Think Whistler and you think skiing. Two mountains, more than 80 runs and a $181 million international jet-set ski village and resort. About the only religious activity you might expect is prayer for snow.
But think again. Whistler, located 120 kilometres north of Vancouver, is also an ordinary little town of 2,200 and home for the Whistler Community Chapel, a member of the B.C. Mennonite Brethren Conference since November 1980.
Under the leadership of Ray and Kathy Wiens, the church, which has an average attendance of about 20 adults, is attempting to minister to the needs of this other Whistler. “The town has a jet set image,” says Ray, “but the people are different. As a church, we want to meet the needs of the local community. A ministry to skiers and tourists is ambiguous; besides, they can return home to worship. We want to meet the practical needs of our neighbours.”
The Wiens’ did not intend to lead the congregation when they came to Whistler in 1978, although they were interested in Christian service. In fact, they didn’t intend to come to Whistler at all: Ray, a graduate of Columbia Bible Institute, UBC and Regent College, came north to nearby Pemberton to work in forestry. Unable to find housing there, they located in Whistler and attended a small fellowship led by Gary and Elaine Mcleod, presently living in Langley, B.C.
When the Mc1eods moved shortly thereafter, Ray felt a burden to help continue the work they had begun three years earlier. “I wanted to utilize my theological training and provide an outreach service for the town,” he says. But he first approached the Willingdon Mennonite Brethren Church in Burnaby, where he and Kathy, a registered nurse, had attended while he studied in Vancouver. Ed Goerzen, a member of the pastoral staff at Willingdon, said that “the board felt a sense of calling in and affirm his intentions.”
From that meeting was born a mother/daughter relationship which exists today. “The experience is beneficial for both churches,” says Goerzen. Ray echoes his assessment. “From Willingdon we receive guidance, prayer support and visits, and we benefit from the protective umbrella of their authority.”
His initial experience was, he admits, tough. “There were many highlights,” he says, “but I was so busy working full-time and pastoring that I finally had to quit my job and seek part-time employment.” That didn’t prove easy, but a church member created a three-hour a day maintenance position at the new ski village, an arrangement Ray finds beneficial because “I am meeting people everyday.” As we walked through the development Ray greeted several workers and supervisors in a casual and friendly manner.
The Whistler ski village is a partially completed world-class resort, rising from the mud of a former garbage dump. Patterned after a European ski village model, it features hotels, condominiums, boutiques, restaurants, open squares and a convention centre. It breathes luxury and extravagance, this so-called “Aspen of the north.” The chapel may well find itself located in the midst of this as fu ture plans include the construction of a multi-purpose meetingplace which will, in all likelihood, become available for use by the Whistler church. Details between the developer, the Skiers Chapel Association (a Vancouverbased organization which supplies chapel services and facilities for skiers) and the B.C. Mennonite Brethren Conference are being negotiated.
But the strength of the church will not be found in the skiers’ haven. Ray adamantly retains a firm community focus, best evidenced in the successful Bible clubs which meet every week in the local school. An average of 65 students-over half the enrollment of the school-attend meetings which feature Bible lessons, crafts and assorted activities. “The clubs reach many people on the fringes of the church, people whose children are involved,” says Ray. “One parent discovered that her six year-old knew more about the Bible than she did, and now she comes to me for Bible study guidance.”
While the clubs meet in the school, the church services are held in the small skiers chapel, located at the base of Whistler mountain beside a chair lift and helicopter pad. On Saturday afternoons during the ski season Ray provides chapel services for skiers. They have access to the building at other times for meetings.
The church affiliated itself with the Mennonite Brethren Conference a year ago when Bob Wick, manager of the partially developed golf course, moved to Whistler from Port Coquitlam, B.C. He realized the pressure Ray was working under and sought out Nick Dyck, director of the B.C. Mennonite Brethren board of Church Extension. After discussion with Nick he encouraged the church to vote unanimously in favour of conference membership. “Affiliation gives us access to spiritual and financial resources,” Wicks said, “and it gives Ray a body with whom to work, a group from whom he can receive support, prayer, and guidance.”
On an early Saturday evening the Wiens family, including sons Eric and Darrel, gathered in the living room of their wood stove-heated chalet, rented from a Vancouver Christian, and Ray talked about the challenges facing the young church.
“We want to be careful not to frighten anyone away because we are now ‘Mennonite,’” he said. “In fact, I’m the only traditional ‘ethnic’ Mennonite in the church. We are a community church, and everyone is welcome.”
He also talked about the tension that sudden wealth and development has produced in the town. $551 million is expected to be spent in the area between 1979 and 1987. Land and housing prices have skyrocketed; one lot near the town centre was selling for $145,000. Some townspeople resent the changes and some have moved away in protest. But Ray sees opportunity in the development, despite the tension. With the population expected to grow to between 3,000 and 5,000 in the next seven to ten years, there will be more people with needs to minister to and more Christians with gifts joining the church.
Ironically, although Ray lives in the shadow of the twin mountains, he doesn’t downhill ski. He does, however, love to hike and crosscountry ski through the beautiful terrain surrounding the town. And he appreciates it when skiers-of whom there may be 10,000 on a good weekend-drop in to visit at the church. He admits that they usually don’t crowd out the small meeting place, though-”unless the snow is lousy.”
“I find the work challenging and exciting,” he says. “As I watch what God is doing in the community I know that he wants us to be salt and light. And we want people to know that Whistler just isn’t a ski hill-its a community.” God willing, Ray and the Whistler Community Chapel will work to meet the needs of that one-time sleepy town.