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Congregation Draws on Immigrant Experience in Outreach to Chinese Newcomers

Congregation Draws on Immigrant Experience in Outreach to Chinese Newcomers
Coffee time fellowship at Hebron CRC.
Ron Rupke

Founded by Dutch-speaking immigrants to Canada 65 years ago, Hebron Christian Reformed Church in Whitby, Ont., is drawing on its immigrant experience as it ministers to Mandarin- speaking newcomers to Canada. For the past three years, Hebron has partnered with Toronto Chinese Bible Church (TCBC) to provide a worship service in the Mandarin language each Sunday morning. Gradually the ministry has transitioned from a facility rental relationship in 2015 to the present point at which Hebron CRC is fully responsible for the Mandarin ministry while TCBC provides encouragement and advice as a spiritual partner.

Hebron’s outreach to the 20,000 Chinese-speaking people in the Durham region goes back to 2003. That year, said pastor Darren Hoogendoorn, the congregation moved to a newly built facility beside a large public high school in the north end of Whitby. The late Irene Bakker, spouse of Rev. Bernie Bakker, who was then pastor at Hebron, started an English as a Second Language program and later a women’s Coffee Break program for Mandarin speakers in the spacious new building. Irene Bakker was the daughter of Mandarin-speaking parents who came to the United States to pursue seminary training and then stayed on when Communist leaders hostile to the Christian faith won control of the Chinese government. As the American-born child of Chinese parents, Irene had a rudimentary knowledge of Mandarin language and culture that helped her to connect with new Canadians arriving from a post-Mao China.

In 2015 leaders of the Toronto Chinese Bible Church approached Hoogendoorn about renting facilities for a new Chinese-language church plant. With the nearby school as a draw, the Chinese-speaking population was growing. Hoogendoorn realized that the Bible church’s vision for the new congregation was very similar to that of Hebron CRC in everything but language; he saw that Hebron could grow as one congregation worshiping in two languages. He shared his vision with (then) council chair Fred Engelage, and the two men met with TCBC leaders to plan the Mandarin-language church plant.

“We can clearly see God’s hand in this,” said Engelage. “Darren saw the big picture, caught the vision, and our council bought it and put together a plan for implementing and leading our congregation. In my business career, I learned strategy for consensus building: to plan, to do, to check, to act. That is what we have done in the three-step process from facility rental to the full ‘one congregation in two languages’ vision. Some of our senior members who were territorial about the church building at first are now enthusiastic supporters of our two-language congregation.”

On Sunday mornings, members of both language communities mingle in the fellowship hall before the 10 o’clock worship services begin in separate rooms. Usually Hoogendoorn leads the English-language service in the main sanctuary while commissioned CRC pastor Chunhua Zhao (or George, as he likes to be called) leads a gathering of 40 to 60 Mandarin-speaking worshipers in a large a meeting room. At an agreed-upon time in each service, young children leave the services for a combined Sunday school program in the English language. When the worship services conclude, English speakers and Mandarin speakers mingle in the adjacent fellowship hall sharing refreshments.

Most English-speaking members leave the building after coffee fellowship, while Mandarin- speaking congregants remain for Bible study. Three separate studies are led by pastor George, his wife Jie (Janice) Shang, and by another young leader, Clarence Wang. The Bible studies are followed by a shared potluck luncheon until the Sunday fellowship concludes around 3 p.m.

The Hebron CRC vision “to glorify God by being passionate disciples of Jesus Christ making passionate disciples for Jesus Christ” shines in the outreach work of the young Mandarin- speaking fellowship. In particular, for Janice, that shows up as care for seniors. “In the Mandarin community, the children have come to Canada first. The seniors are living with their children. . . . They are not always connected well. For more than a year we have been praying for the seniors.” Janice thought they had made inroads to this population, but there’s been a snag. After learning of a Chinese seniors club in Durham region, the group was welcomed to meet at Hebron CRC, attracting up to 50 people on Saturday mornings. The connection at first was positive. “Besides Chinese games and exercises, we were teaching how to sing using worship songs [and] showing Christian videos; we ran an Alpha course for 13 weeks. Two seniors came to faith and we had baptisms at a combined worship service,” Janice said.

However, disagreements arose about some of proposed activities such as gambling for money and exercises involving spirit guides; some seniors objected to the Christian programming. In December 2018 George and Janice opened the church for the seniors program and were surprised when no one showed up: the seniors club leader had moved the program to other facilities without informing them. Although hurt and disappointed, Janice recalls the seniors who were led to a saving faith. “We will continue to reach out to the seniors of this region, one person at a time.”

Hoogendoorn enjoys the change in the congregation. “Ten years ago we were a white church. Now people of other ethnic backgrounds can feel more welcomed here. We are all learning,” he said.

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