“Daring to Dream” has been a part of Westminster United Church right from the beginning. It was September 1987 when Rev. Rupert Evans, Waterloo Presbytery’s New Church Development Officer, began knocking on doors in west Waterloo to see if any people in the community might share his dream of creating a new church in the suburbs of this fast-growing city. His friendly manner and persistence paid off. A small group of people were indeed interested, and soon ten of them began gathering once a month in each other’s homes. Little by little, their numbers grew.
Meantime, Waterloo Presbytery purchased a large lot with a house right next to farm fields about to be turned into homes on the western edge of Waterloo.
The house was being rented at the time, so the fledgling group of worshippers arranged to hold Sunday morning services at Mary Johnston Elementary School. In preparation for the first service, flyers were delivered to area homes, posters put up and ads placed in local newspapers and on radio. And Rupert Evans continued to knock on doors, inviting people to join this new church.
The first service at Mary Johnston School was Sunday, Sept. 11, 1988. The gymnasium – soon to become our church home – wasn’t yet available, so 100 people crowded into a classroom, while another was used as a nursery. Six weeks later, our services moved to the gymnasium, where we worshipped amid the basketball hoops for eight years.We were still in the gymnasium when we became a full-fledged pastoral charge on November 18, 1990. And it was there that we developed the informal, friendly, dare-to-dream ethos that has become part of the character of Westminster. Every Sunday we hauled out the chairs for the service, and put them away afterwards. On those Sundays when we couldn’t find the offering plates, we passed a frizbee instead. We held church council and other meetings at the now-empty house we called Church House, and little by little began to dream of a permanent church-like home. The only problem? Money. We couldn’t afford a major building project, and the idea of renting space in an established church building didn’t appeal in the least.
The beginning of The Cedars
Then one day, the chair of our committee on whether to build or not was chatting with his neighbour, a leading member of Temple Shalom, a Reform Jewish congregation.
“Most of our congregation would love to build a place of our own, but we can’t afford it,” said one. “We’re in the same boat,” replied the other. “We’d love to have our own building but it would cost far more than we can afford.” Suddenly, inspiration struck both of them. “What if… what if we were to build together?” The idea captured the imagination of both congregations. We decided to co-sponsor a competition for students of architecture at the University of Waterloo to do concept drawings of what a shared Jewish-Christian worship centre might look like. We handed out $1,000 in prizes, and gained wonderful insight into design possibilities as we plunged into unchartered waters.
Together we hired an architect who was known to be process-oriented. Members of both congregations met on snowy winter evenings to share ideas about sharing a place of worship. As we gathered in mixed groups of six to eight people, the architect handed out jelly beans and shreddies so that each group could design their own sanctuary (jelly beans for the chairs, shreddies to mark the aisles). He’d then take Polaroid photos of each design and project them onto a screen for everyone to discuss. Little by little, we worked out how we could share the same sanctuary, with each congregation having our own distinctive space.
There were many challenges on the road ahead, but we held fast to our dream of a shared place of worship, and managed to overcome each problem we encountered. The Cedars Worship Centre officially opened on September 5, 1996 on the lot purchased years before by Waterloo Presbytery. It was the first time in Canada – and possibly the world – that two congregations of different faiths who were strangers to each other came together to jointly plan, build and operate a shared worship centre. We share all the facilities, including sanctuary, kitchen and meeting rooms. A joint management committee oversees building, maintenance and rental issues. We have joint cleanup days, occasional joint services and speaker events. We respect each other’s holy days, and at times, move the day or time of our worship service to accommodate our partner congregation during their important holy days. We also seek out opportunities to work together on community outreach projects.
Over the past two decades
Our Vision Statement which we developed in the early 1990s helped lay a foundation for us to live our faith. Some excerpts:
We embrace growth and the changing needs within our congregation and community in spirit, meaning, outreach, and fellowship.
We embrace the care of God’s creation.
We embrace the dignity of each individual.
And our Mission statement, also developed in the early 1990s, gave expression to our goals and mission as a United Church congregation. Among our goals: To create an environment of openness for all people. To affirm that all who seek to live faithfully regardless of ability, age, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, or social circumstance are welcome to full participation in the life of the congregation. To foster full opportunity for full participation by all in the wider church. To carry out God’s ministry of love and caring within the immediate Westminster community where congregational members live and work, including global outreach in a world where God’s people can benefit from Christian love and support.
In 1999, Westminster became the first affirming congregation in Hamilton Conference, offering support and full inclusion to the LGBTQ community.
We also became one of the first sponsors of and participants in Supportive Housing of Waterloo, providing 30 apartments and on-going support for people experiencing persistent homelessness.
We were active in the Out of the Cold program providing food and shelter for the homeless in Kitchener-Waterloo.
For more than a decade, we have had an active Prayer Shawl Ministry for the sick, elderly and those in need.
We sponsored a refugee family from Kosovo, and more recently, were part of the Tri-Faith Action Committee (along with Temple Shalom, Muslim Social Services, a Mennonite church and Forest Heights United Church) sponsoring a Syrian refugee family and then members of their extended family.
We initiated the Westminster Water Project, at the forefront of community efforts to curb the consumption of single-use water bottles at community activities and in our public schools.
Thanks to “twinning” efforts of the United Church, we’ve established a decade-long relationship with the Vernon Grieves Memorial Church in Oxford House, the only remaining church serving this remote Cree community of 3,500 in northern Manitoba.
We’ve sponsored two members of our congregation to participate in UCC and TCOW work in El Salvador and Colombia.
We support the annual Angel Tree program of Prison Fellowship Canada, providing Christmas gifts to children of inmates from across Canada.
Currently and looking forward
In April 2019, we welcomed a new minister, Rev. Andrea Allan, after a decade of caring, joyful leadership by Rev. Mary Savage and a year of supportive interim leadership by Rev. Meg Runhart. Rev. Andrea has engendered new energy and enthusiasm within the congregation, with particular attention to community outreach, equity issues and support for young families. In terms of specifics:
We remain strongly committed to our relationship with Temple Shalom and our life as an Affirming congregation.
We initiated what we hope will become an annual speaking event featuring our minister, the Temple’s rabbi and a Muslim imam. The audience for the first event was packed with local Christians, Muslims and Jews.
We continue our support for the Vernon Grieves Church in Oxford House and the Angel Tree program for Prison Fellowship Canada.
We continue our Prayer Shawl Ministry.
We have established a Prayground area at the front of the sanctuary – a play and listening area for young children and their caregivers to feel fully a part of the worship service, rather than stuck at the back of the church or placed in another room.
Together with Temple Shalom, we are offering strong public support for a proposed Affordable Housing Project on land next to the Cedars, a project that has been opposed by many residents in the neighbourhood. We have reached out with suggestions to help bridge the gap between regional planners and local residents, and have offered our Community Room as a space where the community can meet (if/when we get to meet again in person!) to attempt to resolve contentious issues. We hope to offer continuing support for this project and its residents as plans transform into reality.
We have just launched a major Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, a multi-faceted and multi-year project to help us examine our faith and practices, and bring forth new energy, purpose and goals for the next chapter in our church life.
First on the agenda: To update our Vision and Mission Statements (last reviewed in 1999), and then work on the specifics of bringing new life and energy to our policies and practices of equity, diversity and inclusion.
Our financial challenges
In 2010-13, we took hold of growing financial challenges and launched a “Dare to Dream” campaign. We raised $101,000 in addition to our regular church contributions to offset operating deficits and meet our capital needs for at least four years. We have had balanced budgets ever since, even during the pandemic challenges of 2020. This year, however, because many of our fundraising events have been curtailed and a major corporation ended its long-time matching-donations program, we face a deficit. Stay tuned! We’ve worked our way out of difficulties in the past, and we’ll strive to do so again.
Our commitment for the future
We at Westminster continue to dare to dream about what we can do to be faithful to God and to offer hope and love to those in need within our congregation, our community and in this challenged world.
Ministers who have served us
From the beginning, Westminster has been blessed with a number of talented, dedicated ministers who have enriched our faith life and helped our congregation flourish. They are: Rupert Evans – 1988-89 Paul Ellingham – 1989-91 Gary Boratto – 1991-2004 Judith Evenden – 2005-2006 Mary Savage – 2006-18 Meg Runhardt –2018-19 Andrea Allan – 2019-
In addition, we have been enriched by the support and many gifts of members of the congregation who also served as associate ministers over many years:Rev. Jack Patterson, Rev. William Klassen, Rev. John Lougheed and Rev. Joan Tuchlinsky.