Pastor Jon Pasiuk opened his penultimate sermon to congregants gathered at the Whistler Community Church last Sunday with a question that many Christians wrestle with these days.
“Today we talk about the values of this church which speak to our relationship with the world. How is the relationship going? If I’m honest, I have to say, not very well,” Pasiuk said in his sermon, which he shared with prick. “None of us here risk imprisonment or death for being baptized, but I feel like our existence and presence isn’t exactly celebrated in Canada or in Whistler. People are mostly friendly and polite, but every time I tell people I’m a pastor, people respond like I just told them I lead a cult, and I’m sure people have all kinds of reasons for this. ”
For a community that has been largely non-religious throughout its history, Whistler’s Christian community has garnered a lot of attention lately, including in the pages of prick– stemming from a rift at the resort’s only Catholic church, Notre-Dame des Montagnes, over its plans to build a new $5 million church and its association with an ultra-conservative traditionalist Catholic group based in the United States, the Napa Institute.
Brethren Whistler Mennonite Community Church, meanwhile, has also come under scrutiny, after a long prick columnist GD Maxwell questioned whether the church should continue to benefit from a municipal tax exemption when its tenancy policy prohibits community groups from using church property to promote partnerships and marriage homosexuals, as well as the right to abortion, two “totally legal activities”, Maxwell wrote (Aug. 25, “And the beat goes on…).
But rather than encounter what he sees as growing indifference – or, in some cases, outright hostility – towards Christianity by fighting back, withdrawing from society or assimilating into the wider culture, Pasiuk gave his congregation a fourth option.
“Our response to that cannot be hostility,” he said in a follow-up interview. “We are not at war with this community. We have to love this community. So that’s what we’re trying to focus on.
prick spoke with Pasiuk this week as he and his family prepare to leave the community he has ministered in since 2014 to return to his hometown church in Abbotsford. Vancouver native David Gibson will take over as the church’s new pastor.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How will you remember your eight years at Whistler?
Jon Pasiuk: We look back with immense gratitude and love for this church and community. One of the things is that change is a part of life at Whistler, and we must have been the recipients of the “I’m leaving” conversation more times than I can remember. And one of the things that we recognized when we came in was that in order to be successful and prosper in ministry and as a church, when people transition, you bless them, you fire them, pray for them and you really want to help set them up for success as best you can. Part of it is that you can’t harden your heart, harden yourself against bringing new people into your life.
Do you find people crave that sense of connection in a city where they may not have family support?
Yes, and it’s part of the Whistler scene. People generally don’t have family support here. Sometimes it’s intentional and they want to define themselves. They want to discover their identity. Sometimes it’s running away from God. And then they quickly realise, ‘Actually, it’s not going to give me a life.’ Sometimes people come from a very religious or very Christian upbringing, and they do the opposite. They say, ‘I don’t want anything to do with it.’ And so, we just want to be ready to receive and to support. Because it’s not a city where it’s easy to flourish. It’s like “Hotel California” – “It could be heaven or it could be hell.”
How important was the opening of the new church building last year to the congregation and the wider Christian community in Whistler?
It is truly a huge blessing for us to finally have a home of our own. The plan was not to stay at Myrtle Philip School for more than 20 years. So really, it’s an answer to prayer. It is a dream of our community that has now come true. And we are very grateful for that. This building has been my children’s home as much as their home has been. Part of the challenge is that this is a very new thing for us. It’s so huge. How do we use it properly to meet our needs as a congregation and be a blessing to the community? And there’s a learning curve that comes with that, growing pains.
In your sermon you said that “the congregation will not really feel at home in this community or in any other community”. Do you feel that the church has not been well received by Whistler?
Some of that feeling of no [feeling] for me, it’s a very post-Christian culture. We represent less than one percent of the community. When I tell people I’m a pastor, it usually provokes some kind of reaction. It can be outright hostility; it might be a suspicion. Sometimes it’s just indifference. But it feels like being outside.
Do you think the uphill battle is specific to Whistler or is it indicative of the wider culture?
Part of the challenge with the culture in general, not specific to Whistler, is that you have this combination of historical sins of Christianity: residential schools, persecution of other groups, all those sorts of horrible things. It is legitimate. And then you have the way that, say, the media, the movie industry, television, etc., took that and created caricatures, or straw men, out of that, and people react against that. It’s not that they necessarily know Christians who have been jerks, but they have seen Christians being jerks on TV or in a fictional Netflix show. Or they watch the late-night comedy and the way the religious right is constantly castigated, and they think that’s what we all stand for, this caricature being made fun of. This does not mean that we are innocent, because we are the first to admit that we are broken people and that we often do not live consistently with the teachings of Jesus. But there’s this feeling that it’s OK to trash Christians, it’s OK to say things about us that you wouldn’t say about any other band.
Don’t you feel like some of this is in response to the real impact of certain Christian beliefs? We have just seen millions of American women have their access to abortion taken away because of a Christian belief now codified in American law.
I will not deny that there are two different visions of good here. What I find is that people react to the straw man. Take the abortion debate. What they react to is the idea of men trying to control women’s bodies. That’s not our point. The truth is for women who are considering the choice, making the choice, or have made the choice [to have an abortion], our attitude must be one of care and mercy. The difference is that we recognize the inherent value and rights of human beings. Whether [the unborn] is a person, this person has rights. You have the right to do what you want with your body, but your right to swing your fist ends where my face begins.
I would say that a woman choosing to have an abortion is not a punch in the face.
It is not me, but another human being who has an inherent right to exist.
I guess that’s where this debate is, isn’t it?
That’s not where the debate is, is it? We [as a society] don’t want to have this conversation. We want to talk about “You control our bodies”, which usually involves accusing [Christians] of sexism and misogyny. No, we are not. When you look at countries where sex-selective abortion is a big thing, men outnumber women by, say, 13 to 10. Is this a win for women? I think there are a lot of conversations that we don’t have. So part of the reason we feel like we don’t belong is because we’re told, “Hey, if you’re coming from a religious standpoint, you need to shut up.” Pay your taxes, but shut up.
But, as a church, you get tax relief, don’t you?
OK, Max said that [in his last column]but we only get permissive tax relief of $1,500 a year…
If the municipality wants…to make us pay the $1,500, that’s no big deal. It’s an interesting place where we are in Canada, where there’s this movement toward enforcing ideological conformity and using access to government programs and services as a tool for that.
The question is, ‘OK, where do we draw the line?’ I guess if someone gives money to an organization that represents something hostile to us, they still get a tax deduction. That’s actually part of living in a democratic society, which is that we have a lot of different voices in the conversation, and it’s a conversation where we have different views of right and wrong. But when we start to use these legislative mechanisms to dictate what’s okay to think and what’s not, it’s tricky.
Anything else you think people should know?
One of the things that I think a lot of people don’t know about our tradition—we’re Mennonite Brethren—is that we have a very strong tradition of peacemaking, sometimes going as far as very rigid pacifism. But usually just saying violence is against the nature of Christians who conquered in the name of Jesus [during the Thirty Years War of 1618-’48]. While this was happening in Europe, our band emerged as a sort of counterculture. ‘We don’t do that. We are going to be different. And so these are our values.