There is a natural dignity in the morning routine of a 95-year-old man living alone. Especially when the routine is based on building friendships across cultures.
At 6:42 a.m., the Langara Family YMCA may be the noisiest spot in South Vancouver. Among the squeaks of gym shoes and hiss of locker room showers, you can even catch a chorus of gospel music—in Mandarin.
Retired Mennonite pastor Erwin Cornelsen has heard the shoes and showers every day for decades. One day he heard familiar tunes in a different language echo in the hallways, so he went looking. Since then, he has sung and prayed daily with a group of Chinese Christians.
A narrow concrete room beside the squash court becomes sanctuary each morning. Bright yellow and green floor tiles clash under the low table and plastic chairs. The door says “Youth Games Room,” but the gathered faithful are mostly retired. Cornelsen is usually the oldest, and the only white person.
Friends assemble in sweatpants and T-shirts from their morning exercise. The early hour, plain walls and dim fluorescent lights don’t dull them. Chatter is constant as newcomers walk in and sip jasmine tea from old church mugs. Booklets are passed out and a voice shouts, “No. 7!” Singing erupts, about half in Mandarin, half English. Gospel classics like “Blessed Assurance” are photocopied in both languages.
When the singing is over, the gathering is not. Every day someone brings a large pot of congee (Chinese rice porridge) and they eat breakfast after a prayer. The thick, grey liquid is ladled into multi-coloured plastic bowls, served with a white plastic spoon and brown paper towel. A typical bowl is coloured with leeks, broccoli or small bites of local fish.
The people who once invited him as a guest now call him “Pastor Erwin.” Most days, they package up the breakfast leftovers and insist he takes them home for lunch. He gratefully accepts the plastic grocery bag before going for his daily swim.
Cornelsen has been living alone for almost 14 years, still in the same white house he and his family bought in 1957. Sharing warm smiles and food with friends every morning keeps him going.
After coming home, the first thing he does is sit down by the Bible on his dining table, and then he lights a candle beside a framed picture of his beloved wife. He closes his eyes to pray once again.
Jonas Cornelsen, 21, is a student at Canadian Mennonite University. He attends Hope Mennonite Church, Winnipeg. Erwin Cornelsen is his grandfather.