VANCOUVER, B.C. – Every Saturday, as Rev. Norman Feliciano and his family make the 2-hour trip (one-way) from Chilliwack to Squamish to visit the congregation he shepherds, his 7-year-old daughter Janine asks: “Are we there yet?”
As the lead pastor of a growing congregation serving predominantly Filipino and immigrant families across more than 110 miles of British Columbia, Feliciano sometimes wonders if his daughter’s question about the distance that they travel each week isn’t more of a philosophical one about First United Methodist Church of Canada and his calling to serve four different ministry sites spread around Vancouver.
Even though a four-point charge might sound exhausting to most, Feliciano is thrilled to have the opportunity to live out his calling to serve God and his community. He emigrated to Canada in 2016 as an ordained elder in the Middle Philippines Annual Conference and was working two full-time jobs to support his family and send money back to ministries and family in the Philippines. But he wanted to be doing more and sought out connections with the local United Methodist community, while also inviting his fellow immigrant co-workers and friends to join him in a bible study.
“It’s exciting,” Feliciano said. “Very exciting.”
Through foundational work with the Pacific Northwest Conference and support from the Greater Northwest Area Innovation Vitality (IV) Team, Feliciano has the resources and tools to continue exploring how First UMC of Canada is growing and adapting to the way the immigrant communities surrounding Vancouver have changed.
“Pastor Norman is following the spirit,” said Kristina Gonzalez, executive director for innovation and vitality for the Greater Northwest Area. “It’s an organic movement that has resulted in the multiplication of many vital ministries because Pastor Norman listens to the needs of the people God places in his midst. He is meeting people where they are, and is fostering discipleship that empowers lay leaders in the church community. The IV Team is excited about this growth and grateful to Pastor Norman and those who came before him for this ministry.”
The journey of First UMC Canada started more than a decade ago to serve the growing Filipino population of immigrants who had strong ties to The United Methodist Church faith tradition. They desperately wanted to be worshipping in a faith community that felt like family – that felt like home. For years, Filipino-Canadian United Methodists would cross the border into Lynden, Wash., to attend worship there. But, as PNW Director of Connectional Ministries, Rev. David Valera, learned, it wasn’t an inclusive experience for all Filipino immigrants, especially for those who couldn’t cross the border to attend worship because of a lack of legal paperwork to do so. As a Filipino immigrant himself, Valera felt called to help and the PNW Conference was eager to support this work.
The PNW Conference partnered with the United Church of Canada and The UMC’s General Board of Global Ministries to get permission to establish a UMC presence in British Columbia. The church first started gathering at Jubilee Church in Burnaby, a suburb just a few miles to the east of Vancouver. Rev. Bing Canlas was the previous pastor serving the Canadian church and a community in Washington. Canlas also started a ministry between the communities of Abbotsford and Chilliwack called Chilliford Fellowship.
“Historically, this is how we started churches (as Filipinos),” Valera said.
Valera explains that as Methodism expanded around the world more than 100 years ago, the Philippines became a ripe missionary field. As the church grew, so, too, did the need for local pastors, Valera said. Filipino missionaries are used to crossing borders and boundaries to make ministry happen. The PNW Conference and the GNW IV Team want to make sure the First UMC of Canada develops from within its own Filipino and immigrant context.
“So, it is not us coming into colonize a community, if you will. We empower them; we partner with them; we help them with resources,” Valera said. “Our goal is to see them grow even beyond our dreams.”
With Burnaby and Chilliford Fellowships established, growth began again five years ago. This time, a group of lay members started their own Vancouver fellowship since they couldn’t get to Burnaby on Sunday afternoons to worship because of work or lack of adequate public transit. They started meeting in each other’s houses or at parks to conduct their own worship service every Sunday. Since January, they’ve been meeting in a local Boys & Girls Club gymnasium on Sunday mornings.
While all of this was going on, Feliciano and his wife Magie were living 45 miles north of Vancouver in the tourist town of Squamish with their oldest daughter Janine just a toddler then. Over little bits of conversations during breaks with co-workers, or as groceries were bagged, the Felicianos developed relationships with colleagues and friends that started, at first, as a bible study. But as word got out about a place for immigrants seeking a spiritual home, it became clear they needed more space. Through financial support from the PNW, they found a small church behind a drug store in Squamish to meet on Saturday evenings to accommodate the work schedule of many of their parishioners.
“It’s part of my DNA – our DNA as Filipinos,” Feliciano said of his outreach efforts. “We want to serve the Lord.”
While the Squamish fellowship grew, Feliciano connected with Canlas and started a Friday evening Bible study in Burnaby as well.
Then the pandemic hit.
Canlas couldn’t travel across the U.S.-Canadian border to Burnaby or the Abbotsford/Chilliwack area, so Feliciano stepped into the lead pastor role. The Chilliford Fellowship was barely hanging on and the housing market forced many parishioners in Squamish to relocate to the more affordable communities of Chilliwack and Abbotsford. The Felicianos were among those who had to make the move, too.
Though the numbers have dipped slightly in Squamish, there are immigrants of various backgrounds who still seek out this church on Saturday nights for a place to play some gospel music and eat a shared meal.
For example, Willy Pepuna moved to Canada from Cameroon just a few months ago. While working to build a life for himself, he knew his life wouldn’t be complete without having a space to worship the Lord. He heard about Squamish Christian Fellowship (formerly Squamish Filipino Fellowship) through word of mouth. And now, he’s playing guitar in the small worship band.
“I was looking for a place for fellowship and a colleague told me about this place. I like coming here because the community is very welcoming,” Pepuna said. “For me, playing guitar, it’s the way I choose to glorify the Lord.”
Once a month, Feliciano meets with the Vancouver Fellowship to serve communion but for five years, this has been a lay-lead congregation that is slowly growing in numbers. Since January, they’ve been renting the Kivan Club in Vancouver to hold worship services. Before that, it started in each other’s homes, then moved to local parks – even in the cold – to gather together and worship.
“It’s very important to worship God to start the week and to worship as a community,” said Joel Esteacio. “It’s like home.”
The reason Feliciano cannot be at Vancouver Fellowship every Sunday morning is because the Chilliford Fellowship has morphed into the Frazier Valley Fellowship with more than 100 people regularly attending Sunday morning worship in the church they rent from the United Church of Canada.
On Sunday afternoon Feliciano makes the 60 mile trip from Chilliwack to Burnaby where he leads worship in yet another space.
At each of these fellowship gatherings, children are present. Young families are present. Offerings are taken. And a feast of adobo, mongo, lechon, lumpiang gulay or even Tim Horton’s donuts are served.
And that is just the weekend.
It doesn’t take into account the children’s birthday parties Feliciano attends to offer a blessing and prayers, because that is customary in Filipino culture. It doesn’t take into account the Bible studies that he conducts either in-person or over Zoom on weekday mornings with each of these communities. It doesn’t take into account the baptisms and funerals.
“It’s a gift to see this growth,” Valera said. “It just lines up with John Wesley saying, ‘the world is my parish.’”
Feliciano is grateful for the PNW Conference, the GNW Area cabinet and others who have supported this growing ministry. While Feliciano enjoys putting the call he’s been fostering since he was 17 years old into action in Canada, he knows to thrive, he’ll need to train and equip new leaders who can help the church grow in ways that best suit each of the Fellowship sites and the cultural contexts in which they exist.
“Are we there yet?” Janine asks almost every Saturday afternoon on the drive to Squamish along the beautiful, yet winding Sea to Sky highway north of Vancouver. These days her 1-year-old sister Jaziel is in the car alongside her mom, her mom’s brother Jimmy Jr. and her grandparents, Jimmy and Dilma, and of course, her dad.
The question hangs in the air and give Feliciano a moment to pause and reflect. Are we there yet?
“We will make sure on this side of the border that all of your efforts and help for us will have fruits and we will all see the fruits of our labor,” Feliciano said. “The four sites we have here are not the end of our ministries. I’m sure there are more to come here in Canada.”