Minutes before the morning worship service begins, musicians warm up their instruments, the pastor confers with worship participants and people dressed in their Sunday best chat with their friends in the pews.
This grand old brick church with its dark oak pews, soaring ceilings, and stained-glass windows depicting Bible stories has been a place of worship for more than a century, but what’s going on here on Sunday mornings is very new.
"What we call ourselves is an international, inter-cultural church," explains Tim Nielsen, one of two pastors of City Church, which meets in the former First English Lutheran Church just north of Maryland Street and Ellice Avenue.
"We believe we’re doing what the Scriptures ask us to do, reflecting the heart of God."
In the case of this new West End congregation, reflecting the heart of God means reaching out to new Canadians from countries such as Burma, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia. Most of the 400 people connected to City Church live within a 20-minutes walk of the former Lutheran church, which closed its doors in 2005 after 100 years of worship.
The language of worship is primarily English, with Nielsen’s sermon projected on a screen mounted on the left side of the building, opposite a showy organ with white and gold-painted pipes. On most Sundays, translators huddled in booths in the cantilevered balcony repeat the message into Chin or Karen, languages of two cultural groups from Burma, and Swahili or French, for the people from the various African countries.
Although the spoken words are mostly in English, the music reflects the cultural diversity of the worshippers. After a congregational song sung in English, Karen, Chin and Swahili, two choirs garbed in traditional dress present traditional Karen and Chin music, and a pair of sisters from Burundi sings a gospel song in their native tongue of Kirundi.
Nielsen says there’s a solid reason for this ethnic smorgasbord: avoiding the trap of equating faith and language which can happen in an ethnically specific congregation.
"When the second-generation Canadians reject their culture and language (then) they don’t reject their faith," explains the American-born Nielsen, a missionary from the Christian Brethren tradition, formerly known as Plymouth Brethren.
Nielsen, 49, and his longtime friend and associate Indiana Cuncgin, 47, began this evangelical Christian congregation last September in co-operation with Grant Memorial Baptist Church. Landlocked at their current location of Waverley and Wilkes, the Baptists wanted to begin a new congregation in Winnipeg’s inner city, the original home of the large suburban congregation of 2,000.
"Our long-term strategy is to plant a church every three to five years," explains leading minister Rev. Tom Castor, who is a resident of the West End.
"We also believe the more healthy churches there are in Winnipeg, the healthier the city."
Since last September, Grant Memorial has been renting the former Lutheran church building for City Church and is in the process of buying it. The congregation has commissioned Nielsen and Cuncgin, who were already working with immigrants, as pastors of the new church, paying them a small stipend. The two pastors who raise the rest of their salaries from friends and family and other churches, work long hours every day of the week to meet the needs of their parishioners as they adjust to life in a new city far from home.
For three months, their daily duties included ferrying parishioners in minivans to and from their jobs at an agricultural manufacturer in Rosenort, one hour south of Winnipeg. Now the employer sends a bus for the several dozen employees connected to City Church.
"We saw it as an opportunity to root them in good employment," explains Nielsen of his former taxi duties.
A refugee from Burma himself who has now lived in Canada for the last 12 years, Cuncgin understands the challenges of adapting to a new culture and country and spends much of his time translating for other new immigrants as they attempt to navigate Canadian medical and legal systems.
"It’s totally different (here)," says Cuncgin, whose is nicknamed after the movie character Indiana Jones for his exploits in engineering the release of 100 Burmese citizens from a Thai jail.
"We’re totally different. We’re in culture shock."
Before his work at City Church, Cuncgin held worship services for members of the Chin community in his home, and has organized a national network of Chin people in Canada, which meets annually.
He says Chin and Karen ethnic groups are persecuted in Burma, which has been under dictatorship since 1964.
Cuncgin and Nielsen agree the most important aspect of their work in the new congregation is treating people with respect and dignity. Nearly all the immigrants have come to Canada within the last two years, and many were teachers or doctors in their homeland.
"They taught us we are equals, which we very much appreciate," says Cuncgin, who identifies with the plight of the immigrants he works with. "The City Church treats us like humans."
"Here we have refugees coming from all over the world, and they are in touch with the needs in their countries," adds Nielsen, who is nurturing leaders of different ethnic groups within the congregation.
"We have former doctors, we have principals, we have many people with different professional backgrounds. We can love and respect them."
Although the Lutheran congregation has dispersed, the ministry of City Church to people in the West End has a spiritual connection to what went on before at that location, says Rev. Ted Chell, longtime pastor of First English Lutheran Church.
"It’s rather exciting. I think there’s obviously such a need for a place that can bridge the cultures," he says, adding he is pleased to hear that the building again houses a Christian community.
"That’s a bold effort to bring people together of different languages and cultures."