Vancouver’s St. Andrew’s Wesley United Church prepares for two-year closure for restoration – BC

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A downtown Vancouver landmark will be closing its doors for up to two years as it undergoes repairs, restoration, and a seismic upgrade.

St. Andrew’s Wesley United Church is a familiar sight at the corner of Burrard and Nelson, and known for interiors featuring French and Italian-stained glass windows, a vaulted timber roof, and angel reliefs.

Lead Minister Dan Chambers said the church, opened in 1933, is a historical piece of architecture.

“The architects were Twizel and Twizel, and although that sounds like a candy they were well-known and well-regarded architects of their time. And this is sort of the jewel of their Neo-Gothic architecture on the west coast,” said Chambers.

The church said it’s also a popular space with performance choirs and film companies alike.


READ MORE:
More Vancouver schools getting seismic upgrades

Over the next two years — or, as Chambers hopes, eighteen months — it’ll be getting new pews, walls, electrical systems, a new roof, and getting a seismic upgrade.

Chambers said the project is a big undertaking, but a necessary one.

“When we tried to imagine the city losing another worship space and performance space, we felt we had to make this happen.”

While its doors are shut, the church will be holding services at the Century Plaza Hotel. The First Baptist Church and St. Paul’s Anglican Church are also hosting some of St. Andrew’s Wesley’s events during the restoration.


READ MORE:
Future of Edith Cavell students during seismic upgrades remains unclear

The church will hold its last full Sunday service on February 3rd.

The week after, however, worshipers can return after service to the church, where Chambers said they’re invited to a celebration of the space on February 10.

“We’ll have a big potluck lunch. We’ll invite children and adults to write prayers of gratitude on the walls,” said Chambers.

“It’ll be a way of expressing our gratitude and our prayers of thanks for this sacred space that has served the needs of generations.”

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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Nearly $4K stolen from Cape Breton church days before Christmas

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Cape Breton police are investigating the theft of thousands of dollars from a church just days before Christmas.

« Violated is a good way to describe it, » said Father Patrick O’Neil, the parish priest at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Sydney River. « It’s sad that anybody would break into any building, but especially a church. »

O’Neil said he had just finished mass the evening of Sunday, Dec. 16, when he noticed something wasn’t right with the parish office door.

« The casing had been broken and cracked and obviously somebody had forced the door open, » he said. 

The cash was inside an envelope in the parish office. (Norma Jean MacPhee/CBC)

It wasn’t until the next morning that O’Neil and the parish secretary realized an envelope containing close to $4,000 was missing. The money had been raised at several fundraising concerts that were held that weekend.

Security cameras offer clues

O’Neil said security cameras in the church showed a man who O’Neil recognized. 

« This person in question — I know innocent until proven guilty — but if it is this person, he’s known to have done it before and probably will keep doing it unless someone … challenged him on that, » said O’Neil. « Especially the police which could maybe give you a little scare to change your ways, if possible. »

Fr. O’Neil says, ‘ultimately, I would like to see the person stop stealing.’ (Norma Jean MacPhee/CBC)

The video footage from the security cameras has been turned over to Cape Breton Regional Police.

O’Neil said he’s hoping for accountability and justice. 

« I don’t think the person in question is going to have anything left, or much, or we won’t get anything back, » said O’Neil. « I’m always open to the possibility that someone might say, ‘I’ve changed my mind. I want to ask for forgiveness,’ but regardless, we will recoup the loss through insurance if we have to. »

No arrests have been made so far.

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A small Ontario town welcomed this Egyptian immigrant. Now he’s buying its church — to save it

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HENSALL, ONT.—Joseph was broken; ditto for one of the wise men. Storage had been hard on the nativity scene.

“I had my husband glue the heads back on,” says Tracey Cooper in amid a scramble to get ready for an unexpected Christmas Eve service. “It’s not going to be perfect, and you know what, that’s OK.”

Local pharmacist Michael Haddad outside the United Church in Hensall, Ont., this month. Part of why he is putting up money to buy the church is that he worries that because Hensall has an older population they’d be unable to attend another church. “How about all those people who don’t drive?” he wondered. “How can they pray?”
Local pharmacist Michael Haddad outside the United Church in Hensall, Ont., this month. Part of why he is putting up money to buy the church is that he worries that because Hensall has an older population they’d be unable to attend another church. “How about all those people who don’t drive?” he wondered. “How can they pray?”  (GEOFF ROBINS / For the Toronto Star)

Out of another box came the Advent wreath. Then the candles, battery operated just to be safe, as Cooper and her friends decorated the church sanctuary. A tree? They found one tucked away in the darkness, set it up near the pulpit and gave it life with a festive mishmash of artificial poinsettia leaves and silver garlands. They were trying to create a certain ambiance.

“We want warm and welcoming,” says Cooper. “It’s a new era, that’s what we’re going for.”

If urgency can be joyous, that’s what is unfolding on the main street of this village north of London.

In an astonishing reversal, Hensall United Church, officially shuttered in November, has been saved — imbued with new life just in time for Christmas by an Egyptian immigrant’s spirit of giving.

At a time when rural congregations are shrinking and small-town churches are closing — the United Church of Canada alone has been losing seven a year in southwestern Ontario recently — Hensall has a saviour in its midst, an improbable one at that.

The 131-year-old Protestant church, in a community not known for its diversity, is being resurrected by a Roman Catholic from the Middle East.

Michael Haddad, the town’s pharmacist for the last eight years, stepped forward to purchase the building. That he will reopen it as place of worship makes this an unusual story of rebirth.

It’s not rare for a church to be sold. They are then typically retrofitted for another use or torn down for the land. Rev. Tom Dunbar, a United Church minister from nearby Mitchell helping navigate the sale, says he’s never heard of an individual buying a church to keep it as a church.

The United Church in Hensall could host other denominations as well, and become more of a community hub.
The United Church in Hensall could host other denominations as well, and become more of a community hub.  (GEOFF ROBINS)

Haddad will pay $250,000 for the building, a price within a range provided by appraisers. The proposal has been approved by Hensall United’s trustees and its congregation. Lawyers are drawing up the paperwork to be submitted to the United Church of Canada.

As part of the agreement, Haddad and his wife, Asteir Hanna, will bequeath the property to their 20-year-old son, Andrew. If Andrew has no interest in maintaining it, or dies himself, the church will return to the congregation.

“I will never get one penny back of my money,” says Haddad, an infectiously friendly 58-year-old. “I did it for two reasons. One, and this is maybe 90 per cent, I did it for religious reasons. I consider it a duty as a Christian to keep a church of Christ open. It hurt me to hear it was closing.

“Ten per cent is for the people of Hensall who really support me. If I came here as a foreigner in this town and people said, ‘We are not going to support a business like that,’ within a month or two I would leave. But I felt very welcome. My heart is for this town. I felt like the pharmacy would be a success from day one.”

Haddad says he worried, too, that because Hensall has an older population — 20 per cent is over 65 — they’d be unable to attend another church. “How about all those people who don’t drive?” he wondered. “How can they pray?”

Haddad’s plan is to turn Hensall’s last church into a community hub that any denomination can use for worship. All revenue raised through events such as car washes, rummage sales or Sunday collections will go to maintenance.

“This is very much a story of hope,” says Dunbar. “That’s what our faith is all about and it has all these other threads in it, too, that are so wonderful, the idea of peace and working together and breaking down barriers when we’re in a time when it seems to be OK to raise barriers. This is definitely going against that flow.”

Cooper, keeping with the season, sees it in another light.

“It’s cheesy but it’s kind of a Christmas miracle. It couldn’t have happened at a better time.”


They’d gathered in this building countless times; sometimes there’d be laughter, sometimes tears. A church, especially in a small town, isn’t just a place for Sunday service. There are lunches, dinners, AA meetings, horticultural clubs, baby and wedding showers, community gatherings and of course weddings, funerals and baptisms.

It really is woven into the fabric of the community and, on Nov. 25 with a closing service, that community said goodbye.

The number of church attendees on any given Sunday had fallen to somewhere between 16 and 20. And Jeffrey Dale, Hensall United’s last regular minister, said the average age “was in the 80s.”

That aging congregation did everything it could to keep it alive but it wasn’t sustainable. There was only enough money in the coffers to shut it down.

But Haddad, who attends church in London, heard of the imminent closure and drafted a proposal to Hensall United’s trustees.

“I think it is so amazing that somebody from the outside said, ‘I’m your neighbour. I see you struggling. Let me help you,’ ” says Dale.

Organist and church trustee Chuck Mallette invited everyone from the village of about 1,000 to gather at Hensall United recently to hear one man's vision to save Hensall United Church, not sure how many would show up.
Organist and church trustee Chuck Mallette invited everyone from the village of about 1,000 to gather at Hensall United recently to hear one man’s vision to save Hensall United Church, not sure how many would show up.  (GEOFF ROBINS)

Given that potential lifeline, Chuck Mallette — a church organist and trustee — invited everyone from the village of about 1,000 to gather at Hensall United on a December Monday to hear one man’s vision to save it. Mallette and his wife lined up 50 chairs in a church community room. He wondered if that was too optimistic.

In the end, about 80 people came in out of the cold to hear what the pharmacist had to say.

Haddad stood at the front of the wood-panelled room and, exuding earnestness, read from a letter, his accent still evident after two decades in Canada. He quoted Scripture, he spoke of his plans to bring in foosball and ping-pong tables and have movie and video game nights to attract young people. He explained how he’d like to bring back Sunday school, which once thrived in the church. He explained his business plan because, he joked, the gas and water bills can’t be paid with prayers and God’s good wishes. People laughed.

Warming up and no longer needing notes, he spoke of how everyone could participate in a new vision. It would cost people nothing other than their willingness to help and take part.

“This church has millions of memories. I couldn’t imagine a truck would come and remove it,” he said. “This church is a historical treasure and holds a place in everyone’s heart in Hensall.”

This was a revival meeting in every sense of the word and Haddad won over the crowd. It felt like a scene from an old Frank Capra movie as those gathered started presenting their own ideas about revitalizing the yellow-brick showpiece that would be renamed Hensall Community Church.

Maybe there could be music again, it had been so long since the church had a choir. Perhaps it was possible to have special services for the migrant farm workers who arrive in the area every spring. And wouldn’t it be great for the town’s youth to have somewhere safe to hang out.

Mallette had placed sign up sheets on tables at the side of the hall for those who wanted to take an active role in the church’s direction. By the end of the gathering, 20 people had left their names.

A private, smaller meeting of congregation members was held afterward. They agreed to accept Haddad’s proposal. Apparently, there wasn’t much pushback.

“Michael is willing to put his money where his faith is,” says Mallette.


Cheryl Rader, left, Tracey Cooper, Asteir Hanna and her husband, Michael Haddad, and Chuck Mallette in the United Church in Hensall. Rader, Cooper and Mallette are among those scrambling toorganize the Christmas Eve service.
Cheryl Rader, left, Tracey Cooper, Asteir Hanna and her husband, Michael Haddad, and Chuck Mallette in the United Church in Hensall. Rader, Cooper and Mallette are among those scrambling toorganize the Christmas Eve service.  (GEOFF ROBINS)

Haddad and his wife didn’t have to leave Egypt. They were both pharmacists there as well and had a good life. But they were also adventurous and, while not political, they both yearned to live in a country with more freedom.

They looked to Canada or Australia but it was Canada that was in need of pharmacists. They arrived in 1995.

Michael first worked as a Domino’s Pizza delivery man and at a gas station. Asteir served customers at a Coffee Time. In their off-hours, they upgraded their education to be licensed in Canada.

Now they feel like they live in a type of paradise.

“It’s a beautiful country,” says Haddad. “It’s a rich country. Even just driving home, it’s dark and it’s winter but you feel your spirits are up. You are very lucky to be in Canada.”

Hanna has her own pharmacy in London. Haddad has had his store in Hensall since 2011 after working in places such as Goderich and Exeter as an employee. He knew this village lacked a pharmacy and loved the intimacy of small-town life. He makes the 45-minute drive to London most nights but stays in an apartment over Hensall Pharmacy when the weather is bad.

He regularly attends Saint Elias Maronite Catholic Church in London where he is a director and treasurer. He is also a financial adviser at London’s Almanarah Presbyterian Church. He understands the business side of religion.

He also understands that King St. in Hensall – known as the White Bean Capital of Canada — isn’t what it was. Haddad keeps a postcard behind his pharmacy counter that depicts that main street as thriving. He guesses the image is from about 1980. The big grocery store was gone before he got here. There are many empty storefronts. The bank just left. Haddad must now drive the nine kilometres south to Exeter just to make change.

“The closing of the church, had it happened, would’ve been another gut punch to the village,” says Mallette.

Haddad says he loves it here and feels loyalty to a town that has treated him so well. He says he longed to give something back.

“But I never feel like I’m doing something great or amazing,” he says. “God put me in this town for a reason and maybe that reason came now.

“Maybe it is a Christmas gift for this lovely town.”


"We decided that if there was a way it was going to be saved, we were going to get involved," says Cheryl Rader. "We'd sat back long enough."
« We decided that if there was a way it was going to be saved, we were going to get involved, » says Cheryl Rader. « We’d sat back long enough. »  (GEOFF ROBINS)

They’re hoping for a packed house at Hensall United on Christmas Eve. The service will take on additional meaning, and an extra sense of celebration, given what was almost lost.

Cooper and her friend Cheryl Rader were among those who signed up at the meeting. Now they, along with Mallette and Heather Forrest, are organizing the service.

“We decided that if there was a way it was going to be saved, we were going to get involved,” says Rader. “We’d sat back long enough.”

Kathy Mann has been a member of Hensall United since 1962. She taught Sunday school there and remembers full pews with weekly attendance close to 300. Mann has always taken it upon herself to decorate for Christmas. This year, until Haddad offered to save the church, she couldn’t even bring herself to go into the sanctuary. Now she is part of the crew getting the church spruced up.

She remains “cautiously optimistic” about her church’s long-term viability.

“You’ve got to have faith and hope,” she says. “Never more than now.”

Paul Hunter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @hunterhockey

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‘This will be their future’: Petitcodiac United Baptist Church opens new wing – New Brunswick

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After two years, the Petitcodiac United Baptist Church has a new wing.

“Two years ago we were staring at a bill of around $400,000 just to clean up the oil spill so this didn’t seem like a possibility — at all. But God can do great things,” said pastor David Woodworth.


READ MORE:
Moncton’s Catholic churches face possible closures (2017)

In 2016, the historic, 137-year-old wing that served as the original sanctuary of the church was demolished because of an oil spill. But now, thanks to donations from the congregation and the support of Jean Irving, the church is bigger than ever.

WATCH: Church bell tolls no more at the Petitcodiac Baptist Church






The new wing is equipped with a massive multipurpose room, a fitness centre and a new community space in the basement.

“We feel like we are more equipped with respect to our facilities, to serve in our community and carry out the mission that God has called us to out here in Petitcodiac,” Woodworth said of the updates.

“I personally look at it as if God removed something that was going to be a liability to us in the future and now he has established the facility of Petitcodiac church, hopefully for 137 years to come.”

READ MORE: Loss of historic Petitcodiac church seen as a blessing in disguise

Leslie Gogan, who has been coming to the church for over 50 years, says she misses the old, historic space, but is excited by the possibilities the new addition brings.

“I’ve come to the point where I realized that I have those memories, that’s my past, but there’s a whole generation of people coming up, young kids, big kids, and this will be their future,” she said.

“This will be what they remember.”

The new wing is being celebrated Saturday evening and regular service, of course, happens Sunday.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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Lethbridge residents pack church for annual fundraising concert – Lethbridge

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Dozens were seated in the pews at Southminster United Chuch on Saturday night for the 27th Annual Mayor’s Christmas Concert.

The Lethbridge Community Band Society provided the entertainment, with the proceeds going towards two local food banks.


READ MORE:
Lethbridge charities preparing for holiday season

Organizers said the yearly holiday show is vital in reaching their goal of serving nearly 7,000 people — part of their Christmas Hope campaign.

“This event sells out every year and we’re privileged to be part of it,” said Lethbridge Food Bank Warehouse Manager Phil Rosenzweig. “We really appreciate the support that Lethbridge gives in this community Christmas time event.”

Bands in attendance were joined by the Magrath Elementary School choir.

WATCH: Lethbridge charities prepare for holiday season






© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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By swallowing its opposition to the minister who doesn’t believe in God, the United Church shows just how irrelevant it is

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They brought her flowers. They gave her a standing ovation. They repeatedly professed it “a great day.”

This is the cult of Gretta Vosper.

A United Church of Canada minister who doesn’t believe in God.

An atheist — outed herself before the congregation five years ago — rather than the less radical non-theist term, which is a person who doesn’t think of God as a being, thereby avoiding some of the more negative baggage associated with the A-word.

A heretic, frankly, as Vosper herself shorthands it on tweets with the hashtag #heresytrial.

There will be no trial, no formal ecclesiastical hearing, no defrocking. After three-and-a-half years of preparation and internal controversy, the United Church swallowed its theological opposition, last week announcing that Vosper is free to continue her ministry without any sanctions or restrictions, thus aborting a much-anticipated “trial” that had been scheduled to begin next Monday.

Carry on deleting all reference to God or a supernatural being in all sermons and rewritten hymns. Carry on expunging the Lord’s Prayer. Carry on with a fundamentally humanist dogma. Carry on conducting services as a community-centred attestation where everybody gets a shot at the microphone.

But what a cross to bear that gigantic wooden crucifix at the front of the Church of the Master must be, constant reminder of everything this parish rejects. Church of the Master in far-flung Scarborough is only a temporary landlord, of course, providing worshipping space for West Hill United because their building has a leaking roof and other structural issues.

Read more:

In surprise settlement, United Church agrees Toronto’s atheist minister can keep her job

It came as a shock to the wider United Church — Canada’s second-largest religious denomination (and dwindling fast) — when the “inquisition” (the General Council) halted in its tracks on Wednesday, declaring in a joint statement with Vosper and the Toronto Conference that they’d settled all outstanding issues between them.”

Immediately disappearing was the threat hanging over Vosper’s head that she, ordained minister, would be placed on the Discontinued Service List (Disciplinary).

Curiously, illogically, on the United Church of Canada website appeared a further statement, stressing that the decision “doesn’t alter in any way the belief of The United Church of Canada in God, a God most fully revealed to us as Christians in and through Jesus Christ.”

Except, you know, for the exceptional.

The heresy trial would have been the next big step following a 2016 report that found Vosper unsuitable for ministry because she was no longer in “essential agreement” with church doctrine; was “unwilling and unable” to reaffirm the vows she made when she was ordained in 1993.

I don’t know how big the congregation was when this scandal bubbled to the surface in 2015. Vosper, oft inclined to “pseudo-controversial pronouncements,” as described by one critic, had objected to a prayer published on the United Church website by then-moderator Gary Paterson, following the massacre by Islamist militants at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office in Paris. In an open letter, Vosper wrote that she was offended by a prayer that espoused belief in some sort of transcendent entity, pressing Paterson to denounce all religion and eradicate religiosity from the public sphere.

“I urge you to lead our church toward freedom from such idolatrous belief …”

But on Sunday morning, there were fewer than 100 congregants at interim West Hill United. All but a handful white, most of them grey, plus two children, one baby and one mutt. As 60-year-old Vosper noted regretfully in her sermon, the church needs to take risks to make it a more welcoming place to the non-traditional, the minorities and the marginalized. “That’s what the United Church right now is — it’s a great white wall of seniors.”

I would characterize their embrace of Vosper as idolatrous.

They may not believe in God — some still do — but they clearly believe in the virtue of Vosper. Those who don’t have already peeled away, distressed with where Vosper has taken the congregation.

As one introductory speaker reminded: They are “aggressively progressive” and their focus is not on theology.

If I understand correctly, Vosper promotes the rigidly secular, the gospel of get-God-out. Which is stunningly oxymoronic for a church. There are myriad ways to do good work — as this parish, like so many others, is in the process of sponsoring a refugee family. But to strip faith out of doctrine, to go God-less (or godless) is intrinsically, profanely sacrilegious and anti-spiritual. It is what Vosper exalts: Apostasy.

Which is fine. But how can an individual, a minister, wrap herself in the mantle of a formal church while simultaneously repudiating its ethos? Right Rev. Richard Bott, elected this past July to lead the United Church in Canada, hasn’t explained that. And there will likely never be any explanation because the agreement contains a confidentiality clause.

What Bott did say, in a message praising the resolution to church adherents, stressing core values and inclusivity: “The dance between these core values, how they interact with and inform each other, is one that we continue to explore as followers of Jesus and children of the creator. As a Christian church, we continue to expect that ministers in the United Church of Canada will offer their leadership in accordance with our shared and agreed upon statements of faith.”

How can anybody in the United Church take that contradictory statement, in its Vosper hands-off, on faith?

Christian religion, except in charismatic and evangelical interpretations, is losing traction globally, churches shuttered and sold off as attendance plunges. The United Church in Canada, perhaps the quintessential Protestant faith in this country, making a virtue out of easy-peasy belief — the church that stands for nothing which requires rigour or temperance — has tumbled more than most. From its founding in 1925 as a merger of Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists, when it boasted 6.25 per cent of the Canadian population as members — peaking at 1.06 million in 1967 — its adherents have fallen to 1.5 per cent, according to its own published figures. Between 1968 and 2009, it lost more than half its membership.

Relevance is the matter. When you hold nothing sacred, then nothing is relevant.

When you take the God out of religion, as Vosper has done, then you are innately irreligious. Doesn’t make you a bad person but definitely makes you a subversive outlier within the hierarchy of church and theology. Or Vosper could have found a more amenable place in the Unitarian Church, which is post-theist and professes no creed.

“There’s no gloating in this,” Vosper told her congregants. “There’s no waking up in the morning and saying it should have been different, we shouldn’t have had to go through that three-and-a-half years. There’s only gratitude.’’

Swear it on a Bible? Probably not.

Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno

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‘A lot of hate and bigotry around’: Church terminates sign contract over refusal to post gay-positive message

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A Scarborough church has terminated its more than three-year-old contract with a Toronto sign company over the sign company’s refusal to post « gay-positive » and other messages on the church’s behalf.

St. Paul’s United Church is the latest to be embroiled in a dispute with Archer Mobile Signs Limited.

Windermere United Church in west-end Toronto has launched a human rights complaint against the company over its refusal to post messages, which Archer Mobile Signs owner Steven Thompson said are contrary to his religious beliefs.

Rev. Daniel Benson, the pastor of St. Paul’s United Church, said its contract with Archer Mobile Signs had commenced prior to his arrival at the church more than three years ago.

He said the problems started on June 17, when he sent an e-mail to Thompson requesting some updates to the sign.

« The front of the sign was to say ‘Happy Pride: The rainbow is God’s promise of unconditional love for everyone,' » Benson told CBC Toronto.

« The rear should say ‘Aboriginal Week of Prayer: AkweNia’Tetewáneren. All my relations.' »

But Benson received an email back from Thompson saying they needed to talk, and that he’d like to stay clear.

There’s a lot of hate and bigotry around and I think [we need] to stand up to it.– Rev. Daniel Benson, pastor of St. Paul’s United Church

Benson said Thompson refused to communicate further via e-mail or on the phone and when they eventually met, Thompson would not allow him to record their conversation.

« He basically told me his story about his faith journey and that given where he believed he was and his relationship with God he could not put this content up, » Benson said.

« The rationale seems to be that if we put up something that was gay-positive on the sign it might be vandalized. »

Contract terminated

Benson said even though he stressed that the church is the client and the importance of the message for its ministry in staking its claim of who they are in the community, Thompson would not budge.

He said he eventually took the matter to his board, which was very supportive of the content and authorized him to immediately terminate the contract with Archer Mobile Signs Limited.

Benson said he plans to reach out to Windermere United Church pastor, Rev. Alexa Gilmour, about joining her human rights complaint.

Gilmour said she was forced to take action after Archer Mobile Signs Limited refused to post a message that encouraged people to wish their Muslim neighbours a Ramadan Mubarak [Happy Ramadan] and another that encouraged people to celebrate diversity during Pride Week.

Windermere United Church pastor, Rev. Alexa Gilmour, said she was forced to take action after Archer Mobile Signs refused to post a message, which encouraged people to wish their Muslim neighbours a Ramadan Mubarak [Happy Ramadan] and another that encouraged people to celebrate diversity during Pride Week. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

In the complaint, Gilmour said interfaith dialogue and action is a central part of her faith and ministry, and if Windermere United cannot post the messages they choose then they cannot do the ministry they feel called by God to do.

« I understand that he is allowed to have his own faith even if I disagree with his beliefs. I’m not asking him to change his and embrace mine. I’m asking him not to censor mine, » Gilmour told CBC Toronto.

« We have a right to put a message of faith and put our faith into practice by using that sign and that’s what we’ve been doing for years now and that’s what I was asking to be done going forward. »

Gilmour said the sign was one of the ways Windermere United Church shows its inclusion and welcome of the community, and when that ability was taken away by Archer Mobile Signs she feared that the church’s Muslim neighbours would wonder why they were not included.

« I don’t know how I could post words of inclusion and love one week and then not stand against exclusion and hatred the next, » she said.

Prejudice lurks, fight for justice is real

For Benson, the entire episode shows that it can be quite easy to underestimate where prejudice lurks.

« We make assumptions, particularly in a place like Toronto, that it’s gay-positive, it’s racially positive. It’s easy to make those assumptions and I think we are constantly in a place of having those assumptions tested and challenged on many, many fronts, » he said.

« We tend to think of Toronto as being cosmopolitan, and yet as we know there’s a lot of hate and bigotry around and I think one of the things is to stand up to it. »

He said the fight for justice is still a real one on all sorts of fronts, whether it’s women’s rights, the #MeToo movement, black lives matter, aboriginal rights and reconciliation or LGBT issues.

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Church sign meant to spread word of God sparks rights complaint

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A United Church minister in west-end Toronto is pitted against a Christian business owner over an outdoor signboard used to spread the word of God.

In a rare complaint filed with the Ontario Human Rights Commission on Wednesday, Rev. Alexa Gilmour, minister of Windermere United Church, alleges Archer Mobile Signs refused to post a message encouraging people to “wish your Muslim neighbours a Ramadan Mubarak (Happy Ramadan)” and another that promoted the celebration of diversity during Pride Week.

United Church minister Rev. Alexa Gilmour has filed a human rights complaint against a signboard company saying its owner refused to post messages he views as contrary to his religious beliefs.
United Church minister Rev. Alexa Gilmour has filed a human rights complaint against a signboard company saying its owner refused to post messages he views as contrary to his religious beliefs.  (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)

“Interfaith dialogue and action is a central part of my faith and ministry,” Gilmour told the Star. “If Windermere United cannot post the messages we choose, then we cannot do the ministry we feel called by God to do.”

According to the human rights complaint, the church had rented a mobile sign from Archer Mobile Signs since 2012 and its owner, Steven Thompson, was responsible for updating the text on the sign every week.

One side of the sign generally displayed announcements about church life and events, while the other displayed a message of faith, entitled “This Week’s Spiritual Exercise,” that was authored by Gilmour as “an expression of my faith and an act of Christian ministry.” Gilmour or her staff would dictate the weekly text to Thompson by phone or email.

In the past, there had been disagreements over some of the messages on the signs, but Gilmour said the two instances flagged in the human rights complaint were the first in which he clearly defined his reasons for objecting to the minister’s choice of words.

In May, Gilmour claimed, church administrator Michelle Maldonado wrote to Thompson and requested the Ramadan message. However, Thompson only updated the announcement on the board and refused to put up the Muslim greeting.

In an email from Thompson dated May 16 that was included in Gilmour’s human rights submission, he said he found himself confused by Gilmour’s spiritual message.

“I am all for befriending Muslims in order to reach them for Christ … There is a sense in which your spiritual exercise goes beyond wishing Muslims well, to actually encouraging them in their ideology. I have no problem with wishing them well, but I would violate my own conscience before God to encourage them in their pursuit of Allah,” according Thompson’s email.

“Because I do not see any support in the scriptures to encourage anyone in a false ideology, Islam or otherwise, I must refrain from posting your spiritual exercise. For me, this would be a sin.”

Thompson did not respond to several requests from the Star for comment and waved off a reporter who approached him in person.

The church’s allegations have not been proven. As part of the human rights process, Thompson has 35 days to respond to the complaint. He has not yet filed a response.

Gilmour said she respects Thompson’s right to his opinions and did not ask him to give up his beliefs and embrace hers, but she said he has no right to censor her religious values.

A spring message on a Windermere United Church signboard urged passersby to "Spend time watching cherry blossoms bloom."
A spring message on a Windermere United Church signboard urged passersby to « Spend time watching cherry blossoms bloom. »

“People may say it’s just a sign,” said Gilmour, “but I use the sign to post my messages of welcome and inclusion.”

Gilmour pointed out to Thompson that he had not objected to prior interfaith messages to the Jewish community (Happy Chanukah) or people of African heritage (Happy Kwanzaa).

In his email reply, Thompson explained he had concerns about his signs being vandalized and that he has the right to refuse to let customers “say what they want’ and to “limit messaging on an Archer Sign where a threat is deemed possible.”

According to Gilmour, Thompson proposed alternatives to her message such as “Wish your Muslim neighbour well,” “befriend a Muslim” or “Invite a Muslim over for dinner” to avoid the “trigger word” Ramadan.

But Gilmour refused the suggestion because “we wish to acknowledge this holy time in the Islamic calendar and believe that treating the faith traditions differently is prejudicial and possibly racist.” Thompson then reportedly said the continued sign rental was contingent on the church accepting his company’s discretion to control its messaging, and mentioned that the placement of the mobile signs at Windermere violated city bylaw.

The minister also asked Thompson if he would post the message “Celebrate God’s diverse LGBTQ2S community with Pride” in June. According to the complaint, Thompson responded: “I think you have an idea as to my view of scripture.”

In mid-June, Thompson emailed the church to say he was removing the sign on the front lawn of the church, at Windermere Ave. and Bloor St. W., in order to comply with municipal code.

City rules on mobile signs specify they cannot be on the public right of way, such as sidewalks or boulevards. Gilmour said she believed the sign was in compliance with the bylaw.

The United Church of Canada is known for championing interfaith relations and gay rights, values that Gilmour said she always stands by.

“It’s not acceptable for a service provider to limit the way I express my Christian ministry,” she said. “I’m taking this step only because many attempts to resolve this issue through dialogue or mediation have failed.”

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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