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Lead me to Calgary

A passion for saving Canada’s lost souls inspires urban congregation to share the hope of Christ with its troubled community.

CALGARY, Alberta — In the shadow of a white steeple, spray-painted graffiti defames the beige brick wall of the Calgary Church of Christ.
The black scrawls testify to the gritty nature of the area served by the 300-member church — one of only eight a cappella Churches of Christ in a province nearly the size of Texas.
“It’s not uncommon for us to have drug deals going down in our parking lot,” said Kelly Carter, lead minister for the only mainstream Church of Christ in this city of 1.1 million souls east of the Rocky Mountains.
But what some might see as a burden, Carter counts as a blessing, as the church endeavors to share Jesus in an ethnically diverse boomtown known for its oil-and-gas headquarters and love for hockey, football and country music.

Adam Cowley, 27, dealing with a drinking problem and criminal assault charges, decided to attend a worship service after the church helped him with groceries.
“I had been into a lot of gang violence and just a lot of thugging and being a hoodlum,” he said.
Cowley studied the Bible with Carter and was baptized.
“What led me to stay was just meeting all these new people who were so welcoming,” he said. “I didn’t feel like an outcast or like I was being judged.
“I tell everybody about this church.”

In Canada’s largely secular culture, the church’s location in a working-class neighborhood — near a Calgary Transit train station and a major shopping center — affords tremendous opportunities for outreach, Carter said.
“Is it a troubled area of town? Yes,” he said. “But does that create opportunity for us? Yes.”
The church attempts to seize that opportunity by opening its building for community meetings by Chinese and Filipino immigrants — and by offering juice, granola bars and canned goods with flip tops to the homeless who frequent the area.
A weekly Moms and Tots program at the church gives young mothers a place to share coffee and conversation while their children play. The Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association uses the building twice a week to teach language and life skills.
The community agency NeighbourLink Calgary oversees a separate program called Run, Jump & Play.
The agency buses poor, mostly immigrant mothers to the church to receive parental education while their children attend classes.
NeighbourLink also coordinates a communitywide food bank and helps find furniture for poor people. The Calgary church is highly active in that effort, said Anne Coul, an information and referral specialist with the agency.
“This is a very high-needs area, a very populated area,” Coul said. “So this church … they’re bombarded all the time with people wanting help, and they’re very generous.”
At Christmastime, volunteers led by church member Brandi Mooney coordinate a project to collect gifts for hundreds of homeless people.
Last year, Norm Saunders, 34, a resident of the Calgary Drop-in and Rehab Centre, asked for a guitar — and got it.
“I was just overwhelmed,” he said, praising church members for sitting down with shelter residents, talking about their lives and attempting to fulfill their holiday wishes.
Making music with fellow homeless people has brought hope to his life, he said.
“I mean, I can’t walk down on the (shelter) floor without everyone coming up and shaking my hand and giving me a hug and saying, ‘Hey, keep it up,’” he said. “It’s amazing.”
Carter’s voice cracks as he reflects on leading lost souls to Christ in Canada.
A native Oregonian, he was baptized at age 14 after a friend invited him to Bible camp.
He later attended Abilene Christian University in Texas and served as a minister with the 37th and Atlantic church in Long Beach, Calif. At 27, he began his ministry north of the U.S. border when the Shelbourne Street church in Victoria, British Columbia, hired him.
“When we went to Victoria, I didn’t think of myself as a missionary,” said Carter, now 50. “I was just going to preach for a church that happened to be across the border.”
But it didn’t take long for Carter’s perspective to change.
“We fell in love with the people, fell in love with the call of God to be here and try to propagate the gospel in a place that really needs Christ,” he said.
A nation of about 33 million people, Canada has about 150 Churches of Christ. Their combined membership totals about 7,000.
The U.S. population is about nine times as large as Canada, but its Church of Christ membership — at roughly 1.3 million — is about 185 times as large.
Only about 7 percent of Canadians identify with evangelical churches of any denomination, reported Geoffrey Ellis, chairman of the Canadian Churches of Christ Historical Society.
But none of those statistics mean anything when God touches someone’s heart.
“This is tragic in one sense, but there are just so many needy lives around us,” Carter said. “Even the secular mindset isn’t stopping people from coming and searching for something in their lives.”
Once a mostly white, affluent congregation, the Calgary church has undergone a transformation in the last 20 years.
Now, energy company CEOs share pews with immigrant laborers, and minorities account for roughly 25 percent of the members. In many respects, it remains a commuter church with most members driving in from outlying areas.
But the number of members from the community is increasing.
“The tension is lessening,” Carter said, “as the church increasingly recognizes the value it has in the community and the role it can play in a part of the city that is comparatively disadvantaged.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that some of the people exposed to the church during the week show up for the Sunday assembly.
“It’s not uncommon for us to have 20 people on a Sunday morning that we have never seen before,” Carter said. “I’ve got more than enough people to study with, just with people walking into our building.”
Addicted to crack cocaine, Rynell LaVallie, 43, and his wife, Terry, 38, visited the church after hitting rock bottom and having their 12-year-old son taken by authorities.
The first Sunday, his nervousness almost overcame him.
“Terry, she says, ‘Relax, these people aren’t like other people. They’re with God. They’re not going to ask you to buy some crack or anything,’” Rynell recalled. “She was right.”
For both, accepting Christ through baptism opened up a whole new world. With their new lifestyle, they pray that God will return their son to them.
“When I came up out of that water, I cried,” Rynell said. “The emotions were just unbearable. I felt new.”
His wife experienced similar emotions.
“You have a lot of people around you that you feel don’t forgive you because of the wrongs you’ve done,” she said. “But to hear that God will forgive you for what you’ve done has a huge impact on you.”

• • •

Exploring Alberta

LOCATION: Western Canada, bounded by the provinces of British Columbia to the west, Saskatchewan to the east and the Northwest Territories to the north.
POPULATION: 3,632,483, according to a 2009 estimate.
CHURCHES OF CHRIST: The Gospel Herald, a Canadian news and teaching publication, lists eight a cappella congregations in Alberta.
HISTORY OF CALGARY CHURCH: Started in the early 1900s by a few families who moved to Calgary from England and started meeting.
LEADERSHIP: Elders Bud Ashby, Dave Bailey, John Coghlin, David Lidbury, Wayne McKeage, Jack Money and Gary Zorn; lead minister Kelly Carter; associate minister Jack Ashby; and youth minister Peter Roberts.
INTERNATIONAL MISSIONS: The church supports Jason and Sheryl Moriarty in Papua New Guinea, Jay Don Rodgers in Ukraine, Ray McMillan in India and Velaphi Mlangeni in Zimbabwe. The congregation also contributes to efforts to minister to AIDS victims and orphans through the Zambia Mission Fund Canada by the Shelbourne Street Church of Christ in Victoria, British Columbia.

Filed under: International The Church in Canada

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