Canadian Baptists offered hearty welcomes to the more than 300 global Baptists from more than 50 nations assembled in Vancouver, Canada, this week for the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance.
Canadian Baptist leaders reflected also on their own unique ministry heritage and context as they introduced their country.
“I am proud of who we are as western Canadian Baptists,” said Axel Schoeber, a professor at the Baptist-affiliated Carey Theological College in Vancouver.
Tracing the history of Baptist work in western Canada, Schoeber noted “the late start of Baptist witness in the region” as Baptists moved in from the eastern part of Canada in the last quarter of the 19th century.
In addition to challenges like theological disagreements over modernism and cultural and racial divisions, he noted the vast landscape of western Canada also impacted the Baptist witness.
“Such geographic distances have often made church planting an uncertain venture,” he explained.
The nearly 200,000 Baptists in western Canada account for about 2 percent of the region’s population. These Baptists are spread out in several hundred churches.
Jeremy Bell, executive minister of the Canadian Baptists of Western Canada, noted the impact of Canadian Baptists on their nation despite their relatively small size.
Former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker pushed for rights of First Nations people and “penned the first Canadian Bill of Rights and Freedoms.” Tommy Douglas, a Baptist minister and politician, as a provincial premier implemented the first universal health care system in the country.
“The Canadian and especially western Canadian social experience is crowded with such remarkable personalities and figures,” he said.
Bell noted several issues facing Baptists in western Canada that he views as both challenges and opportunities. These include a postmodern culture, a push for syncretism, issues related to death and sexuality, environmental issues and relations with First Nations people.
“The Christian faith and church is challenged, but in many ways thriving in this wonderful gift we have been given in this country of Canada,” he declared. “By reinforcing the portrayal of different traditions in their own unique way, it allows the Christian church and the Christian faith to stand out for the uniqueness in Christ that we represent.”
Schoeber called First Baptist Church of Vancouver, which started in 1887, “a pillar Baptist church for the province.” Baptists from across Canada welcomed global Baptists with a celebration at First Baptist.
After some Canadian barbecue and a street hockey puck-shooting challenge, a service inside the church featured greetings and music.
Terry Smith, executive director of Canadian Baptist Ministries, noted the importance of the maple tree to Canada as a maple leaf dominates the nation’s flag. He suggested the maple tree’s seed (known as a samara) offers a great metaphor for Canadian Baptists.
“When we were kids, we called them helicopters,” Smith recounted. “Their wings spread out when they fall from the tree and they twirl and twirl and are carried by the wind and when they cover the ground all around. And as they germinate, they produce those beautiful trees and very distinct leaves.”
Smith said missionaries initially brought the Baptist witness to Canada from countries like France, Germany, Sweden, Norway and the United States.
He added that today Baptists come from many countries like Nigeria, the Philippines, Haiti, Brazil, Russia, China, Korea and India.
“Your churches have sent seeds – little samaras – to grow in our good soil,” Smith told Baptists from around the world. “These seeds have been welcomed in this country.”
Smith quickly added that Canadian Baptists have also spread the Baptist witness in other countries.
“But just as we have received the seeds from afar, so, too, Canadian Baptists have sent samaras – or seeds – and planted churches around the world,” he said. “Throughout our long and rich history, Canadian Baptists have sent hundreds of missionaries, church planters, evangelists, development workers, social justice advocates, educators, health care professionals, etc.”
“Like a healthy maple tree that spreads its seeds, God has blessed the global church through the work of the seeds we have planted,” he added.
The welcome event also featured remarks from Deborah Sparrow of the Musqueam First Nation, who originally lived in the land that now includes Vancouver. Cheryl Bear, of the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation, brought special music during the event.
Canadians have worked in recent years to make amends with First Nations peoples who suffered severe displacement and discrimination even into the 20th century. Smith and other Canadian Baptist leaders echoed the need for truth and reconciliation.
“This soil isn’t ours,” Smith said as he introduced Sparrow. “We as a country have recently undertaken a meaningful self-examination of our past and are learning more about our history.”
Bell, who introduced Bear as a prophetic voice, noted at another point during the annual gathering that Canadian Baptists have more work to do.
“The missional opportunity,” he offered, “is to begin to find ways of supporting educational and economic opportunities, infrastructure development around safe water, assistance in equitable land claim negotiations and a concerted effort to differentiate First Nations’ religious and cultural practices … and whenever possible to integrate those practices into the context of mission and justice.”