Meet Pinegrove UC, a medium-sized church in Rosslyn, NW Ontario. Rosslyn used to be a community of farmers, but with Thunder Bay nearby it’s taking on some characteristics of a bedroom community. Pinegrove used to be the thriving community hub, but when I started there 5 years ago it felt more like a rudderless ship. People pining for the days of yore, when there was hardly enough room to hold the congregation, with a choir that shook the rafters, when there was a thriving Sunday School, when… in short, think your average United Church.
I wasn’t sure how long I’d stay with these lovely but lost people. As a restless person, I felt confined and misplaced. I was eager to form new faith communities, not work with these stuck-in-the-muds. But as I walked with them through times of great joy and deep despair, I got to know them. After a while, I knew them better than I ever thought I would. And with it came love, and with love came an awareness of their God-given potential. I decided to stay a little longer.
Then one day I asked the tired Board, “If we had to close our doors next week, who would miss us?” It was their wake-up call, and the start of a year of discernment of what it means to be church and where God might be calling them. It was an uncomfortable process and not without resistance, but somehow they stuck with it.
So at the next Annual Meeting the Board formally announced that new directions would be explored – so long as they were safe. Change was needed – so long as we didn’t change too much. Baby, bathwater, traditions, identity, yada yada. I sighed a deep sigh. Still, it was a step forward.
The Spirit kept prodding. A small Task Force was formed. Their task: to go into the community and just listen. For a whole year, we listened for the needs of people, listened for what they missed, listened for what they might contribute. We discovered a staggering amount of social isolation, loneliness, hidden poverty, and a deep yearning for a warm community. And slowly a picture emerged of how Pinegrove might be like Christ to the people around us.
At the next Annual Meeting we presented our proposal: the Café del Soul. Pinegrove would offer a free rural lunch, accompanied by live music from local musicians and surrounded by art from local artists. Folks who didn’t drive would be picked up and dropped off. There would be greeters to seat you and introduce you, if you needed to talk there would be a listening ear, if you needed some alone-time with God there’d be a quiet place to light a candle.
The congregation gasped. “Who’s going to do all that work? Who going to pay for it? We don’t need this, we need a break!”. Fortunately, applications to the UCC’s “Seeds of Hope” and Mission and Support resulted in two substantial grants to kick-start the program. We hired an Outreach Coordinator for 1 day/week, and our little Task Force transformed itself into a capable Steering Committee. By now, the Rosslyn community was aware that something was brewing, so it wasn’t too hard to find local stakeholders to also sit on the Steering Committee. Local businesses offered financial and in-kind support. A presentation at the Municipal Council generated significant goodwill (especially when they realized we weren’t asking for any money).
It took another eight months before all the pieces were in place, but it was well worth it. Three months after our Grand Opening the number of guests exceeded even our most optimistic projections. At the end of its first year the Café was filled to capacity, making the church building ring with laughter and music.
When you mix radical hospitality with music and art, the Spirit just goes wild, miracles become the norm: people find their self-worth, people numb with grief come out of their shell, two relatives found each other back after 20-odd years, someone who had lost his voice after a series of seizures started singing again – in public! And get this: the Municipality gave us a $25,000 cheque “to continue the good work Pinegrove does for the community”. Mind. Blown.
All this positive energy is spilling over into the congregation with a re-found a sense of purpose. There is pride when outsiders ask them, “Are you that church of the Café del Soul?” There is renewed energy where there wasn’t any before, the congregation’s decline has stopped. And when I talk or preach about the poor, the marginalized, the hopeless, well, suddenly it’s no longer in the abstract anymore, it’s now people we know.
We are now planning to take this program to the next level by adding services, activities and workshops that are a natural fit to what’s already in place: monthly scrapbooking sessions, the presence of a registered nurse to informally discuss health concerns with, presentations on elderly abuse and fraud, foot care; we’re even considering a play, written and performed by locals about local issues. And slowly, almost unnoticeably, Pinegrove is transforming itself into the community hub it once was – but now for the 21st century.
I guess I’ll be sticking around a little longer. Mind you, I’ve never worked harder in my life (well, maybe as a student at CCS), and I really wish I had more time to spend on non-traditional faith communities (more about that some other time). But when you witness the transformative power of the Spirit at work all around you, you want to see what’s going to happen next.
Hubert Den Draak is a 2016 CCS grad who lives in a fully solar- and wind-powered strawbale home that he and his spouse designed and built. He considers himself an agent of change, laments his stubborn lack of patience, and loves to draw outside the lines.