By Pina Belperio, Whistler Museum & Archives
Religion and spirituality in Whistler: from the Skiers’ Chapel to Snowboarders for Christ
Each year the Heritage Society of British Columbia sets aside a week for communities to honour local history and culture. The theme for 2005 is Heritage of Faith — Sacred Buildings and Spiritual Places.
Throughout ancient folklore and religious texts, people have been attracted to remote mountains and pristine peaks. Something spiritual seems to happen in the presence of mountains. In keeping with this year’s Heritage Week theme, the Whistler Museum & Archives sent me out to explore sites of worship in Whistler, including churches (past and present), and the role that spirituality plays here in the Coast Mountains.
Unlike many other communities in British Columbia, Whistler lacks obvious examples of historic places of worship. Initially, this led me to conclude that locals were too engaged in the “Church of the Great Outdoors” or partying to find time for organized religion or bible classes. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Sunday mornings are surprisingly busy around Whistler, despite findings by Statistics Canada that attendance at religious services has fallen dramatically across the country over the past 15 years. Whistler is home to a diverse group of established and post-modern faiths.
Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church
The Catholic Church, like many others in Whistler, began services in the Skiers’ Chapel. As the congregation outgrew the Skiers’ Chapel, they relocated to the Whistler Conference Centre. In 1990, the Catholic Church opted out of the Skiers’ Chapel Association and secured its own property. A new log-accented church building opened in the mid-90s adjacent to the River of Golden Dreams and Crabapple Creek in Tapley’s Farm.
“Religion is a way of life more than a set of rules and regulations that people abide by,” said Monsignor Desmond. “The overall goal of our church is to offer a welcoming place for people to come and live out their faith.”
Monsignor Desmond, a priest for the past 39 years, loves to ski and has been coming to Whistler since 1991.
He was recently honoured with the prestigious papal distinction of Prelate of Honour. The award recognizes his long-time dedication and service to the Kamloops Diocese. A photo of the monsignor taken with Pope John Paul II is proudly displayed in his church office. Five years ago, Monsignor Desmond had the opportunity to discuss religious matters directly with the Pontiff.
Sunday mornings are quite hectic around the Catholic Church. Following his sermon in Whistler, Monsignor Desmond drives to Pemberton and Mount Currie, where he does it all over again.
Monsignor Desmond admits that Whistler’s transient population poses difficulties in establishing a long-term Catholic community. The Church’s long-term goals envision stabilization of the Church’s congregation, increasing its community outreach and organizing more socials involving Whistler’s youth.
Whistler Community Church
The Whistler Bible Club started in Whistler in 1977. Two years later, a small group of people began meeting regularly for Sunday services in the Skiers’ Chapel. In 1980, this group allied themselves with the B.C. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, an evangelical Christian denomination. After outgrowing the Skiers’ Chapel, the group began meeting at the Myrtle Philip Community Centre in 1993.
While the mainstream churches have experienced a decline in attendance in the last 15 years, evangelicalism is undergoing a period of growth and vitality. The Whistler Community Church, a movement centred on the study of the Bible, follows the authority of the scriptures. Conversion and missionary work form important aspects of their faith.
Pastor Tim Unruh believes, “We all have a God-shaped hole within us. You can choose to fill it with stuff, a relationship, a job, etc., or you can give it the full attention it deserves. We are all made for a relationship with each other and with God.”
On Sunday mornings, Pastor Unruh plays the guitar, leading his congregation in singing uplifting hymns. In some ways, they feel more like a folk festival than a mass. Unruh’s congregation consists primarily of families and teens. Sunday sermons usually average about 160 followers. Sunday school, a nursery, and bible study are also provided.
The Whistler Community Church’s spiritual foundation is not centred on a building or a church. When it comes to a church, Unruh feels it’s not about the design, the building materials used or the building’s shape. “A church is a group of like-minded individuals who come together, irrespective of their physical church building,” he says.
Despite Whistler’s prohibitive real estate prices, the Whistler Community Church recently acquired a two-acre parcel in White Gold and hopes to build a new place of worship in the coming years.
“More Canadians, especially young people, are sitting in church pews theses days,” reports Reg Bibby, a University of Lethbridge sociologist. Forward-thinking churches are aware of this trend and are finding unconventional ways of reaching out to young people. Many post-boomer generation kids are searching for meaning in their lives and want to ask questions without being pressured into making a commitment. These teens are drawn to churches that include lively music, social events and offer new approaches to worship.
Snowboarders for Christ (SFC) provide Christian fellowship through bible studies, camps and – in a sign of the times – big air competitions. In fact, instead of strict religious doctrines extreme sports and attractive lifestyles are used to evangelize. This trend has branched out into other sports such as surfing, kiteboarding, windsurfing and BMX. These groups come with names like the Eternal Riders, Surfers of Faith and the World Christian Skateboard Association.
In Whistler, the SFC meet at the Rendezvous Lodge on Blackcomb weekly for bible dialogue, coffee and riding.
The Church on the Mountain
Pastor Chad Chomlack and his wife Stacey run the Church on the Mountain which endorses the Southern Baptist faith. Last fall, the Chomlacks acquired the existing church from founders Kurt and Laura Boes of Hawaii. In only a few months, they say they have made significant strides in engaging Whistler’s youth in faith-based dialogue. Sermons are held on Saturday nights at Legends Hotel in Creekside, near the site of the original Skiers’ Chapel.
Prior to moving to Whistler, the couple operated the Muskoka Woods Sports Camp for Christian youth. Although their faith overlaps a great deal with Whistler Community Church, the Church on the Mountain caters to a younger, more transient population comprised mostly of 18 to 35 year olds. In the winter months, this demographic group can grow to 5,000 people.
“We want people to come together naturally – not through strict doctrines or rules,” Chomlack says. “Many young people are here for only nine months, but they are hungry for a sense of community and family. Many of these young skiers and snowboarders are undergoing their own spiritual journey. Sadly, some of these kids get on a destructive path. We want to offer some alternative choices.”
Chomlack finds that today’s youth are interested in giving back to their community, and to the Third World.
Chomlack and long-time childhood friend Jack Crompton, who acts as Pastor for Young Adults at the Whistler Community Church, run the Chapel. This group meets at the South Side Diner on Tuesday nights. Regulars call it “KBC” – kick back conversation. It’s hard to imagine that this long-time Whistler hangover joint is now a place of worship and spiritual dialogue. The South Side has always had good energy. Perhaps that explains why people from all walks of life come here to hang out.
Mysticism and New Age Movements
Those professing to have no religion, along with those people embracing religions other than Christianity, are also gaining prominence. Neo-pagan or nature-revering religions include “faiths” such as New Age, Paganism, Celtic Reconstruction and Wicca. Unlike the structured, more traditional Christian religions, these groups believe in discovering the truth through revelation, some of which cannot always be fully understood or explained.
Kelly Oswald, a metaphysician and founder of the West Coast Institute of Mystic Arts in North Vancouver, felt that the time was right to introduce these “other” faiths into Whistler’s spiritual community. Visitors to her store in Nesters, The Oracle, can experience the “mystic arts,” which include the intuitive arts, healing arts, personal growth, the art of science (sacred geometry, astrology), ancient ceremonies, respect and connection with the Earth, and prayer – the tools and practices of the ancient civilizations which have stood the test of time and still continue to exist today.
“My goal in opening The Oracle was to help people find a way of becoming whole, to help spread these teachings – to heal old wounds,” said Oswald. “We all need spirituality. It needs to come from love with a connection to a source, nature and a supportive community. You can follow a traditional doctrine and still explore other religions and philosophies. Ultimately, we are all interconnected and draw upon similar beliefs.”
In some ways, books like The DaVinci Code, The Celestine Prophecy, and movies like What the Bleep Do We Know? and Indigo have taken mysticism and new age movements into the mainstream media. Wicca, a polytheistic religion that traces its roots back to pre-Christian paganism, according to some reports is the fastest growing religion in North America. Oswald believes that Whistler is a very spiritual place and contains a wide realm of different faiths and worship services because it brings together people from all over the world.
Whistler is also home to the Buddhist Sea to Sky Retreat Centre, founded in 1993 by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and located near Daisy Lake.
Judging by the amount of spirituality centred in and around Whistler, it’s evident that residents and visitors alike continue to engage themselves with spiritual concerns. Many believe that religious faith helps provide strong social and family connections. It offers a sense of purpose in this ever-changing world. Faith helps recover peace of mind in this crazy world.
So whether you pray to Buddha, God, Allah or Ullr, take some time this week to honour your own form of spirituality and appreciate all that Whistler has to offer.