Seven years ago, February 2016, I walked into a large room and remember clearly feeling like the “new guy” as I found a seat at a table.
It was my first ONMB convention. Apart from Ed Willms and a couple others, I had no relationship with our family of churches.
As I sat down and began to listen, I was not aware of two things. Firstly, over the next two years, my life was going to fall apart. Secondly, the MB family would become significant in my story.
I had received a life-altering diagnosis a week or two earlier. I was told I have a rare cancer that most commonly is found in the salivary glands, adenoid cystic carcinoma.
Upon the news of my diagnosis I was filled with fear, uncertainty and grief.
As I sat with my fellow MB pastors and leaders, I obviously had a lot on my mind. And yet God was faithful. We sat under the stellar teaching of Gordon and Gale McDonald as they described to us what a Marathonic Leader is.
The McDonalds were amazing and inspiring. I had no idea how important their wisdom would be as I embarked on the most difficult two years of my life.
My cancer diagnosis was extremely difficult. I was 31 years old, 2.5 years into marriage, the associate pastor at a growing church plant and the father of my 3 month old child.
Previous to cancer, I felt powerful, strong and confident. Buying life insurance was on my to-do list. Death and human frailty were not at the top of my mind.
And yet, I was insecure. I was searching for my identity in success, affirmation and approval. I recall how I was always aware of where my senior pastor was in a room. Is he watching? What is he thinking? Am I performing to his level? Does he approve of me?
Before working for a MB church, I was a campus minister. I planted one of the largest InterVarsity chapters in recent history and saw many students come to Christ through the ministry.
Now I was pastoring at a hip church plant. It was growing. We were cool, innovative and trendy. We were getting attention. I definitely had pride issues.
With the cancer diagnosis, my life and my identity fell apart. Fear crept in and overtook me. It was crippling.
In April 2016 I received surgery and radiation. I was off work for eight months.
During treatment it became clear I was not OK. Melody, my wife and I began seeing a Christian counselor, who we continue to see to this day.
Finally, when it was time to return to work at the beginning of 2017, the church was in crisis.
The board and our senior pastor were in persistent conflict with no foreseeable path forward.
There were many concerns including accountability, teamwork, developing clear policy and theological questions. It was unclear whether the church would stay in the Mennonite Brethren family. It was not pretty. With all of the issues happening at once, it was difficult to navigate a path forward.
In 2017, as I returned back to work after my cancer diagnosis, I watched everything fall apart. The church that I loved literally was torn apart, going from over 100 people to a handful in literally months, and eventually closing its doors. The community dispersed to churches all over the city but a handful of people unfortunately stopped going to church altogether. It was, and continues to be, heartbreaking.
Near the end of 2017, right as the church was blowing up, Ed Willms and Jeff Janzti reached out. Ed wanted to keep me in the MB family and had a vision for another MB church plant in downtown Ottawa. Jeff was willing to help and offered me a position on his staff team, if I could raise funds, and said that the Gathering would be willing to be our sending church if a church plant were to happen.
Ed and Jeff took a chance on me. The ONMB family and the Gathering became my church in a season where I felt like an orphan. I was adopted, trained, cared for and supported.
I wish I could tell you that it was easy. Months after coming on staff with The Gathering and starting a journey of emotional and spiritual healing, cancer struck again (early 2018). This time in my lungs. ONMB and our church in Ottawa gathered around us, praying for us, believing in us and supporting us.
Then only a year later, more cancer, more surgery.
People in our MB family never stopped believing that God is big enough to use the pain and disappointment of my story for his glory. Even though life has been incredibly hard these past seven years, my church family, and our denominational family have continued to recall the stories of God’s faithfulness, his love and his commitment to his Church.
About two and a half years ago, at the height of the pandemic, Bytown Community Church was born.
If you were to ask when we launched, I don’t have a real answer. It was slow and organic, starting with small groups on zoom and then moving to parks when large in-person gatherings indoors were still not recommended.
Today Bytown is mostly students, young professionals and families with young children, gathering in downtown Ottawa in a beautiful Presbyterian church on Sunday afternoons.
We desire to help adults and children experience wholeness in Jesus Christ that propels them to live by their faith in their families, workplaces and neighbourhoods.
We aren’t extravagant or sexy. Our worship is pretty simple. And yet, in my biased opinion, Jesus is present and working in our midst. Healing people, deepening faith, building community and bringing glory to the Father.
Around the time Bytown began, I found out cancer had returned. It was inoperable. I live knowing that as my small church grows slowly, my cancer grows slowly too. Only time will tell what God’s story is for me and for this fragile church.
Though the past seven years have been so difficult, two things are true.
Firstly, I am thankful for this family. Your love, prayers and support are incredibly helpful.
Secondly, Jesus is using this painful story to not only bring about a new church plant to our ONMB story but also, and maybe more significantly, to heal my broken heart.
Over the past seven years I have discovered that Jesus is truly with me and loves me.
I entered 2023 with a lot of fear. I was worried that my cancer was growing and that I would soon begin to feel symptoms (currently I look and feel great, the cancer is very small).
My biggest fear of all is that my wife will not be provided for and that my children (7 and 5) will not have an earthly father.
One night I was setting up our living room for a prayer meeting. Bytown gathered to pray for our city and our church.
I set out candles and snacks. I added a small wooden cross. Everything was set to go.
As I was preparing, my children, with great enthusiasm, asked if they could help. My five year old wanted to put up a picture of the nativity scene he had coloured in Sunday school (I didn’t correct him that it was now January) and my seven year old disappeared upstairs.
Marcus emerged with a beautiful picture he had received as a gift. It was Jesus embracing a young child. We hung it on the wall.
Weeks later, my wife Melody and I sat on our couch, praying before bed. Once again, I was confessing my fears.
In the quietness and peace of my living room, Jesus met me in a profound way. I saw the picture that my son had given me and Jesus invited me to be the child in the photo. To simply crawl into his arms and allow him to carry me through life.
As I received the invitation to be a child, my fears dissipated. The healing journey came slowly over the past seven years but I can tell you that I have never felt so free or whole. The beauty and irony that it took seven years was not lost on me as seven is a number of completeness and wholeness in scripture.
Through my testimony, I remember that Jesus does truly shine through our brokenness. If he can heal my broken heart and make something beautiful, how much more can he do in your own life? Following Jesus, even when our world falls apart, is worth it. Jesus is greater than the darkness and has the power to dispel our fears with his love.
Thank you to the MB family for your part in helping me experience the love of Christ. I am thankful to be your brother in Christ.
Dan Chook Reid is married to Melody and is the father to two growing boys. They live downtown in the Glebe, ON.