Snapshots of faith in Chilliwack, Agassiz and Harrison Hot Springs

Peter Biggs of The Light Magazine is researching one Metro Vancouver / Fraser Valley municipality each month, and producing a focus on each one. The December issue features Chilliwack and area.

The growing city of Chilliwack, 20 minutes east of Abbotsford, has a unique rural charm, set as it is in the fertile land of the Fraser Valley. Surrounded by farms, rivers and lakes, all set against the dramatic backdrop of the Cascade Mountains, it is surprisingly large, with a population of over 83,000 and a growth rate of 7.5 percent (2011 – 2016).

Like Abbotsford, its significance as an urban centre is largely hidden to passersby on the No 1 Highway. Steadily rising property values reflect the fact that Chilliwack is now being viewed as affordable and commutable – even though it is 100 kilometres or so to Metro Vancouver and Highway 1 now ‘chokes’ every morning between Abbotsford and Langley due to steadily increasing traffic density.

Aboriginal presence

The archeological record shows evidence of Stó:lō people in the Fraser Valley, or S’olh Temexw, 10,000 years ago. Permanent structures in the Chilliwack area date from around 5,000 years ago. At the time of first contact with Europeans it is estimated there were as many as 40,000 people living in the area.

The Sto:lo Service Agency in Sardis offers a wide range of services for bands from Yale to Langley.

Stó:lō traditional territory extends from Yale to Langley, comprising 11 bands. A large Stó:lō Service Agency (SSA) in Sardis offers an impressive range of services.

From the Stó:lō Nation site:

The SSA aims to ensure social and economic development within the Stó:lō community through services and programs in the areas of education, human resource development, early childhood education services such as daycare, headstart and family support, elderly care, social development, health services, a dental office, tourism, and land and research and resource management services.

Hot housing market

According to data released this month by the BC Real Estate Association, Chilliwack saw the highest annual jump in house prices of the 12 real estate boards in the province, at 16.6 percent. In addition, October was the hottest October on record for the city, with 353 homes sold.

Within the borders of Chilliwack are communities such as Greendale, Yarrow and Promontory. Northeast of the city are Agassiz and Harrison Hot Springs.

Chilliwack is divided by Highway 1, with a north-south orientation. To go from south Sardis north across the highway to downtown Chilliwack involves numerous traffic lights and up to a 25 minutes drive. (By way of contrast, Abbotsford lies mostly east-west, making it easy to get around using the highway.)

Chilliwack is the warmest city in Canada according to a 2013 Maclean’s report, with an average annual temperature of 10.5 °C.

Homelessness growing fast

The Cottonwood Mall exit off Highway 1.

Every three years, regional districts in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley compile a report on the homeless population based on an extensive one-day count.

It’s not an exact census, but if you compare the numbers from 2014 to 2017, the trend is clear: homelessness is growing faster in the Fraser Valley than Vancouver, particularly in Chilliwack, where the homelessness count tripled,from 73 to 221 people.

Overall, the area from Langley to Chilliwack saw its homeless population increase by 86 percent, compared to a 19 percent rise in Vancouver.

Three key ministries

The Salvation Army, Ruth & Naomi’s Mission and Cyrus Centre provide critical services for hundreds of Chilliwack people daily. Most of their clients have not come from elsewhere but have lived in Chilliwack for at least six years. The ministry leaders meet often and enjoy warm collaborative relationships.

• The Salvation Army

In 2016, the Salvation Army of Chilliwack served 27,000 lunches. As the food bank for the city they distributed over 600 hampers a month with an additional 1,500 Christmas hampers. They are also the only emergency shelter in town.

Tim Bohr, community ministries director comments:

We currently have 16 permanent shelter beds and another 30 mats we put down in our dining room. BC Housing has approached us about expanding our shelter with Britco modular units to 46 beds. It will be open 24/7 and be low barrier. We see the current shelter building being used exclusively for women. This will happen early in 2018. The shelter is needed as a first step off the street; the next step is safe affordable housing – something currently just not available in our community.

Asked how he has seen Chilliwack’s social needs change in recent years he replies:

The first thing is that our clients are getting older with a major increase of seniors in the food bank. It’s similar in the shelter – likely to do with the rise in housing costs. The second observation is that the condition of our shelter clients is deteriorating rapidly. Folks are more sick and less functional.

• Ruth & Naomi’s Mission

Ruth & Naomi’s Mission has helped hundreds of people, often broken and addicted, over the years. One factor is clear from that experience; an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.

Dr. John Gray, who leads the residential recovery program, states “So much adult brokenness originates from tough childhoods and each generation passes on their brokenness to the next.”

A family centre, now being built behind the mission, will have 36 low rental apartments for at-risk and homeless families. The lower two floors will provide a wellness centre which will include wrap-around services such as medical, dental, counselling and other supports.

“There will be a children’s day care centre and a range of courses offered, including parenting, anger management and basic Christianity,” says executive director Bill Raddatz.

• Cyrus Centre – for youth

Cyrus Centre on Wellington Avenue is a place where at-risk and homeless youth may go and receive support, safety and a bed. Cyrus offers programs and services to guide and equip young people for success and enhance their quality of life.

Aside from the Cyrus Centres in Chilliwack and Abbotsford, there are no shelter beds for at-risk youth between Metro Vancouver and the Okanagan.

Chilliwack Ministerial

There are 44 churches in Chilliwack. About half a dozen have 1,000 to 1,500 attendees a week. It is said that the Guinness Book of Records had recorded Chilliwack as the most churched city in Canada. Though this is questionable, in parts of the city there does seem to be a ‘church on every corner.’ Most public schools rent their facilities to churches on Sundays.

Rob Heppell, a pastor at Sardis Fellowship Baptist Church for the past 13 years, serves on the four-person ministerial executive. He says:

We host a monthly luncheon and see up to 45 pastors and ministry leaders come. We don’t do as much collectively as we once did, but there is still a strong Christian base here and networks of agencies that help the poor and marginalized.

The Chilliwack Ministerial has five ministries they focus on and especially support:

  • Adult and Teen Challenge BC
  • Cyrus Centre
  • Ruth & Naomi’s Mission
  • The Salvation Army
  • Chilliwack Hospital’s chaplain
Hospital chaplaincy

Jim Gaetz

Some years ago Fraser Health withdrew funding for chaplaincy. Realizing the critical nature of this role, individuals and churches – supported by the ministerial – stepped up to fund a part-time Spiritual Care Coordinator.

Jim Gaetz began as chaplain at the hospital some eight years ago following 15 years as lead pastor at Southside Church. He works there five days a week four hours a day.

“I start with 10 minutes alone in prayer, then generally start my rounds in the ER . . . then ICU and then visit the wards. Once a week I especially focus on the psych ward where people will line up to talk to me. Many are depressed and suicidal,” he says.

His usual opening line when approaching the patient is, ‘Hi I’m Jim, a chaplain. I’m just stopping by to make sure you’re not worried or scared.’

Not surprisingly, most patients do not say ‘I’m fine.’

“People just open up,” says Gaetz. “Just today a man told me that he’d just heard that he has pancreatic cancer and probably only has weeks to live. Lots have a faith background but have ‘drifted.’ Facing eternity they want to connect with God.”

Asked how often these kinds conversations happen, Jim, responds “Well, I’d have to say at least twice every week.”

He frequently deals with patients who have dementia, who cannot understand that they can no longer go home.

It’s tough, as anything I might say simply doesn’t ‘go in,’ but I try to meet them where there’re at. A number of patients ask me to pray with them. I find that there are lots of lonely people. Perhaps from out of town, perhaps kids have moved away and so many dropped out of church, so there’s no support or visits from anyone.

Although dealing with some tragic situations, on a personal level Gaetz is not weighed down.

“I never leave depressed,” he says, “I leave grateful to God for enabling me to be there.”

Chilliwack pastors’ perspectives

Shawn Vandop: Main Street Church

Main Street Church takes up the best part of a whole city block in the downtown area. Senior pastor Shawn Vandop grew up in Chilliwack:

I remember that there was always one ‘happening church’ back then but now there are six or so churches with over 1,000 / week. That said it’s easy to forget that there are many who need the gospel.

Vandop has  been greatly impacted by Southland Church in Steinbeck, Manitoba and annually attends their Prayer Summit along with 2,000 or more. Their focus and Vandop’s passion is prayer.

Like many churches in Chilliwack they are involved in helping the community with services such as a Boys Club in Central Elementary School, and an after-school Adventure Club at McCammon Elementary. He is a regular supporter of the ministerial.

Matt Shantz: Central Community Church

Matt Shantz has been lead pastor for three years. Prior to that he was involved in leading young adults and worship. Central, now seeing around 950 people a week, has planted two satellite churches in Agassiz and in Promontory (south of Sardis); each has grown to around 150 people.

They employ a unique approach. Each satellite has its own leader/preacher/worship group, but they all come under the one eldership at Central. Shantz’s sermon from the previous week is passed on to the two pastors. Taking advantage of his many hours of preparation, they may edit it some, to make it their own, before they preach it.

“When planting a church we don’t feel a planter should be taking hours and hours in sermon prep. This also has the advantage of helping them learn to preach,” Shantz says. Central has a ‘Preaching Lab’ and a ‘Leadership Lab’ – equipping people to lead in the 30-plus small groups.

“We are experiencing a surge in young families. A third of our church is 10 or under – that’s sometimes 250 kids on a Sunday!”

Mike Mannes: Southside Church

Southside meets in Sardis Secondary School and has a youth and admin centre just behind Chances Casino where a staff of 11 oversee this growing church (they are now around 1,300 per eek).  Mike Mannes has been lead pastor for nine years.

He has a passion to equip believers to be witnesses in their lives. Indeed every week Southside sees newcomers that have been invited. “There’s a tension between keeping Christians happy and reaching the lost,” he says.

In the past two years they have baptized 270 new Christians: “God is bringing new people to us!”

Leon Throness: Chilliwack Alliance Church

Senior pastor Leon Throness says:

I’ve been at the church for 10 years. We’re changing as a city, from ‘old Chilliwack’ – Dutch, farming, military – to ‘new Chilliwack,’ with an influx of people moving out from Metro Vancouver. I’m concerned that as a city we’re actually not as ‘Christian’ as some may think we are. Likely less than 10 percent of people are in church regularly.

Every year the church reaches out with an elaborate Christmas production and coordinates thousands of Samaritan’s Purse Christmas shoe boxes.

Lorne Lueck: City Life Church

City Life Church sees around 800 people each week. Lorne Lueck is on the cusp of retirement, with his son Justin set to take over as senior pastor next year.

Lorne is concerned about the loss of basic understanding of Christ’s place in secular culture.

“It doesn’t take long to find people who have no idea who Jesus is,” he says. Reflecting on recent years of ministry in Chilliwack, he adds:

I see ‘the church’ as much more aware of care for people than in previous years. I’m really proud of the churches and ministries in our town. We’re getting out of our walls and reaching out.

Agassiz & Harrison Hot Springs

Agassiz and Harrison Hots Springs are not part of Chilliwack, but are in the District of Kent. Agassiz has just over 6,000 people and Harrison’s year-round population is around 1,500 (being mainly a tourist attraction, with the hot springs, beach, views and easy access). Both communities are easily reached from Highway 1.

The view from Harrison Hot Springs.

Agassiz has six churches. Central Community Church in Chilliwack is planting a church that has grown to around 150 people. Harrison Gospel Chapel belongs to the Mennonite Brethren and has about 90 members.

Go here for The Light’s complete Chilliwack profile.

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