Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Christian gathering will kick off new football stadium

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They'll be praying in the stands, waving the team colours and dancing on the field at the new football stadium come May.

Not for the Blue Bombers, but for God — at a mass Christian worship service organized by One Heart Winnipeg on Sunday, May 26.

Expected to draw thousands from Winnipeg and neighbouring communities, the 1 p.m. service marks the first time a large group will use the new stadium, says the vice-president of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

"We believe a service of this size will make a perfect test event for Investors Group Field because of the multi-faceted production, concession and parking requirements," says Jim Bell.

"We're delighted to be able to share our new facility with One Heart and are thankful for their assistance in helping us prepare for the upcoming football season."

The service is scheduled nearly a month before other large groups use the new stadium, originally set to open for the 2012 CFL season but plagued by construction delays.

The 2013 CFL schedule is not yet confirmed, but the Bombers will probably play their first game at the new stadium in late June, says a team official. Pop star Taylor Swift is scheduled to perform on June 22.

For the past three years, One Heart Winnipeg has held a mass Sunday morning worship service in January at the MTS Centre. Because of the NHL lockout, the group wasn't able to confirm a date at the arena, and they were saved from having to cancel the event by the offer from the Blue Bombers, says organizer Ruth Wall.

"We're quite excited about it because we think it's a wonderful gift from the Lord," she says.

The stadium's lower bowl, which accommodates about 20,000 people, will be open for the 90-minute event, as well as concessions and parking lots, says Wall. Just like at football games, no outside food or drink is allowed inside the stadium. Alcohol will not be sold at this event.

The Bombers are offering free rental of the stadium, but One Heart Winnipeg will need to pay for lighting, sound and security staff, says Wall, as well as recruit about 500 volunteers for ushering and other duties.

Last year at the MTS Centre, those costs ran to about $45,000, and were covered by participating churches, says Ron MacLean, senior pastor at Gateway Church and a member of the One Heart planning team.

He says donations collected at the service are sent on to local charities, such as sports programs for low-income families and women's shelters.

The 2013 event will include music, prayer and a sermon, but communion will not be celebrated this year to allow for greater participation, including those football fans anxious to see the inside of the new stadium.

"We're not serving communion because we're anticipating a much larger crowd and (some) people aren't used to it," says Wall.

"It's put on by the Christian churches in the city, but anyone is welcome, adds MacLean.

"We invite everybody every year."

That's news to the Archbishop of Winnipeg, who says his Roman Catholic diocese has never been invited to participate in any way.

"If they want to include us, and I know it's a big stretch for them, then they have to involve us so we can plan it together," says Archbishop James Weisgerber.

"It would be easier if we were somehow involved."

So far, the United Church of Canada has not been invited either, says Rev. Sharon Wilson, who chairs the Winnipeg Presbytery.

"If we don't receive a formal invitation, we can't really make a recommendation to the congregations," says Wilson, minister at Windsor Park United Church.

One Heart Winnipeg has its roots in a group of Protestant and evangelical Christian pastors who meet monthly to pray for the city, says MacLean.

"We're all working together, we're on the same team, and Jesus is Lord of all of us," he says.

About 25 churches cancelled their Sunday morning worship service for the inaugural event in 2010, which attracted 7,000. The event grew to 60 churches and about 14,000 in 2012.

The May 26 service coincides with the start of the Love Winnipeg campaign (www.lovewinnipeg.com), an annual two-week event where 90 city churches express their love of the city by taking on a community project. This year, the two events may be combined, since many churches are involved in both, says MacLean.

"It's One Heart to Love Winnipeg," he quips.

brenda@suderman.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2013 J13

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