My welcome to Calvary, a member of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, began a week before I stepped foot inside the church when I registered my upcoming visit on its website, and extended two weeks afterward when I received a signed thank-you card in the mail. Just before 11 a.m. one Sunday morning in August, I pulled off Hespeler Road under a high white steeple just north of Galt.
The vast church parking lot was turning over as attendees of the earlier 9:15 a.m. service returned to their cars and daily lives.
In the busy atrium I made my way toward a lady in a blue Calvary t-shirt standing under a “Guest Central” sign, where the website had encouraged me to start my visit. My welcomer handed me a gift bag that included a newsletter, coffee mug and beverage voucher for the cafe across the atrium, before she encouraged me to bring water or coffee into the main prayer hall for the service.
Entering the worship space felt like walking into a dark opera house before the show. Floor-lit aisles led me to the cushioned pews that fanned out from a wall-length stage set with musical instruments and flanked by twin video screens. I settled near the back just in time to watch a young man and woman and their supporting band members casually take the stage and strike up a pop-rock worship of the immemorial, inseparable Christian deities — God, the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ.
One thing became clear to me very quickly: the singing pastors were into it. And the clearer their passion became to the audience (which swelled to about three hundred), the more everybody got into it. Some threw hands up in spontaneous waves of grateful mercy while many stood perfectly still. But everyone sang. Hymn lyrics were projected karaoke-style on the screens so even a visitor, like myself, could join in.
After close to half an hour of musical prayer, announcements were made about community goings-on and voluntary donations were collected in a brief collection ceremony. Finally, the lead pastor took the stage for the main sermon. Dressed sharp and looking relaxed but earnest, he explained his last-minute decision to shelve the sermon he had planned for today in the wake of the previous day’s deadly clash between white supremacists and their protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The sermon that followed was an impassioned meditation on the interpenetrating Christian principles of reconciliation and restoration, and on their prophetic pertinence to contemporary North American race politics.
Defining “reconciliation,” generally, as the bringing together of two seemingly opposing things, the pastor rooted the Christian injunction against ethnic, class, and gender discrimination in a famous Bible passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians (3.26-28): “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
In commentary the pastor identified the lived principle of restoration — i.e. our reconciliation to our creator God through faith in his Son Jesus Christ — as the very basis of our reconciliation to each other, above and beyond more visible but less important differences of identity. In other words, we were assured that faith in Christ and in his example of salvific inclusivism can help enable and empower transcendence of the tendencies for prejudice that lie within us all.
Without being a member of this particular faith-forged community, or even a disciple of Christ, I walked to my car sincerely moved by the power for social reconciliation made available to Calvary’s members by Christ’s example and the Christian ideal of restoration.
As the pastor said before the concluding ceremony of communion, “All are equal at the foot of the cross,” all are equal at Calvary.
Christopher is a doctoral candidate in the joint Wilfrid Laurier University-University of Waterloo Ph.D. in Religious Studies. He is currently writing his dissertation on the changing face of Tibetan Buddhist monasticism in North American cities. He lives uptown with his wife and two daughters.