The Church in Chilliwack
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By Peter Biggs

A city grows

THE GROWING city of Chilliwack, 20 minutes east of Abbotsford, has a unique rural charm, set as it is in the fertile land of the Fraser Valley. Surrounded by farms, rivers and lakes, all set against the dramatic backdrop of the majestic Cascade Mountains, it is surprisingly large, with a population of around 70,000.

Like Abbotsford, its significance as an urban centre is largely hidden to passersby on the No 1 Highway. Steadily rising property values reflect the fact that Chilliwack is now being viewed as both affordable and commutable to Greater Vancouver. Its population has grown nearly 10 percent in the last five years, compared to 5 percent population growth in B.C.

Churches abound

Carel Geleynse, senior pastor of First Christian Reformed Church, is also president of the Chilliwack Ministerial, which meets monthly.

"Chilliwack was once in the Guinness Book of Records as having theeeee 2 most churches per capita in Canada," he told BCCN. It currently has over 60 churches.

Most public schools rent their facilities to churches on Sundays and, although there are a few churches with more than 500 in attendance, there are no megachurches.

Jim Gaetz is pastor of Southside Community Church, one of the larger churches in the area. Asked about the challenges the church faces in Chilliwack he said, "We do have a lot of churches, and are starting to look at social needs. New people are moving in, with many commuting into Vancouver."

Like all growing urban centres, Chilliwack has a downtown core that attracts the homeless, drug addicted, prostitutes and the mentally ill. In 2002, it was identified as having the second most grow-ops in B.C.

The Salvation Army offers a number of services in the community, including a food bank, soup kitchen, emergency shelter program, thrift stores, a day care and a wide range of family services.

After being a pastor for some 30 years, Gaetz is keen to emphasize the steady rise in church unity. "Back in the old days 2-300 came out to joint church events. Now we see up to 4,000 on a Sunday morning!"

The monthly ministerial welcome 30 - 40 leaders; there are also other informal clusters of pastors.

Thousands at 'Love Chilliwack'

Fourteen churches took part in 'Love Chilliwack' this year. Inspired by Love Abbotsford, a successful 'kindness' campaign initiated in 2002, Sunday morning June 24 saw about 3,000 gathered together in the large Prospera Centre.

One participant of Love Chilliwack is Graeme Isbister, who has been the pastor of Sardis Community Church for the last 10 years.

Asked what changes he has discerned over the last decade, he said, "There has been a deterioration of denominational and institutional loyalty, with more people interested in 'spirituality' rather than formal church involvement."

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He also observed,"I have also seen people of my parents' generation opting out of church, those with a definite church background are no longer involved.und "

Increased diversity

Sharon Gaetz, a 10-year city councillor and co-pastor of Southside with her husband Jim, believes that "the face of Chilliwack is about to change."

"We've been known as a largely mono-cultural white European conservative town. But with an influx of large institutions such as the University of the Fraser Valley, Justice Institute, RCMP training and a Chinese university, Chilliwack is booming - although not everyone likes change." She expects downtown revitalization and plans for 'densification.'

Aboriginal churches

Chilliwack has 19 aboriginal bands. One of the few aboriginal churches in the area is Chilliwack Native Pentecostal Church. Started by Gary and Patti Victor over 10 years ago, its 100 people meet and share a meal every Sunday.

The Victors belong to the 400-strong Cheam Band.

"Aboriginal life around Chilliwack is very cultural and secular," Gary said. "There is still a lot of anger around the residential school situation."

Co-pastor and son evening as part of the miniAndrew Victor said, "Reserve life is very tough. It's heartbreaking ministry at times, as people trust you and open up - it's just so personal; things like suicide are so much more common than the general population."

Asked how the wider church might support them, Gary responded, "We need prayer to break a lot of spiritual things, it's spiritual warfare!" He has been encouraged, lately, by cooperation with Central Pentecostal Assembly youth.

Politicians face personal challenges

Along with Sharon Gaetz, and outspoken fellow councillor Mark Anderson, Christian political leaders include Liberal MLA Barry Penner and the widely respected Conservative MP Chuck Strahl, Minister of Agriculture in the Harper cabinet.

Penner is being treated for cancer. After talking to Strahl, who has a rare form of cancer himself, he told the press: "Chuck's advice to me was 'Make a statement and then it's done. That way people won't have to speculate or wonder.' He said that cancer was cause for concern, but not a reason for panic."

Having had surgery twice, Penner expects to remain on the job throughout his treatment.

Happy for this BCCN focus, he said, "The nice thing is, even as Chilliwack continues to grow, I don't think it has lost its tight-knit community-mindedness or rural flavour, or let go of its focus on family and spirituality."

Photos by Jeremy Wedel (additional photos by Gord Gadsten).

July 2007