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Cloverdale’s changing faith landscape

‘We are all travelling on a different way to heaven’

Lynda Brind-Dickson stood in the doorway of Cloverdale’s United Church, welcoming people in for the mid-morning service.

Brind-Dickson, chair of the 67-year-old church, smiled as she handed out programs to the congregation. If you ask her, Cloverdale United Church is seeing more young families attend services.

On Sunday, Aug. 13, the room was dominated by grey-haired parishioners, chatting with the people in their pew. But there was also a handful of children playing in front of the lectern. One young family sat a few rows back: a red-haired mother with her laughing baby and a father talking to an older child.

“Family is finding a place again,” Brind-Dickson said. “People are just more and more mindful. The internet has made the world a very small place, as we are aware of wildfires and political issues further afield.”

“They’re just wanting to really gave some safety in their world,” she continued. “Come back to a place where they can put down roots and realize that our creator has given us something very special to be stewards and shepherds of.”

It seems to be a common theme in the Cloverdale area — which, for the purposes of this article, runs just south of Highway 10 to 96 Avenue and just east of 160 Street to just west of 194 Street — which has 53 different religious institutions, not counting the numerous congregations that share a church building, or those faith-based organizations that meet without a dedicated space.

Steve De Jong, a member of the Precious Blood Catholic Church, has seen change in Cloverdale since he first arrived from Holland in the late 1940s. He’s seen the whittling down of Port Kells dairy farmers, the change in faith-based institutions and the change in his ability to drive his tractor down the highway.

“Traffic has changed so much,” he said. “But so has faith. Faith has changed.”

From only a few, largely European churches, Cloverdale has become a centre for all kinds of faith.

“We are all travelling on a different way to heaven,” De Jong said.

There is no census data on religion for just the Cloverdale area. However, in a 2011 census profile for Surrey 38 per cent of the population identify as Christian, another 23 per cent are Sikh, two per cent are Buddhist, nearly four per cent are Hindu, another four per cent identify as Muslim and 0.4 per cent identify as “other religions.” Around 29 per cent of the population identify as having no religious affiliation.

In part, the reason behind the high Christian numbers is from the late 1800s, when Cloverdale’s religious organizations were primarily Protestant: the Methodist church on 176 Street, the Presbyterian church, and the Anglican church.

“Cloverdale’s the old historic centre of Surrey,” said Surrey-Cloverdale MLA Marvin Hunt. “It is Surrey.”

Hunt, who was called “a self-described ‘charismatic Calvinist’” in the Vancouver Sun in the 1980s, started in politics because of his involvement in the finances of his Newton church.

“You’ve got everything here. Because you have the history here, and the long heritage of it,” said Hunt. “You’ve also got, as you see, the new coming in.”

In the 1940s and ’50s, that “new” was primarily European immigrants. De Jong, 84, was one of the many Dutch people that came to the area during that time.

“When we came, very shortly after the war, everybody was faithful,” he said. Catholics like De Jong integrated into the Precious Blood Parish, which had by then moved from Langley to Cloverdale. The Dutch and Canadian Reformed Protestants created their own churches in the area.

From the 1950s until the 1980s, the Roger and Jean Bose (of the historic Bose Farms) and fellow Cloverdale United Church member Dianne Nichols remember their church — and others— continuing to grow.

“Virtually on Sunday, there was nothing else happening. Everybody went to Sunday school in church,” Nichols said. “My recollection of Sunday school, because I helped teach Sunday school from age 14 to 18, … was 100 plus kids at least in all three of those years.”

“We’d love to have that many again,” Brind-Dickson added.

In the 1980s, Nichols and the Boses remember people moving away from the church and away from a structured approach to faith.

“Like most of the other churches during the ’80s, things started to slim down,” Jean Bose said. “But it was just because of the times. Because of other things to do.”

She pointed to the prominence of Sunday shopping, and to the start of sports games being played on Sunday.

“It really did take a toll,” she said.

In the 1950s, the Cloverdale United Church had 150 families associated with the church. Now, it has 76.

Statistically, the percentage of the population identifying with a particular faith has continued to decrease: 74 per cent in 2001, compared to 71 per cent ten years later.

But many faith-based organizations in Cloverdale say they are seeing an increase.

Today, the “new” coming into Cloverdale is from all over the world, not just Europe.

Take, for example, Cloverdale’s Gurudwara Guru Teg Bahadur Sahib, which was established in 2010 by India-born Paramjeet Singh Vasir and his wife, Jagjiwan Kaur Vasir.

The Vasirs bought the former Jehovah’s Witness hall on 184 Street and opened the Gurudwara in November 2010. According to the couple, who lived in New Westminster before opening the temple, it filled a need in the area.

“A lot of the people that came in were saying we needed one really bad here,” Jagjiwan Vasir said.

“It’s kind of like your soul has some things that it needs,” she continued. “And this is one of the things that it needs.”

Paramjeet Vasir expanded on her thought.

“The mind won’t satisfy. It doesn’t matter what you give the mind,” he said.

“Physically we are never satisfied, because the soul is never satisfied without meditation … Soul is restless, then man can’t live peaceful life.”

The Gurudwara has, on average, between 25 and 35 people regularly attending their evening sessions. On weekends and at special events, that number can reach up to 200.

According to the 2006 census for the Surrey-Cloverdale electoral district, 20.3 per cent of recent immigrants were from India. That’s significantly more than the B.C. average, which was 13.5 per cent.

But Cloverdale is also home to a number of other immigrant communities, including people from South Korea, which make up 14.4 per cent of recent immigrants; people from the Philippines, at 9.2 per cent; people from the People’s Republic of China, at 7.7 per cent; people from Taiwan, at 1.5 per cent; and people from Japan, at 1.5 per cent.

Each of the communities have faith-based organizations in Cloverdale, or at least an outreach into Cloverdale.

Take Shihoko Warren, an Anglican priest who came to Canada from Japan seven years ago.

Warren and her husband Ken Warren organize the Church of All Nations in Vancouver, an all-ethnicity church that originally started as a Japanese mission. In 2011, after the Fukushima earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster decimated that part of her country, the couple was called to create a farm: New Eden, located off Harvie Road.

According to De Jong, the Catholic church and school are full because of immigration to Cloverdale from the Philippines.

“If it wasn’t for the Filipinos, our churches wouldn’t nearly be as full as they are today,” he said. “Too many of our young people do not practice the faith.”

The problem, he said, isn’t necessarily the numbers. It’s the ability to retain the younger members of the congregation, and have them continuing to practice their faith after high school.

“Not everyone might tell you that,” he said. “I’m honest about that. I’m concerned about our teens. I’ve written to the Bishop about that: we have to change something.”

There are some organizations in Cloverdale that have managed to secure the younger generation. One of those is the Lighthouse Spiritualist Centre, a Spiritualist church that Anne Larson opened in 2009.

When Larson first started as a minister 30 years ago, Spiritualism was largely dominated by middle-aged or older individuals looking to connect with departed loved ones.

Now, “I’m seeing more and more young people,” she said. “A lot of young people have incidences in their life they don’t understand … so they come looking for some guidance and some help.”

Spiritualism encompasses the belief that everyone is able to commune with the spirit world, and that the soul and mind continue to exist after death.

Larson’s church blends in with the businesses surrounding her 176A Street location, but stands out as a religious organization in a community largely populated by Judeo-Christian institutions.

Currently, Larson’s church has about 150 members, although it averages about 40 to 50 people for a Sunday service and 10 to 50 for a Thursday night program.

“Spiritualism, or spirituality is growing,” Larson said. “How many people are now looking for their purpose in life, because there’s got to be a lot more than this rat race, right?

“So they’re looking for answers. And this seems to be able to help them find those answers.”

On Sunday, Aug. 20, thousands of people congregated in Cloverdale’s Bill Reid Millennium Amphitheatre park, also looking for answers at the third-annual Church in the Park.

Reverberations from the band on stage pounded through the body like heavy heartbeats. Women moved to the music while holding bibles, babies; men wearing patterned button-down shirts sang along to the God-praising lyrics.

When the music ended, pastor Mark Clark of Village Church stepped on stage. The congregation sat down on lawn chairs and picnic blankets, and Clark began his sermon, calling on volunteers from the audience to help him illustrate a Bible story about forgiveness.

“We started the church to reach people like me,” Clark said after the outdoor event. “The church was going to be a place of just broken people, or people with questions, people wondering about God.”

His church has grown exponentially since it started in 2009, from 16 people in Clark’s townhouse to three church buildings in Langley and Surrey with 10 different services.

“So for me,” he continued, looking around at the people still milling around the park after the church service, “this is kind of our DNA. Being able to be part of the city, actually love it and tell it about Jesus, and do family stuff, do baptisms, publicly, outside.”

Normally, Village Church baptizes new Christians in the ocean. On Aug. 20, the church had two circular baths set up on either side of the stage, waiting to welcome the more than 40 people who had signed up to be baptized.

One of them was 46-year-old Danielle Lewis, who started going to Village Church about a year ago.

The Clayton Heights resident had a registered to be baptized before the start of the service on Sunday.

The music had started playing again when it was Lewis’ turn to step into the water. She shivered as she descended the ladder, and smiled as the Village Church volunteer explained where to put her arms.

Then he slipped her under the water, her baptism displayed on a screen for the multitudes to see. When she came up, tee-shirt dripping, she raised her hands into the air in triumph.