New Beginnings, again, at 25 years

Sylvia and Joe Russell are celebrating New Beginnings Baptist Church's 25th anniversary. Joe plans to retire as pastor within a few months.

Sylvia and Joe Russell are celebrating New Beginnings Baptist Church’s 25th anniversary. Joe plans to retire as pastor within a few months.

A look at both the past and future marked the 25th anniversary of New Beginnings Baptist Church, during a celebration and vision-casting dinner at the church April 25, in an area of Vancouver’s east side populated heavily by the inner city poor.

The past was reflected in founding pastor Joe Russell’s colourful accounts of the church’s development and First Nations linkages. While he was not specific about his own plans, he made it clear he hopes to retire in a few months, once transitional arrangements are complete.

In recent years, Byron Grant has handled many of the pulpit duties and would continue in that role in the interim, after Russell’s retirement.

It was left to Joel Wagler and Carmen Lali to cast the future vision to close to 100 dinner attenders, many of them long-standing New Beginnings supporters.

Wagler – one of the church’s three pastors – and Lali painted a picture of a restructuring that would permit the church to emerge, in the long-term, as a fully Indigenous congregation. Working collaboratively alongside the church would be a new entity, New Beginnings Mission, which would develop several outreach and community programs, some of which will involve considerable capital investment.

Byron Grant, with his wife Diane, will remain at New Beginnings as preaching pastor.

Byron Grant, with his wife Diane, will remain at New Beginnings as preaching pastor.

Interviewed following the dinner, Russell noted that the “New Beginnings deacons and elders have approved [the new structure] and the congregation will be voting on it shortly.”

Russell also recounted the story of the church’s acquisition of its present building in 2009, from Pacific Grace Chinese Mennonite Brethren Church, which had bought a former United Church further east.

“The purchase price was $1.050 million, much less than what they otherwise might have gotten. They really liked that we would be a neighbourhood church, serving especially the broken people. They had not been able to do that because they are primarily a Chinese-background church [with a different mandate].”

The church was squeezed two ways, Russell recalls. “Our meeting place, a Salvation Army facility, was needed for other purposes and we had no options. But we had no money, either.”

There was support, though, from Christians in the Fraser Valley, particularly Ron Heppell, a successful farmer who had often arranged for country forays for inner city children. He challenged Russell to encourage previously broken church members to tell their stories about how they had found Christ and had their needs met. In turn, he brought possible supporters to meet these Christians – often over lunch – and encouraged his guests to join him in committing support for the building purchase.

Dancing is always part of New Beginnings' Praise in the Park parties.

Dancing is always part of New Beginnings’ Praise in the Park festivals.

Building renovations followed, to accommodate some of the programs, like tutoring and counselling, especially geared to single parent families.

And, each summer, at least a couple of times, the church has staged a giant all-day-Sunday Praise in the Park festival across the street in Woodland Park. (The church and the park are between Clark and Commercial, a couple of blocks south of Hastings.)

Some 1,000 people attend these events, which feature ice cream, barbecued chicken from Fraser Valley farms, First Nations dancing and baptisms. The day’s events culminate in an outdoor church service featuring strong gospel preaching and an invitation to attenders to give their lives to Christ.

Fawnda Bullshields (right), who works with children at New Beginnings, has been at the church since she was a child herself.

Fawnda Bullshields (right), who works with children at New Beginnings, has been at the church since she was a child herself.

Dance was a major visual highlight at the 25th anniversary dinner. Fawnda Bullshields and a girl she disciples, Linda Delorme, provided the costumed dance routine which Russell said was to “proclaim, through dance, praise to the Lord Almighty.”

Bullshields, a UBC student, helps run the tutoring program. She came to faith at age nine, as a result of her mother, Stephanie, being delivered from heavy addictions.

During his anniversary address, Russell told of the church’s early days near Broadway and Main, working with other Indigenous groups and the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches (FEBC) to help people in the community come to faith in Christ. (During the first 12 years of its existence, the FEBC supported New Beginnings to the extent of $25,000 per year.)

As the elders, deacons and staff settled into their current home, they increasingly recognized the need for Christian-based community services that would involve much more funding than was available to the congregation.

One of the church’s key practical programs is the free furniture and moving service run by one of the Aboriginal members, Garett Alexee.

The need for transitional housing, a gym for recreational programs and extensive after school tutoring and counselling services, together, will represent many millions of dollars of both capital and operational costs. And that is where the New Beginnings Mission concept comes in. 

Joel Wagler, here with his wife Alison, will be working on New Beginnings Mission.

Youth pastor Joel Wagler, here with his wife Alison, will be operations director of New Beginnings Mission.

Joel Wagler, the church’s youth pastor, will be the operations director of the mission, when it is up and running. As such, he will be the liaison between church and mission, particularly with respect to shared use of the church building and input from First Nations leaders.

At the dinner, Wagler outlined the operations matters for the new arrangement and Lali cast the vision. She did so from her own background.

Lali was a nine year old girl in Langley when she first met “some of the New Beginnings kids who would come to the Valley for picnic days.” They would come to her parents’ property, where there were “a few horses and places to roam.” These kinds of outings, as well as summer camp experiences, were always a part of the church’s program.

Two years at Trinity Western University (where she played soccer), successful stints in insurance and retail business (especially pop-up stores)  and her own transition into single motherhood, with its tensions and joys, were all part of her preparation. And, while not having experienced addictions herself, she knows, at first hand, about the issue.

Carmen Lali is strategy and development director for New Beginnings Mission. With her is her daughter Ava.

Carmen Lali is strategy and development director for New Beginnings Mission. With her is her daughter Ava.

Lali’s title, at the onset, is strategy and development director. She cautioned that, although she is excited about her new work, and her move, with her 10 year old daughter Ava, into the East Vancouver community from Langley, she wants to be realistic.

To that end, she sees Heppell and some of his business associates, as well as her parents, themselves successful merchandisers, as mentors. As well, she has commissioned a report from a consultant familiar with Vancouver East social and economic dynamics, on the various agencies and businesses, both Christian and secular, now serving the area.

“We want to be collaborative, working with others, rather than operating in isolation,” she said, adding that “collaboration can come at various levels. It comes more naturally with some groups than with others. But we need to know who is there and who we can work with.”

Her first task at hand is to get this summer’s Praise in the Park programs in place, one June 14 and a second September 13. New Beginnings always likes to involve other churches in those event.

newbeginningsmissionShe also plans to visit many churches throughout Metro Vancouver with a five-to-seven minute presentation on New Beginnings Mission at Sunday worship services between now and the end of the year.

Lali adds, strategically, that pastors and church leaders – as well as business leaders – wanting to arrange for presentations can contact her at Carmen@nbmission.ca.    

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