First Alliance Church (FAC) in Calgary, Alberta, takes loving their neighbor seriously. They chose to shut their doors to the 4,000+ people who gathered each weekend one week before the government’s COVID-19 mandate. But their ministry didn’t stop. Instead, James Paton, lead pastor of FAC Calgary, and his innovative team developed a rallying cry for this season: “Thriving Today and Shaping Tomorrow.” In two weeks, they successfully transitioned to online services, opened their church as a homeless shelter, started delivering lunches to food-insecure children and became the South Calgary Food Hub.
“We have been blessed with very creative leaders, who saw the opportunity to do something different, and rather than try to figure it all out, ran full steam into the future, believing that God could use us if we’d say yes to it,” James said.
The team at FAC is more afraid of missing an opportunity than of making mistakes. They realized they had other ways to deliver ministry and worked creatively to cover the gaps the congregation is experiencing because of the pandemic. They encouraged all groups currently meeting in person to transition to online to continue to provide the necessary emotional and prayerful support for each other.
FAC offers daily digital content on social media and offers experiences, such as Zoom and Coffee following services to provide an online version of visiting friends in the foyer. For those who struggle with technology, FAC has helped provide the needed support to help those individuals learn to navigate Zoom and FaceTime to stay connected with family and friends.
“One of the great things about serving others is that it often helps us take our preoccupation off ourselves,” James said. “Sometimes when we see others in their needs, we begin to realize that our problems aren’t as bad as they seem to be.”
In just two weeks, FAC turned their largest campus, about 150,000 square feet, into a branch of the Mustard Seed, a Christ-centered homeless shelter in Calgary. With COVID-19 regulations, the shelter needed additional space to house guests experiencing homelessness. FAC offers space for an average of 110 guests per evening, providing meals and shelter, while following all the guidelines for sanitization and social distancing. FAC has had no outbreaks of COVID-19 and none of their guests have tested positive.
“The government gave us regulations, but one of the joys we have in our church family is that one of the ladies in our church is the Head of Emergency Services for Alberta Health Services,” James said. “She was able to provide us with fantastic direction very quickly about what would be the right way to go about this, and relying upon her has helped us move swiftly and make all the right moves.”
Before the pandemic, FAC had partnered with local schools to help maintain them, repaint, ensure that every child received a Christmas gift, and provide the children with a hot breakfast. Since the schools have closed, church members are now providing lunches to food insecure children, feeding between 1500-2000 children per week. The church delivers these balanced, nutritious meals by bus daily to families in need.
At first the Canadian government promised allocated funding to help the church continue to feed the children. For quite some time, all applications for funding were denied, leaving the entire cost of the program in the church’s budget. But FAC believed that God was calling them to continue this ministry, and that allowed space for God to work.
“We were just saying, ‘Lord, if you don’t show up, what are we going to do?’” James said. “And about four weeks ago, as we were agonizing over this, a donor came in, who doesn’t yet know Jesus, and gave us a quarter of a million dollars.”
Volunteers at FAC continued to see other needs and take action to meet them. As a result, FAC has become the South Calgary food hub. The lobby has been transformed into a food hosting and delivery site, where clients can receive food hampers through contactless pickup. Each week, the food bank feeds hundreds of families and uses this as a discipleship pathway to meet practical needs to demonstrate the love of Jesus.
“We’re not taking unnecessary risks and are following all of the COVID-19 precautions and guidelines, but our volunteers have loved what they’re doing,” James said. “They’ve risen to the challenge. And I think they find great joy in serving people, because they know when they serve somebody, they’re serving Jesus. It’s His face they look into when they see a poor person.”
James received his Doctor of Ministry degree from Asbury Seminary in 2005. He joined the FAC team as Lead Pastor in 2015, where he participates in shaping the creative culture of the weekend gatherings. He and his wife, Gillian, have three adult children.
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