A new sign has recently gone up on the outside wall of a local church: "Sales office now open."
"What a great idea," my neighbour said. "Condos in place of empty pews. And who really still goes to church any more?" The tone of her voice implied: "Who believes in all that stuff and wants to sit through boring sermons when sleep or shops beckon?"
"Wait a minute," I wanted to say. "Not all church services put you to sleep – some wake you up." But I said nothing. I hesitated in my timid convictions, my beliefs whirling around and unable to land in a simple sentence.
Maybe churches are following in the path of one-room schoolhouses – the structure still there but the reason for their existence changed. It's almost quaint now to go to church, and those of us who do attend are mainly seniors like me, or young parents with their children.
My husband and I met each other at a United Church young people's group. In our day, no further description was needed. But where are the young people today?
I remember going to our church in Toronto 30 years ago when every seat was taken and often churches held two services. In our neighbourhood, we all went to church; it was what everybody did, just as we all ate roast beef and mashed potatoes for Sunday dinner. Our four children joined their friends at Sunday school and heard the ancient stories.
When we retired and moved to Vancouver, we lived in False Creek. At the time, it was known to have the lowest church attendance in the country. In lotus land, we revelled in our seawall strolls beside the pounding ocean with its changing light, the North Shore Mountains beyond often shrouded in mist like a painting from the Sung Dynasty. Our habit of going to church changed to a habit of sleeping in and reading the Sunday papers.
A year later, tragedy struck when we lost two beloved family members. After their memorial service, our need for comfort and understanding brought us through the church doors again.
The main service was referred to as the worship service. For some reason, this description never seemed right to me. I wanted to be there not to worship but to sit in a place of serenity where I could listen and respond to what seemed important in my life. During the sermons I often found myself studying the light patterns on the ceiling of the sanctuary, or planning my dinner.
But slowly, tiny seeds began to grow with feelings that I wanted to believe in something greater than myself; I wanted my life to matter. This Vancouver church held a Thursday morning breakfast group, about 20 of us if we could all attend. We discussed ideas, books, current events and our own beliefs and doubts in an atmosphere of fun, encouragement and community. This group was a stepping point on my continuous path toward understanding. Those special needs of "belonging" and "becoming" were nurtured.
Now we are living again in Toronto, in the Beaches area, for once you have lived by the water, it is hard to live anywhere else. We are surrounded by pleasant parks and a distant vista of the city skyline, often outlined by the setting sun.
While walking along the boardwalk one day, I realized I missed being part of a caring community – forgotten in the moving and excitement of new beginnings. We decided to try a church again.
Now, every Sunday morning, we drive along the Lake Shore, passing our chameleon lake – silver, charcoal, blue. We turn north, passing century-old brick buildings, once the centre of commercial activity. We weave our way past mansions with living rooms that now host banks or convenience stores. The streets are usually deserted except for the homeless huddling around a shelter's doors, or pushing their life's belongings in shopping carts.
It is hard not to feel that this drive is a prelude, an overture to church. I carry the city scene with me, its beauty, history, sorrows and struggles.
You might see our new church as an island, comfortable and aloof from Toronto's cares. But here is a church of connection, compassion, learning and action, a place for community, acceptance and service. On a recent morning our minister hoped we might find peace and rest and wonderment there.
In our family we have a sister who is a Carmelite nun, and among our grown children, one who converted to Judaism, one who is a member of the Toronto Meditation group, one who is agnostic and one who is a Christmas-and-Easter church attendee. Just as we can choose many different roads to arrive at our church, there are so many routes we can choose to arrive at the same place of inner peace. We feel lucky to live in this multicultural city of diversity and choices.
Church buildings may be changing but church services are changing, too. We still learn from the ancient texts but also from the wisdom of modern writers and poets and musicians. We ask questions and sometimes have no answers.
Our church competes with the malls, arenas and rinks, but it offers stillness, a place apart where we can try to discover our best selves and leave a little lighter for the week ahead.
There is still an old sign on the wall of our church, but its message is renewed each week: "Welcome!"
Rosemary Leckie lives in Toronto.