A Sense of Belonging

Cultivating a sense of belonging in a community is crucial to feeling at home. But it’s not always easy to lay down roots when you move to a new place. There can be challenges – different ones at every age and stage of life.

When I moved to New Westminster eight years ago, I had no connections. It took some fumbling around to figure out how to create a network of friends and acquaintances. Over the course of my life, I had already made two solid homes, first in Toronto and later on Bowen Island, BC. In each case, leaving the web of relationships had been painful.

How could I rebuild a life in an unknown city now? With both children in the process of flying the coop and my having a home-based business, the usual tickets for easy entry into a larger social circle were restricted to those in other circumstances, I thought.

My eventual solution may seem old hat to some, odd to others, but it has been astonishingly successful and satisfying for me. But, at first, I floundered. Political engagement brought some sense of being part of the city. As time progressed, I did make a couple of excellent friends by volunteering.

Then a flash of inspiration. I decided to join a church. I can hear the skepticism: ‘That is so old!’ Or, some of you may be thinking, Of course, isn’t that obvious.’ Some of you may be dubious, ‘Don’t you choose to go to church for spiritual reasons?’ No doubt others of you are thinking: ‘Weird! We live in a secular society: what could church involvement possibly bring you? Isn’t religion the source of most of the strife in the world? Won’t science answer all the questions?” and so forth.

I’m sensitive to all those issues, but I realized that one of my major personal characteristics is that I’m a seeker – curiosity rules my internal world. I have questions that plague me daily: “Why am I here? What is my purpose? What is the ‘good’ life? How do you create meaning in your life, right now and in the long term!? Why is life so confusing, complex and challenging? Why is their so much violence in the world? How can that change? What will be the true impact of climate change in the long run? What is the future of humankind? What will my children’s and children’s children’s lives look like?” And on and on.

I have a large number of bulging book shelves that attest to my insatiable quest for answers, but I was beginning to realize that reading books is one thing, having a life is another. I needed to have both. It is little wonder that I gravitated to a place where people search for ways to navigate the great mystery of life and also to seek social justice, peace and rationality.

I had a good idea already that the Unitarian Church might be a good fit. I had a passing knowledge of it. I knew it was liberal, inclusive and principle-based. It didn’t purport to answer the big questions, just to help you in your personal search. Just what I wanted.

A quick internet searched showed that Beacon Unitarian Church had services very close to my place so I had no excuse. I took the plunge and went. I knew, almost immediately, that these were my ‘peeps’. Since then, I have been swept up in the warmth and energy of that community. It is a small congregation – maybe 50 or 60 actively involved – but it is full of the most diverse, thoughtful, warm, caring, knowledgeable, inquisitive, and politically and socially engaged people I could ever meet.

At church.
At church.

How has it rocked my world? In a nutshell, it has provided a place for me to grow spiritually, to connect with others and to become involved in social and political action. My latest involvement has been with the church’s refugee sponsorship plan. We have a family coming soon!

The church has provided me with a community, a world of relationships and a sense of belonging. Don’t overlook church or a place of worship as a source of connectedness. It may bring a depth and breadth to your life that you never expected. It may give you ground from which to grow. It will certainly bring you friendships.

When it gets right down to it, a sense of home comes from the quality of personal connections you make. And really, it is the intricate web of personal connections within a city that give it its heart and soul. I think New Westminster has plenty of that.

And I am here now, fully.

Spirit of the City

I just came back from my weekly lunchtime yoga at work, and as I sat down for a dose of 102tF, it got me thinking about the role that the spiritual life, and churches in particular, have played in our Royal City. Without any real historical training or knowledge (Will and Peter Julian will have to help you with that), I figure that when New West was settled and in the decades after, churches likely played an important role in developing a sense of community in our city.

The first church to open in New West was the one that Will (of 102tF) and I attended as children (and played many games of floor hockey in its church hall), Holy Trinity Cathedral on Carnarvon Street. Founded in 1859 by the Reverend John Sheepshanks, its first building was destroyed by fire in 1865. It’s current stately building dates from the second structure built on that site which was lost in the great fire of 1898 – the surviving stone walls were found to be sound enough to support a rebuild, and so the current structure was built up from the ashes of the old (meaningful, no?). Though it is now an unsightly grey, crowded in on all sides by condo towers, it is a beautiful building on the inside and has unmissable stained glass windows. This parish was named the cathedral seat of the diocese in 1892, but the second in a series of “Capital Controversies” occurred in 1929 when Archbishop de Pencier named Vancouver’s Christ Church Cathedral the seat of the diocese (though New Westminster remained the diocesan title and HTC remained a “Cathedral” in name and beauty). It’s parish continues going strong today if parish activity can be measured by the sheer number of activity links on its website.

Knox Presbyterian Church set down its roots in the building it still occupies in Sapperton in 1891, as “The Wee Kirk on the corner” and has been an active member of the community ever since. Bringing it’s denominational history of sound education in Sunday School (aided by the opening of its “Christian Education Centre” in 1956), Knox has been the heart of Sapperton since it was founded and it’s distinct architecture make it one of New West’s most recognizable buildings.

The first Gurdwara in New West was started in 1919 by Sikhs who worked the sawmills dotting the Fraser River. Bhai Bisan Singh, a dedicated Sikh, formed the Gurdwara Sahib Sukh Sagar in his home, gathering others for meetings and readings of the Holy scripture Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji. The New Westminster Khalsa Diwan Society (The local community of Sikh believers) formed when Singh purchased the lot next to his house in 1919 and donated it to the congregation (though formally incorporated in 1974). The present Gurdwara opened in Queensborough in 1975 and it’s tall red flame light is one of the many sights welcoming people New Westminster as they drive over the Queensborough bridge Northbound.

New Westminster has also been the home to the cemetery of BC’s oldest and largest Orthodox Jewish Synagogue, Congregation Schara Tzedeck, in Vancouver. I tried to pin down whether there was an active temple/synagogue in NW but haven’t found anything yet, though the contributions of many prominent Jewish people shaped New Westminster: Muni Evers, New Westminster’s longest-serving Mayor (see here and here); More recently, the Congregation Sha’rai Mizrah (Gate of the East)has served New Westminster/Burnaby/Coquitlam from a converted Kingdom Hall off of Lougheed Highway.

No discussion of religion in New Westminster could go without the introduction of Dr. Vasant Saklikar, who, after moving to Canada from India in 1959 and working in education systems across the country, became rector of Sixth Avenue United Church in 1976 and quickly became a community icon – his work on the School Board and as an advocate and activist made him a frequent sight in local papers. Saklikar raised his family in the West End and was named Citizen of the Year in 1998. The now-named Shiloh-Sixth Avenue United remains a politically and socially active parish to this day, where newbie New West council member Jamie MacEvoy is director of their Hospitality Project, bringing comfort and aid to New Westminster’s vulnerable people.

Another United church has a prominent place (and role) in New Westminster’s history – the venerable Queen’s Ave United Church building sits just up the 6th Street hill from City Hall, and has hosted a faith community there since 1859 (not to mention the piano recitals and music day camps Will and I went to as kids!), tying HTC for first church in the new colony though the building wasn’t built until 1860, as Queen’s Avenue Methodist Church. When the Wesleyans, Presbyterians and Congregationalists merged in 1925, its name was changed to it’s current. Another congregation which was tested by fire, QA lost it’s first church building to New Westminster’s Great Fire in 1898, and its second building was replaced by the current iconic stone block building across from the Armoury in 1959. I didn’t know this until now, but QAUC also owns Grace Hall, a small building in the Queen’s Park area which was once used for sunday school and is now home to community groups (such as the Brownie group I went to as a kid!). I have certainly always associated QAUC with music, and the congregation has a reputation in the community for great musical events and performances.

New West has played host to spiritual communities of all kinds, but there simply isn’t room to do justice to them all. Many are small but in their own way left their imprint on the community – who can forget the Foursquare church and the Evangelical Free church (both on 10th, and technically in Burnaby) who maintain an active, and often clever, dialogue with the community via their church signs. We can’t leave out the orthodox churches (of which there are 4), and several intentional religious communities in New West currently and historically, such as the Sisters of St. Anne, the Loyal Protestant Home (now Royal City Christian Centre) and the Russian Orthodox convent on 5th Avenue (anyone know the name of this one?). I’ll leave these for a later post. In our “geeked out” discussions of New Westminster’s politics and history, we can’t leave out the rich history of many different faith traditions that have shaped and advanced New Westminster as the community it is today.