COLUMN: Shiloh-Sixth Avenue United Church could soon be sold

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They’re talking about selling my church.

Shiloh-Sixth Avenue United, near the corner of 12th Street on Sixth Avenue, could be on the block by the end of the year.

Why? Usual reasons, I guess. People don’t go to mainstream churches much these days. And without people, it’s hard to pay the bills.

Shiloh has a stable congregation, but the 60 or so people who come on a given Sunday simply isn’t enough to fund a church with staff and a building, regardless of how tiny the shoestring it all operates on.

It’s a shame. While they say the church is the people who attend, not the building, in some ways Shiloh has been more than a landmark, but a hub that has enriched the lives of people throughout the city.

And I think Shiloh could have grown and thrived more if only we’d spread the word better about what it is (and isn’t), and how much it’s done to improve people’s lives.

“Are you one of those churches that ‘prays the gay away?’”

That was a question Shiloh’s minister, Shannon Tennant, got when she attended New West’s Pride street festival a couple of weeks ago.

Many were surprised to learn that, no, Shiloh isn’t that kind of church. In fact, Shiloh held a pride service, and embraces all diversity with an open-door policy that welcomes everyone, regardless of race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity… well, you get the picture.

A common starter phrase you’ll hear Shannon say during a service is, “It doesn’t matter if you’re…” and people fill in the blanks—black, white, tall, short, poor…

The word “church” is often bashed around, and many people have good reason to be wary. And I was too, having dated a fundamentalist in high school.

But I’m glad my wife and I decided to bring our sons (and ourselves) to church for the first time since our own childhoods.

And what a place our local church turned out to be.

The Shiloh-Sixth Avenue United Church building dates back to 1911. Chris Bryan/NewsLeader

In a time when so many people feel isolated, disconnected and rushed off their feet, it’s turned out to be a salve, an antidote of sorts.

One of the most affirming, consistent messages in Shannon’s sermons is that whoever you are, however you feel, you are OK. You are enough.

Dismiss it as New Age if you want, but to me it’s something we should hear every day to counter the deluge of messages suggesting we always need to be more, better somehow or different from who we are.

It’s affirming to be in a safe place where authenticity and respect are emphasized, and where you can rub shoulders with a diverse group of people of all ages, backgrounds and ways of life.

In the rest of our lives, we tend to gravitate to people much like ourselves, and I’d argue that doesn’t always give as rich a range of community experience.

In the short time I’ve been at Shiloh, I feel as though I’ve built a network of would-be aunts, brothers, friends and so on, with the only expectation being that we are supportive and respectful of each other.

Even if the building is sold, this culture, this philosophy, this coming together will continue. In a rented hall somewhere, perhaps, or a school gym.

We’ll adjust. In some ways, though, Shiloh is about the building.

It’s been home to the food bank for decades.

And in 2003, a few members of Shiloh were dismayed enough by the lineups outside to open the doors and invite people in.

This simple beginning bloomed over time into The Hospitality Project, which is considered a model for helping people in need.

People visiting the food bank come in, and instead of avoiding eye contact out in the line, they sit in a circle and conversations start, and people recognize neighbours. A sense of community has been built.

And the “HP” has become a hub to provide services. There’s a clothing exchange, Family Place provides children’s programming, a nutritionist and dental hygenist visit, and there are flu shot and tax return clinics.

And until recently, federal funding provided staffing to help people get housing and proper health care, and apply for benefits and pensions.

It’s easy to underestimate the positive impact of a program like this, not just for the individuals served but the whole community.

Kimiko Karpoff, who helped start the HP, said to me, “It benefits everybody when it benefits the people who need it the most.”

As for me, if Shiloh is sold I’ll miss being able to go out my front door with my wife and boys to walk to our local church.

It’s just a building, yes. And it should be more about the people, I know.

But Shiloh hasn’t just been about what happens for an hour or so each Sunday.

It’s about how these people have activated that building as a place to bring community together.

Yes, there isn’t enough money to keep Shiloh going the way it has in the past.

But when I think about its value to me and the community, the shortfall suddenly seems a pittance.

• Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader.

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