Society

Promised Land

American missionaries chase the lapsed Catholics of Montreal

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Illustration by Pascal Colpron


Illustration by Pascal Colpron

“Tell me your favourite God moment,” urged Michel Hurrell, youth pastor at Église Chrétienne d’Ahuntsic in Montreal. I was sitting in the church basement, debriefing after the first day of Bible camp last August, along with a dozen evangelical Christians ranging in age from late teens to thirties. They had driven there from the Orchard, a 2,100-person megachurch in suburban Chicago. Gina Udchik, one of the twelve, spoke up: “It was awesome when Simon asked to have his own bible.” Others nodded and began chiming in.

American churches are sending a steady stream of groups on short-term missions, or STMs, to jump-start conversions. These trips are meant to harness youthful energy for worldwide evangelism, and to train future career missionaries. Though evangelicals debate the merits of STMs, they have grown in popularity. Today, an estimated 2 million Americans participate each year in what has become a $1.6 billion annual enterprise.

For American evangelicals, Montreal is promising but challenging ground: Promising because less than 1 percent of Quebec’s population is born again, having had the transformative experience viewed as necessary for salvation. Challenging because of the province’s largely Catholic heritage. Most evangelicals see Quebec as a religious blank slate, with the lowest weekly church attendance in North America (under 10 percent). Moreover, they rarely view even churchgoing Catholics as adequately Christian. For French Canadians, however, Catholicism remains an inextricable, albeit complicated, aspect of communal identity and family heritage. As the religious landscape shifts, missionaries hope that American-style evangelicalism will take root.

Like most STMs, the Orchard team has partnered with a local church. They were in Montreal for a week to help Église Chrétienne stage an English-immersion camp, a model that has worked well in secularized Europe (the Orchard runs a similar program in Hungary). Such missions build trust, create relationships, and model God’s love—an approach typical of evangelicals’ “pliable sense of activism,” explains anthropologist James Bielo. Running secular activities, such as summer camps, may lead to opportunities to speak the gospel. Teaching English also allows the missionaries to offer something of value in wealthy countries. Since their inception in the late 1950s, STMs have focused on developing countries. Branching out has required new justifications, notes Brian Howell, an anthropologist and the author of Short-Term Mission: “Poverty is central to the notion of the short-term mission. Europe doesn’t have the same level of material poverty as some places; it’s an unchurched place—secularized—so there’s a spiritual darkness that Christians need to address.”

Last summer marked the first time since the Église Chrétienne camps began in 2006 that part of the program was explicitly Christian. It was a gamble for the Orchard team. Katelyn Kiner—a nineteen-year-old who has studied French since the seventh grade in Illinois and feels called by God to minister to francophones—volunteered for a second year in a row, then prayed with her mother nightly for sufficient interest: “Please let there just be ten kids.” A few weeks before the start date, only four had signed up; ultimately, eleven enrolled, still only a third of the number normally drawn to the secular English camps. Half were already from evangelical families. One left at lunch on the first day when he realized it wasn’t soccer camp. The team wasn’t discouraged. “It’s a leap of faith to come and say, God, just use us as you see fit,” said Josh Parsons, the Orchard team’s twenty-six-year-old pastor.

Each morning at Église Chrétienne, camp began with one of Parsons’s upbeat, urgent messages: “You might say, I don’t want to be in hell for an eternity! What do we do? ” A camper’s hand shot up: “Believe in Jesus? ” “Yes!” Parsons affirmed. The gospel was woven throughout games, sports, crafts, and English lessons: “God gives us life through Jesus for our eternal sustenance,” said Udchik. “But here on earth we need food, right? So for vocabulary, let’s name our favourite foods.”

Since inheriting the camps in 2011 from the US missionaries who founded them, Hurrell, the local pastor, has expanded the original two-week program to five weeks. Missionary groups arrive from places as diverse as California, Texas, and Pennsylvania. Last year, Hurrell also launched a non-profit organization to connect with even more STM groups. During the Orchard’s week, an STM from Connecticut dropped by to scout out the prospects for a 2015 mission. “I think we’re on the verge of an explosion of the Holy Spirit up here,” one man said as he looked around.

“In many ways, this year was more fulfilling,” Kiner reflected on the last day, when the campers’ parents were invited to a spaghetti banquet. “There were times last year when you could’ve talked about the gospel and Christ and stuff, but you had to stop short.” At the banquet, the Orchard team presented each camper with a Bible verse. Kiner had stayed up late googling the perfect lines for her eleven-year-old English-language partner. She called the girl up on stage in front of the fifty or so campers and family members: “I have a very special verse for her. I thought of it because I saw the little gifts God has given her throughout the week.” The passage was 1 Peter 4:16: “If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”

Three years into their Montreal mission, is the Orchard team making inroads? “We started in Hungary with ten kids, and now we have more than 100,” Parsons told me. “This could definitely be another Hungary.”

This appeared in the January/February 2015 issue.

Hillary Kaell teaches religion at Concordia University in Montreal. She published Walking Where Jesus Walked: American Christians and Holy Land Pilgrimage in July 2014.

Pascal Colpron is a Montreal-based illustrator and cartoonist.




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