Colourful messages help rejuvenate Victoria church

New approach at Fairfield United aims to bring community together

Fairfield United Church office administrator Carol Turnbull

Fluttering in a light breeze coming up Moss Street from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a collection of colourful ribbons attached to a net beside Fairfield United Church features a variety of personal messages.

“Be the happiness you wish for your family, friends and enemies,” says one. “Save every animal in the whole wide world,” says another. A few strips over, “For all people suffering from mental illness.”

Still another message has a simple, yet powerful phrase: “Peace on Earth.”

While many have been written by members of the congregation, many have not. It’s part of the church’s extending a hand to the greater community, says student minister Beth Walker, who is nearing the end of a nine-week contract at Fairfield United.

“We’ve been looking at ways of building bridges and reaching out into the community, and what it would be like to be the spiritual heart of Fairfield,” Walker says.

Well aware of the problem of declining attendance at traditional churches, she wrote up a proposal for doing things differently. The United Church presbytery in Victoria liked her ideas and placed her in charge of ministering at Fairfield, whose pastor had served his requisite two and a half year term and moved on.

“The idea was ‘being’ church instead of ‘doing’ church,” Walker says. “When you be, you open up to new possibilities.”

That has meant embracing new ways of relating to people in the neighbourhood.

The prayer net, installed last month – just before thousands of visitors trooped past for the TD Art Gallery Paint-In – was offered as a way for people to connect with the church, even if they weren’t regular attendees.

“I would say it was the litmus test to the congregation of Fairfield, to see if (other) people really were interested in the things we’re interested in,” says Walker, who estimates that she spoke to about 400 people on Paint-In day. “We’re into the environment. We’re into peace. It’s the ultimate communication – if you want to look at it like Facebook, it’s saying ‘come down and see what people care about.’”

Going hand in hand with this change of approach for the church is the Spirited Summer Series. Speakers from Victoria social service agencies PEERS, Our Place and Bridges for Women, and the Fairfield-Gonzales Community Association were recruited to talk during Sunday morning services about their organizations’ roles.

“People are looking for a sense of community and they are craving community. That’s something the church can offer,” Walker says. “This church is seeming to want to lead a call to social justice. I think we’ve stopped talking and now we’re starting to listen, by bringing folks in and telling stories of what they’re doing in the world.”

Karen Aitken, chair of the church council at Fairfield United, says attendance usually dwindles in summer due to holidays and other activities. The opposite has been the case of late at the corner of Fairfield Road and Moss Street, however, with more people showing up for Sunday service.

“That’s a big bonus for us,” she says. “I think people are still thinking about spirituality. (With the prayer net) we’re saying, ‘hey, we’re just like you guys. We all have wishes and prayers for the world.’”

Whether the boost in attendance is due to the net or the adjusted summer schedule is uncertain, Aitken says, but it’s been a nice coincidence.

“Doing something different usually draws people.”

This Sunday’s service (Aug. 12) includes a talk from James Pratt with the community association. Aitken encourages visitors to bring their coffee mug, as the pot is on before and after the service.

Walker’s favourite ribbon message written outside is practical: “My prayer is that you’ll recycle this plastic.”

Unlike that sentiment, the church has no intention of recycling the same old messages.

editor@vicnews.com

Spirit in the summer

• Fairfield United Church’s Spirited Summer Series, running through Sept. 2, has Sunday morning talks with themes inspired by Beatles songs. The Aug. 12 talk, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ features James Pratt of the Fairfield-Gonzales Community Association.

• Subsequent talks are ‘All the Lonely People,’ with Marion Little of PEERS (Aug. 19); ‘Come Together,’ John Row of the Veins of Life Watershed Society (Aug. 26) and ‘Yellow Submarine,’ with student minister Beth Walker (Sept. 2). Start time is 10 a.m.

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