Local worship

New Order Voice

November 5, 2014 | Viewpoints | Number 22
Katie Doke Sawatzky |

For most of my life, I’ve driven to church. Growing up in Regina, the Alliance church I attended was a 15-minute drive away. In Winnipeg, while living at Canadian Mennonite University, I drove with friends to Charleswood Mennonite Church, which is a five-minute trip. I kept attending there after my partner and I moved to the central neighbourhood of Wolseley, turning that five minutes into 20.

We now live in Vancouver, on campus at the University of British Columbia. Before we moved last fall, we made plans to go to First United Mennonite Church, where my brother and sister-in-law attend. But the commute there is a 30-minute drive or an hour transit ride. Needless to say, I’ve become wary of the church trek, not only because it’s a hassle with a small child, but because driving to church is something I don’t want to do anymore.

These days, an argument for keeping church attendance local could be considered a trendy one. “Support local x” is already deeply embedded in pockets of our society’s consciousness: small-scale farmers, local grocers, credit unions, the struggling independent bookstore. But perhaps it’s a bit novel when “stay local” is applied to a non-consumption-based community like church.

I understand the reasons why people travel far to go to church: they move or the church moves but they still attend; they’ve attended their whole lives; family members and friends attend; the specific church body is comfortable and nurturing for spiritual growth. Not long ago, I would have argued that a weekly drive to a community in which I felt spiritually nurtured and accepted was justifiable. But I’ve come to a point where I want my spiritual growth to be inherently detached from the guzzling of a resource whose extraction has destroyed, and continues to destroy, communities, both human and non-human. In short, I don’t want to drive to church because it is the last place I feel I should drive to.

I know this seems like I’m pitting church communities against ecological concerns. Rather, I just want to ask what church communities would look like if congregants decided not to get into their cars on Sunday mornings. You wouldn’t only have people deciding to bus or bike to church, but there would be an influx of new faces from around the neighbourhood. Churches would become community hubs, with community gardens and green spaces growing over abandoned parking lots. Relationships between church friends might grow more deeply simply because the lunch invite only requires a walk down the street.

What’s also exciting about worshipping nearer to home is that we might become more rooted to our place. And rootedness is the beginning of a new ecological awareness. As American poet, essayist and environmental activist Gary Snyder explains, “It is not enough just to ‘love nature’ or to want to ‘be in harmony with Gaia.’ Our relation to the natural world takes place in a place, and it must be grounded in information and experience.” When we know our place—our geological and social landscape—we care not only for the people who gather there, but the land we gather on as well.

For some people, driving to church is necessary, especially those who live in rural settings or those who are mobility-challenged. But for many others, getting out of the car is a real possibility.

As a result of our choice to stay put, our family is casually splitting our time between University Hill United Church, which is a three-minute walk down the street, and Point Grey Inter-Mennonite Fellowship, which is a 10-minute bus ride away. We enjoy the worship and children’s programming at University Hill and the familiarity of the Mennonite church at Point Grey. But what we also enjoy is giving our neighbourhood the chance to shape our spiritual community. Giving up the car on Sundays has defi-nitely been worth it.

Katie Doke Sawatzky (katiesawatzky@gmail.com) lives in Vancouver.

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