G&P: TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCES AT CALGARY EAST?
RB -Y: I started as the interim at Calgary East in 2010, and became their pastor in 2011, so I was there for eight years. The Calgary East church was very different from any other community I had been involved in. It was located in a lower income area, a couple of blocks from some schools. Many of our people were immigrants and didn’t even have high school diplomas. Our church consisted of just under 100 people and 18 different languages were spoken, so it was very diverse, which kind of made it fun!
I fell in love with the people. Some of them had been in the community for 40 years and had raised their kids there. Probably half of our people normally walked or used public transit, so most of our people lived within 10 minutes of the church building. We were the only visible church in an area of about 60,000 people.
G&P: WHAT CREATIVE OUTREACH STRATEGIES OR METHODS DID YOU USE TO CONNECT WITH PEOPLE?
RB -Y: We had many first-generation immigrants in that area and many who came from other countries with male-dominated cultures. Our area of the city had a full-time female social worker who would go door-to-door, but the women were not allowed to answer. They would peek from behind the man, but they weren’t allowed to speak to the social worker. So we initially had to gain a lot of trust.
The social worker brought together a council of all the organizations that assist people in the area and included the church. She invited me to the table, and I got to meet community organizations and leaders—a former city councilman, financial literacy program workers, and those from domestic abuse assistance programs.
Our area is supported by many groups that offer food banks and clothing drives. So, I tried to find areas of service that our church could provide that others could not.
We did have a building, and there weren’t many facilities like ours in the area. Local schools charge up to $600 an hour for groups to use any of their classrooms. The local community center was being closed down because it was not maintained. We had a building, and we started with that.
When I first got there the building was looking rundown. So we started renovating. We had a decent kitchen and started hosting groups for free. We now have two play school groups that use our facility. Another pastor friend, Darlene, helped lead a course at the church that taught abused women to find their voices. We have built a variety of relationships even across religious lines by going beyond the basic needs that many other groups provided.
G&P: WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO PASTORS WHO WANT TO REACH OUT IN THEIR COMMUNITIES BUT ARE NOT SURE WHERE TO START?
RB -Y: We begin by finding out exactly what the needs in the community are. We have all kinds of assumptions about what we think the needs are, but personal connections help clarify. For example, we have a large 10-day party in Calgary every year called the Calgary Stampede, and thousands of people come. It’s very common for churches to put on barbecues or pancake breakfasts during this time, and we have participated every year. It’s all free, people just show up on Sunday morning. However, we had to adjust our participation based on the makeup of our community. For instance, we learned to respect the fact that many don’t eat pork for religious or cultural reasons. So, we honor that when we are serving food during these events. We assume that people will eat it because it’s free, but if we take a few extra steps to acknowledge and respect their preferences, I think that makes a difference. In my community, a lot of lonely people live behind the closed doors, especially the women, so it’s a unique opportunity for me as a woman pastor to be able to reach out to them. Each church has to find its place in the community.
I would begin by saying, just do something! Build relationships with your people. I’ve been challenging my folks with the “360.” Who lives in front of you, behind you, and on each side of you? God has placed us somewhere to be His instrument to reach that area. So, who’s your 360? Let’s focus on that.
Also, give people time and opportunities to build relationships in the community. I don’t want to allow even important aspects of church work, like meetings, for instance, to interfere with potential opportunities to be available to minister in times of need. Ministering and building relationships doesn’t always have to be organized. Build relationships and deposit enough into the relationship that when there’s a crisis, you can speak about the hope of Christ.
We’re a smaller congregation compared to others, so we cannot afford the whole attractional element of ministry like some of the megachurches in our area. What can we offer people? Well, we have ourselves, sanctified believers, and we have our building, and as long as we’re authentic in that I think God will honor it.
G&P: DO YOU HAVE ANY STORIES OF FAILED ATTEMPTS AT NEW OUTREACH MINISTRIES, AND WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM THE SITUATION?
RB -Y: I remember my late husband, Kelly’s, vision for a ministry that had a variety of entertaining opportunities that reached children: juggling, illusion, balloons, drama, unicycling, songs, and stories. He built a trailer where the side would flip out into a stage, and we would pull it up to any playground or cart area in the town or city and put on these shows. It worked really well, and it continues to be effective in many towns, especially in rural areas.
However, by the time I got to East church, the culture there had changed so much, especially in the city, that kids weren’t in the playgrounds anymore. We tried to keep doing it for a few years, and I was running myself ragged hanging out with youth volunteers all week—but we weren’t reaching any kids. That ministry was dear to my heart, and it was something that Kelly and I had built together, but I had to let that go in this city. There are other examples, many of which failed when they become more about my interests or our church’s interests, rather than about the felt needs of the community.
We tried men’s breakfast, and for us that hasn’t generated anything except getting our men up early. Trying to reach the men in our community has become tougher.
G&P: DO YOU HAVE ANY THOUGHTS ON HOW CREATIVE OUTREACH MIGHT LOOK DIFFERENT IN CANADA THAN IN THE US?
RB -Y: One thing that I have noticed about the United States is that people seem more open to talking about religion. In Canada, it’s a very private thing. You would never hear what our Prime Minister’s religion or faith is.
Our leaders get mocked, they get degraded if any of that is mentioned. I don’t think it’s as anti-Jesus as it used to be here, but people are very apathetic to Christianity. So as far as creative outreach, street corner preaching or handing out tracts just doesn’t work. People aren’t receptive to it. It all comes down to relationships and trust.
After my husband passed away, my kids were eight and ten. We were at a soccer game, and one of the moms from the school came over and asked, “Do you really think your religion is helping you through this phase?”
She just watched our lifestyle and how we responded to this crisis. If we sound like the rest of the world, what’s the difference between us and them? Why should they be wanting anything that we have?
G&P: DO YOU HAVE ANY FINAL WORDS ON CREATIVE OUTREACH?
RB -Y: I don’t want to call it low-hanging fruit, but one of the creative things that we can do is reach out to other ethnic groups. At our last congregation, there was a Spanish Pentecostal church that rented our facility.
We made connections with this group and as time went on, the Lord led a variety of people across our path. Many of these connections were Christians from different cultures with whom we partnered. On Pentecost Sundays, we started joining these churches in worship. If that’s what heaven is going to be like, I am so excited for it! By partnering with these different cultures, we learn that even those who look different from us are not so different after all.