On Belonging

On the Sunday of the fall-back time change in 1971, Mom and I went to a modest brown building for 10:15 a.m. We had been in Canada about a month; we had moved into a three-bedroom apartment, with mattresses on the floor and fruit cartons for tables. We kids were registered at a public school.

Mom and I waited outside that church, checking our watches. It said 10:30 on the sign; our watches moved past that time. It also said ‘Presbyterian’ on the sign. Mom’s dad had been a Presbyterian minister in British India and family legend said he helped found a Presbyterian seminary in Punjab province. (It was funded by the PC(USA); he was the first indigenous clergyperson. There’s a plaque outside the seminary today commemorating his seminal contribution.)

When our watches declared 11 a.m., the minister arrived. Then others. They explained the time change to us. We sat awkwardly in the hall as strange people zipped by us for the next half hour. The sanctuary was an open room where chairs had to be set. It was very different from the cathedral where we had last worshipped in Lahore.

But the people were kind and the strangeness passed. Early in ’72 Dad had to go to Yemen where he had a job through the United Nations. The Sunday before he left, he made an announcement at the start of worship: “I have to go away for work and I’m leaving my family in your care.”

The congregation took that responsibility seriously. I can draw a straight line from that Sunday to where I am today. Gateway Community Church and this denomination have had a rich and strong influence on my life. An immigrant family was embraced and nurtured in a church. We were allowed to belong. Mom started teaching Sunday school and later joined the session. I was also ordained an elder a decade later.

Forty years later times have changed. Gateway Community is no more. The denomination itself is shrinking, the coffers are stressed, and doctrinal orthodoxies are questioned. The very purpose and direction of the church is being challenged. Even Jesus is being rent—”Christ-like” and “Christ-centred” are codes for varying theologies.

Money and sexuality are the major subjects of conversation. With sexuality—while the primary question is about marriage and ordination, the tone of the conversation has largely seemed to be about who gets to sit in the pews. Money talk also skews the same way—sessions, congregations, presbyteries and the national church get busy listing those things that are most important. Children’s programming falls quickly, followed soon enough by mission work.

The conversations really are about belonging—who belongs in the church and who does not. It’s an absurd question and it comes from anxiety and stress. If you read through the Record just from this year, you’ll feel that again and again: Times are changing—that’s a good thing. Times are changing—that’s a bad thing.

Times have changed; that’s a thing. That’s all. What hasn’t changed is the invitation to gather around the table to partake in the salvation offered through Christ. That will never change. The rest is sturm und drang.

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About Andrew Faiz

Andrew Faiz is the Presbyterian Record's senior editor.