Loving the people God puts in front of us

The Bishop of Montreal in Canada says the pandemic has shown the church new ways of working and opened people’s eyes to those in need right outside their doors.

The Rt Revd Mary Gibson has been the Bishop of the Diocese of Montreal for six years, after being ordained as a deacon in the diocese in 1981. She said, “Montreal, is a gathering place for many and has been for thousands of years. It’s the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabeg and the Wabanaki. The city itself was founded in 1642. And the diocese dates from 1760.”

Mary talked to The Lambeth Conference team about her experiences and about how the church proclaims good news when there is so much bad news around us.

“I grew up reading The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis, and one of the things I remember from them is that there were bad things happening throughout. And yet there was the sense that Aslan (the Lion who represents God in the series) was on the move, that even when he seemed really distant, Aslan had a plan to show up, and was there aware of what was going on. That has really helped to inform me that God is with us, even when we aren’t sure what God is doing or why God has allowed something.”

Before the corona virus pandemic began, Mary said she had been praying for renewal and revival in the diocese.

“I have seen renewal and revival, not the sort of flaming revival… but as the pandemic unfolded, I have seen people responding faithfully, and creatively. There has been a deepening of discipleship and a deepening of faith and hope, growing outreach to the people in the city and the needs in this diocese, a greater awareness of the suffering of humanity, of injustices of racial injustice and of our responsibility as a church to face that and address it in our own city.”

Bishop Mary believes one of the challenges for the church in her area is to find ways to live humbly and to respond to both what God is doing in the world and what God is calling the church to do in the world.

“We don’t stand in the marketplace with the right to speak… One of the challenges is we need to find ways to humbly live from the position in which we are in society, and to find how we teach our own congregations, our communities, that it isn’t enough to be baptised and confirmed and go to church on Sundays. It’s more than that. Being a follower of Jesus is being somebody who continues to learn from him, to walk with him, to listen to him and to sacrifice with him. And to love the people he puts in front of us, which is not always easy.”

So how does the church in your diocese go about mission and evangelism?

“Part of mission is to help a congregation start to look outside and say, Who out there is hungry for God? How do we reach out to them and what can we do? A number of our congregations have developed online Alpha courses, online grief care, online divorce care, online services, online Messy Church, and it’s been quite extraordinary to see how people have really tried to reach others with the good news.

“Naturally, some of the mission has to do with being aware of newcomers, refugees, hungry people, homeless people, lonely people, depressed people. And part of that is bringing the love of Jesus to people who don’t know how to find it for themselves, or who don’t expect that we’d know how to give it to them.

“During the pandemic, some Christians in the downtown core realised that there was no food bank that served a particular area. And so as they had been forced to close their ministry to youth because of the lockdown, they were able to start up a ministry to the unfed and to reach out to people in that area. This ministry is continuing and is a real blessing. We’ve seen a growing awareness among the churches in that downtown core that there are actually hungry people right outside their door.”

Bishop Mary said she is excited about the lessons for the church that will come out of lockdown, but she acknowledges it will be different things for each congregation.

“We’re going to continue with an online ministry because we realise how many people had not been able to come because of physical impediments, or distance or so on. Several of them understand now that they don’t need their buildings and they’re going to continue in kind of house church formations with an identity that doesn’t have a pointy roof, and yet has a robust faith and wants to take that forward.

“I think the hope for a congregation and for our diocese is that we have to be looking outside of our ‘safe space’ to see who God is calling us to love and serve. And sometimes God has to work on us a bit.”

When a refugee family walked across the border into Montreal just before Christmas, Bishop Mary found herself inviting them to join her for lunch on Christmas Day. She explained, “I had planned to have a very quiet Christmas for change. But when I met them at the cathedral, I thought … ‘this might be Jesus, I think I have to invite them to dinner’! So, although the dean and I, and our families, had planned a quiet group at the table, we wound up inviting them to join us and we became friends. God has a way of making us grow community if we’re committed to loving the person God puts in front of us. And I think God can help us with that. I’m hoping my congregations will want to love the people God puts in front of them and grow in that relationship.”

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