It's been one year since St. John's United Church moved into their new building.
“This is one of the oldest churches in Halifax. Two weeks from now we'll be celebrating our 230th anniversary,” says Hubert Den Draak (he/him/his), the Principal Minister of St. John’s United Church. “This church has been around for a while and they've always been on the vanguard of pushing boundaries.”
In 1974, St. John’s United was the first congregation in Nova Scotia to have a female minister; in September 2007 they were the second United Church in Nova Scotia to become Affirming, shortly after Bedford United Church.
Affirming in the church world means that a faith community publicly and explicitly states that they strive to be fully inclusive of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in all aspects and on all levels of that organization. -- Den Draak
“We’re not just welcoming to queer people,” Den Draak says, “We’re saying how something is missing without them. We need your skills, your history, your talents; we’re better together.”
Den Draak describes St. John’s as a church that is always looking outside of their respective bubble to find who’s missing and whose voices aren’t being heard. Their new building is an example of that.
The front of the church is made up of windows with the words "all are welcome in this space." A pride flag adorns a window along with stick people representing different gender identities.
St. John’s United moved into the building, previously a flower shop, in the midst of the second lockdown in Halifax. “It was a long and complicated process,” Den Draak says. “St. John's rented space for about fourteen years in another location, and although that felt like home, it was never meant to be.”
“My main mandate,” Den Draak says, “was to help them find a new location, help them move there, reinvent themselves, and be a church in a whole new environment.”
In the United Church, the minister cannot do anything without approval from the Board and support from the congregation. “It took about five months,” Den Draak says, “to listen to everybody's fears and hopes, anxieties and objections. We were not going to move unless we had at least 75% approval from the congregation, so it was a long process.”
Before the move, the church also consulted the new neighbourhood: “What’s here? What’s missing? What may we be able to offer?” Den Draak says. “It’s not about, ‘this is us, come to us.’ It's, 'What can we do to help?’”
Den Draak clarifies the church’s intentions saying, “it’s not a gay church. This church has people both gay and straight, who realize that without one another, we would be less. That’s the big thing. There's a slight majority of straight, and a slight minority who are queer in some shape or form.”
The minister highlights the importance of this collaboration by exposing community members to values and history of folks who are different from them.
“Nobody sits in their little ivory towers, they have to work together,” Den Draak says. “They have to learn from one another; and they use each other's skills and history. I think it's important not to coop up, not to withdraw to your own little silo and do your own thing. You need to be out there and work together.”
The church isn’t concerned with any judgemental thoughts from outsiders. “We want to make a statement,” Den Draak says, “and if people take offense, too bad for them, it's who we are. We're not playing it safe.”
“There's quite a few churches who say ‘we don't mind gay people but we're not shouting it from the rooftops.’ At St. John's, we shout it from the rooftops!”
St. John’s also has a Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) that meets at the church to discuss their struggles and their hopes and fears. They also organize events during the Halifax Pride Festival.
“We feel that we’re a North End church,” Den Draak says when discussing why the old flower shop was chosen as the church’s new building. “We've always been here, so that's our identity. This was the right size. It’s still expensive, but at least it's manageable.”
St. John’s is renting this space. "In their old building on Willow Street, most of the church’s energy, money and time went into the maintenance of the building," he says, "they didn't want to repeat that mistake. And, we are people of faith; we are not called by Christ to own a building, we are called by Christ to make a difference in the world, in our community.”
Last year, the church celebrated fifteen years of being Affirming. "We said we need to have a renewal of vows towards the gay community. We're saying, we're still here, we're still with you, we need to have a renewal of our vows towards the gay community. ”
a 24/7 church where our differences are accepted for the blessings that they are
To celebrate, St. John’s organized events such as a week of daily devotionals run by the GSA meant for silence, scripture, readings and storytelling. They held a tie dye party in the back yard, street painting and marched in the pride parade.
“What I hope,” Den Draak says, speaking about his personal goals for the church and not on behalf of the congregation, “is for this to be a community hub, where working parents or single parents can blow off steam or vent. I'd love to have more involvement from the gay community here. I'd love to see things like an Alzheimer's Cafe because oftentimes their caregivers, partners or their kids don't have a place to go. I'd love to reach out to folks who say ‘I'm spiritual but not religious. I believe there's a God but I don't feel comfortable with organized religion.’ I'd love to start that conversation to build bridges and see what we have in common. It takes time to build bridges, and for the congregation and the wider community to buy into it. But basically a 24/7 church where our differences are accepted for the blessings that they are.”
The church is located in the North End of Halifax at 6025 Stanley St.; consult the website for service times or to book a meeting with the minster.