VANCOUVER, British Columbia
— For two weeks, the world’s spotlight will shine on this coastal metropolis as athletes from more than 80 nations compete in the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Long after the Games end in late February, however, the Pacific Northwest city will retain its international flavor, as leaders of Churches of Christ can attest.
Roughly half the 2.1 million residents of Vancouver and surrounding communities were born outside of Canada and speak a native language other than English.
“It’s like the United Nations,” elder John Clelland said of the multicultural crowd of 150 that worships each Sunday morning at the South Burnaby Church of Christ, east of Vancouver.
Growing up, Belisha Duan accompanied her mother to a Buddhist temple. As an adult, the Chinese immigrant claimed no religious affiliation.
But when a friend invited her to visit the South Burnaby church, she accepted.
“When I came to this church, I felt very warm and peaceful,” said Duan, a real estate agent.
As a result, she began attending a “Roots” class offered on Tuesday nights by minister Kirk Ruch. The course, designed for beginners who never have picked up a Bible, focuses on the fundamentals of Christianity.
“By going to this class, like the seeds to the earth, little by little, day by day, you’ll see the blossom and flower in the near future,” Duan wrote in an e-mail to The Christian Chronicle.
“The more I learn the Bible, the more I have a will to be baptized,” she added. “Because I think if I become a Christian, I would get more Spirit, more power and more close to the God. In the same time, I can help more people in need.”RED AND YELLOW, BLACK AND WHITE
For more than a century, Restoration Movement churches have struggled to influence Canada’s largely secular culture.
Among the growing immigrant population, however, congregations and church planters are finding hearts more open to the Gospel, said Jim Hawkins, a longtime minister in Western Canada.
“Brown and black skins far outnumber the whites” at some congregations, said Hawkins, who preaches for the Delta Church of Christ, south of Vancouver.
Situated amid high-rise apartment buildings two blocks from a SkyTrain transit station, the South Burnaby church mixes immigrants from Asia, refugees from Africa and even a few families from Albania.
“That’s how we see the family of God,” member Amal Kago said of the red and yellow, black and white faces at South Burnaby. “That’s how we picture it because all of us come together in the body of Christ.
“We have to speak one language,” added Kago, who escaped war-torn Sudan with her husband, Gumaiz Mahmoud. “That’s the language of faith.”
Located in a densely populated area, the congregation frequently draws visits from immigrants curious about church and Christianity, Ruch said.
“They say to us, ‘I’ve never been to a church before. Is it OK if I stop in and see what this is like?’” Ruch said. “They’re a little afraid that maybe we won’t take them.”
But after receiving a heartfelt welcome, immigrants often return, form friendships with church members and study the Bible.
“We’re doing the work that God gives us,” said Clelland, a graduate of the now-defunct White’s Ferry Road School of Biblical Studies in West Monroe, La. “But really, God’s the one reaching lost souls.”
RAISING A NEW GENERATION IN CHRIST
Milton Diaz, a Spanish-speaking immigrant from El Salvador, preaches each Sunday — in improving English — at the Oakridge Church of Christ in Vancouver.
Once near death, the Oakridge church has enjoyed a resurgence thanks to an influx of families from places such as Ghana, Honduras and the Philippines, Diaz said.
Attendances ranges between 45 and 70 most Sundays but can top 100 on fellowship meal days.
“We are excited that we are raising a new generation in Christ,” said Diaz, who last year baptized his daughter, Anita, 17. “God is working.”
Another glimmer of hope for Christians in Vancouver: a church-planting effort by two young couples educated at Harding University in Searcy, Ark.
Working with Kairos, a church-planting ministry based in Portland, Ore., Paul and Julie McMullen and Aaron and Amy Etheridge hope to start a group of house churches in Vancouver.
For now, the couples meet with a small group at 5:30 p.m. each Sunday at the McMullens’ apartment.
They sing, pray, study the Bible and partake of the Lord’s Supper in a setting designed to be inviting and non-threatening to those less likely to step into a traditional gathering in a church building.
Among the first additions to The Vine church plant’s core group: William Zhang, a Chinese immigrant who speaks Mandarin and Cantonese; and Min Jeong, a Korean student who studies the Bible with Amy Etheridge and was recently baptized.
“In some ways, it’s really challenging. But in some ways, it’s just really exciting,” Aaron Etheridge said of starting a church from scratch.
Driving along a bustling street overflowing with coffee shops and ethnic restaurants, the Etheridges reflected on the joy of sharing the Gospel with people who don’t know anything about Jesus.
“When you get to tell them all these great things and they’re just excited, it’s like, ‘Wow, I’ve known this my entire life, and now I get to share it with someone who’s never heard it before,’” Amy Etheridge said.
SHE FOUND STRENGTH AND PEACE
When Ruch first arrived at the South Burnaby church 20 years ago, the congregation sang mostly classic hymns from an old-style songbook, he said.
On a recent Sunday, though, contemporary praise and worship songs such as “He Has Made Me Glad” and
“You’re Worthy of My Praise” dominated the lyrics shown on a big screen.
“For immigrants, it’s a lot easier to sing songs where it’s in more or less everyday English instead of really good songs that use older vocabulary and older styles,” said Ruch, a transplanted Oregonian and an alumnus of Abilene Christian University in Texas.
That’s just one example of how the church tries to make the assembly as accommodating as possible to newcomers.
When Ruch preaches, he directs the congregation to specific page numbers in the Bibles kept in pews. That way, visitors don’t have to search for Colossians 1 — they know it starts on page 833.
For the same reason — the guests’ lack of experience with the Bible — Ruch refrains from putting the text on PowerPoint.
“For this particular group, I enjoy not using it because it gives them the physical experience of opening the Bible,” he said.
Life as an immigrant can be difficult, said Duan, who accepted Christ last year.
But at the South Burnaby church, she found a hope she never imagined.
“I became more strong and peaceful,” the Chinese immigrant said.
“Fortunately, I have a circle of Christian friends, and I get a lot of help and encouragement. … I know they are always there, just like God will be there when you need him.”
• • •
Exploring British Columbia
LOCATION: Canada’s westernmost province is bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west, Alaska to the northwest, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories to the north, Alberta to the east and Washington, Idaho and Montana to the south.
POPULATION: 3.9 million.
CHURCHES OF CHRIST: A 2001 survey counted 26 congregations with less than 1,000 total members. A decade later, the number of churches has dropped to about 20 — with membership numbers declining at many, according to Jim Hawkins, a longtime minister in British Columbia.
NATIONWIDE: Home to about 33 million people, Canada has about 150 Churches of Christ. Their combined membership totals about 7,000. 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.
OLYMPICS: Thousands of athletes and spectators will converge on the Vancouver area for the 2010 Winter Games from Feb. 13-28.