A joyful sound in Old Town

When the Grace Community Church congregation begins their rollicking Sunday service across the street from me in Whitehorse's Old Town, I try not to pass judgement. But I fail. I judge by appearances.

When the Grace Community Church congregation begins their rollicking Sunday service across the street from me in Whitehorse’s Old Town, I try not to pass judgement. But I fail.

I judge by appearances. It appears they don’t know how to park properly.

Their cars and trucks are pulled over higgledy-piggledy on both sides of our narrow dirt Eighth Avenue. It’s a gong-show.

Then I hear cymbals, bongo drums, and the strumming of a guitar all morning. Afterwards, they stand on the steps or lawn, chatting merrily. Their laughter reverberates off the clay banks that arc around Old Town. I feel like I’m in an amphitheater watching a performance.

But my curiosity got the better of me this spring when I saw one of the pillars of the church, Wade Holmes, teaching a neighbourhood Filipino boy how to ride a bike.

Wade’s a dad, grandpa, husband, businessman and mental-health worker. Despite that, he’s a relaxed kind of guy. Friendly.

So I sauntered across the dirt road and asked Wade about his church.

“There’s not a lot of pressure at Grace for people to do this or believe that,” he explained. “People come along at their own pace. They begin wherever they’re at. God leads them.”

I tried to find out who’s in charge, but it doesn’t work that way here.

“Many churches have a pastor. We did at one point, but he got burned out,” said Wade.

“He had a full-time job and kids, like many of us. So we went to a system of church elders. We have a pool of about seven people selected to preach.

“We sit down as a group to discuss what themes, and each person has the liberty to choose their subject. This involves more people.”

Ooh-la-la, seven different preachers! I wanted to check this out so asked if I could come one Sunday, with no obligation to join.

“We have a community of people who just attend. You don’t actually have to be members who sign on the dotted line,” he assured me. “There’s a lot of people seeking. That’s OK with us.”

So I showed up one Sunday morning for their service. The room was bright and felt open. The mood was light.

There were chairs, not hard pews. Someone was eating a snack. A teenager was texting. Both behaviours were overlooked and both ended soon.

We began with a lively warm-up of three songs.

I swayed to “You don’t have to know how to pray – all you have to know is the name of Jesus.” Wow, Wade was right about lack of pressure! That cut out about 1,700 years of doctrine I’m used to.

“Repentance doesn’t mean no joy,” said the 20-something woman who was preaching that day. She hooked me with a story about girl friendship in high school. The tangled emotions she described are something no man has ever grasped.

Over coffee later Wade explained more about their beliefs. “Evangelical means we’re not just satisfied knowing we can be saved. We want to make it known that salvation is available to everyone.”

When he said everyone, he really meant it. I’ve seen the dispossessed hanging around at Extra Foods call out his name and give him a hug. He not only ministers to the poor but sees and accepts the gifts they can give to him and to the rest of us.

“We don’t cram our beliefs down your throat or go door to door in Old Town. Sometimes we just give out Christmas cards to the neighbourhood inviting them to our service.”

I once took them up on that invitation for their Christmas Eve play. It was a loosely scripted skit full of stage blunders and giggles. No pressure to be perfect. I think Jesus watched, and smiled.

It was during that winter, all hell broke loose one Sunday when a poorly parked pickup got stuck on the snowy shoulder of our road. Those Christians gleefully ran in circles to find shovels or chains to help their brother. Instead, all they found was a frayed rope.

I scowled. They cheered in excitement as a pushing and pulling acted itself out on Eighth Ave. The truck nearly hit other parked cars as it fishtailed onto the road spewing gravel. The driver shouted a proclamation of joy -“Praise Jesus!”- to the applause of his brethren.

Since that comedy of errors, I’ve asked them to park in my ample driveway. Some do, amen.

There are many more characters and dramas to watch unfold on the streets and in the alleys of Old Town. It’s a stage where each acts out his role: the warm-hearted faithful of Grace Church, Norman Holler as a beacon of light, Aggie Fender out on her meet-and-greet march, Crystal Papequash on a healing journey.

Yes, Old Town’s a stage, and we are players on it.

This is the end of a four-part series on Whitehorse’s Old Town by resident and writer Roxanne Livingstone.