to see where this might lead, resting on the foundation of the good work and prayer, not wasted, that we have already done.  

On my very first Sunday at St. John’s, we read Luke 10, about the sending out of the 70 in pairs, specifically instructed not to bring anything with them on their journey. That has stayed with me through the entirety of the last 5 years, reminding me that at the end of the day, we do not need all that much to follow Jesus. In fact, we, even a little church like St. John’s, might already have everything we need with courage and imagination to do wild and wonderful things, like trying something new, like loving God and loving our neighbour right in this place where we have been planted.

Thanks be to God!