Delegates discover Montreal’s culture and growing ministries
The Four Points Sheraton Hotel where Gathering 2008 convened could have been any hotel, and the light industrial area near the airport where it was located could have been the airport industrial area near any major Canadian city.
Local flavour emerged when parts of the convention were conducted in both official languages, and during presentations from Quebec MB church leaders. But it was the “Experience Montreal” tour on Friday afternoon and evening that put Gathering 2008 solidly in its place.
And place – this place, Montreal – mattered in this particular convention. One of the major decisions on the table was Horizon Quebec, a national conference initiative that will pour mission energy and resources into the province and its small contingent of MB churches.
Eric Wingender, president of École de Théologie Évangélique de Montréal (ETEM), prepared delegates for their tour experience by talking about three things: Jesus, culture, and Quebec. He suggested that the silent years before Jesus began his formal ministry – about which there is often speculation – were in fact “ordinary” working years that Jesus devoted to deeply understanding his environment. Studying culture seriously, as a spiritual discipline, Wingender said, is “hard work and heart work.”
He also noted that one of the most troubling aspects of Quebec culture is its “gradual erasure of God.” The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s cast aside the heavy yoke of Quebec Catholicism, but when Wingender became a Christian as a youth, there were still enough elements of religion in his memory to prepare him for conversion. Today, however, Quebec is thoroughly post-Christian.
After this introduction, the convention moved into six buses for immersion into the city. Stops (which in some cases became drive-bys because of time constraints) included tourist sites such as the Olympic Stadium; St. Joseph’s Oratory, Montreal’s largest church, a stunning though sparely decorated edifice; and Old Montreal with its cobblestone streets, historic buildings, and Notre Dame Cathedral.
Other stops – appearing on no tourist itinerary except this Mennonite Brethren one – were ETEM and Hochma, a church plant in a poorer district of Montreal called Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. At Hochma (a Hebrew word that means wisdom), the tour groups gathered in the alley behind the red-brick residence of Michel and Lyne Monette to hear Michel talk about how God brought them to a ministry of caring relationships in the community. The garage that was his backdrop is cheerfully graffiti-painted and has a wooden movie-screening frame on its roof.
Quebec’s MB theological school, ETEM, is located in a glass-clad building with wonderful views of historic Côte des Neiges cemetery and, rising above the trees, the University of Montreal, Canada’s second largest university, with which ETEM is affiliated. Gathered in a classroom, and then in the library, participants heard president Wingender and professor Marc Paré, speak about the school and its vision, and about the Montreal Centre for Anabaptist Studies, a joint venture with Quebec’s Mennonite Central Committee.
“We are not just a training centre,” Wingender said. “We see ourselves as missionaries.”
The tour concluded with an evening prayer service and communion on Mount Royal, led by MBMS International’s SOAR team. The lights of the city gleamed below, a half-moon shone above, as the young people of SOAR in their bright green, blue, and yellow T-shirts mingled with convention participants.
For many delegates, Experience Montreal was a Gathering highlight. It gave them the feel of “a beautiful city” and its “beautiful people,” as emcee David Balzer put it the next day.
“When you go to a conference, you don’t mind the formal parts – the meetings,” another participant was overheard to say about the tour, “but these are the parts you remember.”