Shiloh’s ‘Blue Christmas’ service reaches out to the grief-stricken

Shiloh Sixth Avenue church offered a special “Blue Christmas” service yesterday for people coping with loss and grief. Aside from a minor flood in our basement this season due to a burst pipe (eek!) and the occasional family tiff we have not yet been faced with adversity at Christmastime. We have been lucky. I imagine for those who do experience tragedy at this time of year, it must be especially hard because everyone around you seems so happy. Songs of joy and peace, and all that.

Writes the Burnaby Now :

For those struck by tragedy, the most wonderful time of the year can be a season of pain.

“Everything tells you that you’re supposed to be happy and excited and getting ready for Christmas, and there’s just this place inside of you that says, ‘I’m not there,'” says Shannon Tennant, minister at Shiloh-Sixth Avenue United Church in New Westminster.

Last Sunday, Tennant led the church’s annual Blue Christmas service, a time of peaceful reflection – and a refuge from the bright lights and shopping mall Santas.

I was particularly intrigued by the description of the service later in the article:

The Blue Christmas service at Shiloh-Sixth Avenue has much in common with ancient Winter Solstice celebrations, held on the shortest day of the year, Tennant says.

“In ancient times, people would actually gather in the morning to invoke the sun, because they weren’t absolutely sure it would come up without them.”

The service is also a reminder that the first Christmas came at a time of hardship and uncertainty for the Jews.

“At that time, the Jewish people were heavily taxed. They had Roman soldiers stomping around being annoying,” Tennant says.

“So (Jesus) was born partly to give people hope, to so show them that God is with them.”

This is exactly one of the reasons why I love Christmas. As the days grow darker and the nights get colder I find it weighs on me. When the lights go up on the houses and the Christmas tree comes inside, it’s a reminder that no matter how dark it gets, the light will return. It is a reminder to keep up hope when life is difficult, that good things are just around the corner. We are not a religious family, but I find this symbolism very meaningful.

What New West’s teenage sledders really do

My fair brother posted previously on the many snowy and wonderful ways (and places) that people can sled in our fair city… however timely this may be, what with the freakish sub-zero weather and inches of snow and all, he has made one critical omission.

Ice blocking.

What is this, you ask? Well, in our (usually) temperate climate, what’s a young non-drinking teen to do for fun in a city of hills but no snow?

Answer: Buy a few blocks of ice from your local gas station, and head on up to the steepest sledding hill you know – New Westminsterites (and churchy teens from miles around) flock to Burnaby Mountain Park, mainly, as well as the Eastern Meadow slope of Queen’s Park (ending in McBride Boulevard) and Robert Burnaby Park. If it’s one of the 360 days of our year when we have no snow at all in Vancouver, then you will have an open hill of green, green grass on which to sit your bum-on-iceblock, give a little push and voila! You are off, ice blocking with the best of them.
While this sport has variously been demonstrated on Saved By the Bell and MTV’s Jackass, curiously, this phenomenon seems most common among church teens. Perhaps this population are the only ones crazy enough want to do this while still sober enough to accomplish it. Of the various youth & young adult church groups I went to over my time, they all had this one crazy, seasonless sport in common. While the history of the activity may be debatable, it’s not hard to see why it remains so popular – apparently humankind simply has a mad urge to slide down a hill with a cold hiney once in awhile, regardless of the snow availability. It’s universal.

Evidence #1: (the Las Vegas Association of pro-Ice Blockers)

Evidence #2: Wikipedia: Iceblocking (written seemingly from an Australian point of view)

Evidence #3: Jamaican Bobsled Team

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.