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Bishops, clergy invite GO train commuters back to church

By Stuart Mann

“Is this for real or is this Halloween?” asked the commuter.

“It’s for real,” said Bishop Mark MacDonald, inviting the commuter to church.

This exchange took place at the Ajax GO train station in the early morning hours of Sept. 22 as Bishop MacDonald and two local clergy, the Rev. Millie Hope and the Rev. Canon Kim Beard, handed out Back to Church Sunday invitations.

Bishop MacDonald, who is the Anglican Church’s national indigenous bishop, was dressed in his mitre and vestments, including a button blanket created by Northwest Coast First Nations people. The blanket depicts an eagle, a wolf, a killer whale and a raven in buttons.

“People aren’t used to seeing somebody dressed like that, especially at seven o’clock in the morning,” he said with a chuckle. Once they got over the shock, they were usually happy to take the invitation, he added. “I was surprised by how receptive people were and how gladly they took the invitation.”

Bishop MacDonald was one of several Anglican and Lutheran bishops and clergy who fanned out across the GTA to invite commuters back to the church this Sunday, Sept. 25, which is Back to Church Sunday. The bishops and clergy were at GO train stations in Ajax, Barrie, Brampton and Agincourt.

Bishop MacDonald, who is the former Bishop of Alaska and has spent most of his life in rural communities, said watching the commuters hurry to catch their train was an eye-opening experience. “In the places where I’ve lived, the morning is a very sacred time. The rush of getting to work seems to have erased that. It made me think, ‘How do we introduce the sense of the sacred in daily life?’”

In Brampton, the Rev. Dr. Byron Gilmore handed out invitations to GO train commuters for the first time and was delighted by the response. “There were more people smiling than you could shake a stick at,” he said.

Mr. Gilmore, who is the incumbent of Christ Church, Brampton, was part of a group that included Archbishop Fred Hiltz, Primate, and Bishop Michael Pryse of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.

“I was heartened by the response,” said Mr. Gilmore. “It was fun to get out and meet people and invite them to church. People were polite and cordial and surprised. I had more than one person say, ‘Thank you’ and ‘God bless you.’”

He added: “It confirmed again for me that people are always happy to have a personal invitation. I think we may be too private about our faith sometimes.”

He said it was fun to work with the Primate and Bishop Pryse and his fellow local clergy, both Anglican and Evangelical Lutheran. “It was a really positive experience,” he said.

Bishop Patrick Yu, who handed out invitations at the Agincourt GO station with clergy and laity, encouraged Anglicans in the diocese to invite their friends and relatives to church this Sunday. “The success isn’t how many people come: it’s how many people do the inviting. The challenge is overcoming the barrier of asking. Once I did that, it was fun.”

The Rev. Capt. Stephen Pessah, who handed out invitations in Barrie, agreed, saying, “Once I got the words out, it was easy.” He was accompanied by his wife,  the Rev. Beth Pessah, and by the Rev. Janet Read-Hockin. He said it was a positive experience. “Most people accepted the invitations,” he said.

This is the third year that the diocese will be holding Back to Church Sunday. Since 2009, about 3,000 people have come to church as a result of an invitation and about 450 have stayed.