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Countdown to 2010 – Faith and Sports Meet in Vancouver
Christian groups are prayerfully working together to offer “radical hospitality” at the Olympic Games and help address issues affecting the city's poor.

The official 2010 Olympic countdown clock, located at the corner of Georgia and Hornby streets, marks less than six months until Vancouver and Whistler will host the XXI Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. World-class venues stand ready for competitions and the athletes’ village is nearing completion.

The battle lines drawn either for or against the Games fade as the city braces for the influx of an estimated 300,000 visitors. But is the Church ready?

Various metaphors can be used to describe the countdown clock. Some look at it as a tourist attraction, a sentinel of promise and a launching pad for great opportunities. Others see it as an alarm clock drawing attention to unresolved problems in the city. Both of these viewpoints reflect attitudes in local churches and faith-based organizations in Vancouver.

A launching pad for opportunity

Many leaders of the faith community see the Olympic Games as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Church to come together for both witness and service. More Than Gold is a network of local churches, denominations and agencies – as well as individuals – preparing for 2010. The network’s mission is to organize the Church to collaborate at this time, to create spaces to extend the radical hospitality of Christ and to express Christian unity in witness and service projects. More Than Gold is also a voice and advocate for agencies that speak to the many social problems anticipated to heighten during the Games.

More Than Gold has an ambitious agenda. The official Vancouver Organizing Committee asked the network to give leadership to the interfaith chaplaincy program and to offer limited help in a number of other areas, including sustainability issues, home-stay for officials and transportation logistics. More Than Gold will co-ordinate hospitality needs for 3,000 individuals from visiting mission teams.

These people will join local volunteers involved in the distribution of 28,000 visitors welcome kits, 500,000 hot drinks at warming stations and an estimated 500,000 pieces of literature. There will be 5,000 people trained to engage the public in spiritual conversations and critical response counselling. Christian artists from the creative arts community will present 400 hours of cultural performances on open stages.

This summer Bob Kraemer, director of operations for More Than Gold, was “firming up plans for venues for our creative and performing arts presentations, co-ordinating a number of sports initiatives and planning open air festivals.”

He plans for September through November to be the time for “training for hospitality, evangelism and prayer.”

One of the venues co-operating with More Than Gold is Coastal Church, a congregation in downtown Vancouver that is designated as an “open door church” promoting large-screen events for the opening and closing ceremonies and providing a directory to local businesses.

The church will offer free Internet service and coffee to visitors, with concerts featuring rising Christian artists. It will also serve as a spiritual sanctuary for people needing a place to pray and reflect.

More Than Gold is also working with pre-existing groups such as Hope Vancouver, an interdenominational, pastor-driven network that originated in 2000 when The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) sponsored a think-tank on urban transformation. Pastor David Carson, who has been involved in Hope Vancouver since then, echoed a positive outlook of the Games: “The Olympics will bring people together, creating large networks, excitement and enthusiasm. Our hope is that there will be a platform of faith, unity and relationship that the Lord can use for the future of the Church in Vancouver in a remarkable way.”

Hope Vancouver has a three-fold vision of encouraging leaders to call on God in an unprecedented way through prayer and fasting, to call churches to do greater good deeds than ever before in serving both the visitors coming to Vancouver and those in need and then, after the Games are finished, to gather the Christian community for a time of unified celebration.

The excitement Carson mentions is evident in Canada Ablaze, a 106-day prayer relay that will follow the Olympic torch as it crosses Canada. The relay is supported by both More Than Gold and Hope Vancouver. A group of leaders from the Lower Mainland started in Victoria on October 30, 2009, are visiting many communities across Canada and ending back in Vancouver on February 12, 2010.

The goal is to call churches across the nation to pray for Vancouver, their own community and the country. (Details at www.hopevancouver.org.) Kevin Cavanaugh, a key leader of Hope Vancouver, prays for a spiritual legacy during the Games. “Our hope is that after all the dust is settled we will have raised the spiritual temperature across the entire region, and even the country, a degree or two – or more.”

Perhaps this optimism is best summed up by Giulio Gabeli, another local pastor, who says “The opportunity of a lifetime must be seized in the lifetime of the opportunity.”

A ticking alarm clock

But not everything about the 2010 Olympics is sprinkled with golden glitter. Vancouver, like other Olympic host cities, will face tremendous social upheaval. This will all occur while under the scrutiny and spotlight of the world media.

Social activists and those who work closest with the residents of the Downtown Eastside have mostly been opposed to the 2010 Games. They argue that past local organizing committees glossed over social ills while millions of dollars were spent on venues and celebrations. They fear that “unwanted people” – those who are poor, addicted and mentally ill – will be moved out of the city. They can document other world-scale events that became magnets for the drug and sex trades, leading to increased human trafficking and crime. They predict that suffocating traffic, an outbreak of illegal activities and mounds of garbage will be the mark left upon Vancouver. Local churches and agencies working with people who are poor are caught in the middle of this tension.

Streams of Justice is a movement that actively pursues equitable, inclusive and compassionate expressions of society. Spokesperson Dave Diewert describes the position of Streams of Justice on 2010 as “a thoughtful and informed analysis of the Olympics, placed against the biblical prophetic trajectory of critique, dissent and non-compliance. “When we consider carefully the movement of Jesus and the Olympic Movement, we become increasingly aware of their fundamental incompatibility,” says Diewert. (See www.streamsofjustice.org.)

David Bornman, pastor of a church located in Vancouver’s Eastside, echoes a similar caution. “Churches need to discern the difference between the leading of the Holy Spirit and event hype. Remember that the god of sports and fame has another agenda, which does not carry the same importance for a congregation’s time, energy and dedication.”

Tim Dickau is the pastor of a church located on the fringe of the Downtown Eastside and a member of the EFC Roundtable on Poverty and Homelessness. Dickau spent 20 years leading his congregation on a journey from being disconnected with the surrounding community to becoming engaged and connected to it. He has heard mixed reviews about the Olympics. “The world-class spectacle may lead to displacement of those who are poor and draw attention away from the struggles and suffering in our city. Some ask why there are so many people willing to open their homes to strangers when they resist and push away the people who are on the street.”

The Salvation Army is an example of a group that grapples with the social problems of hosting the Olympics while also considering the Games as an opportunity. Sharon Tidd, the Salvation Army’s 2010 outreach co-ordinator, encourages local churches to engage in both witness and service.

“Our services to the community, especially to those struggling with homelessness, addiction and abuse, will continue through the Games period. This is our priority. But we also see the Games as a unique opportunity to serve and care for visitors as they come to our city.”

Tidd is co-ordinating large-screen events, warming stations, sports camps and community festivals. Mission teams from the international Salvation Army community will come to serve hot drinks at their mobile canteens to both visitors and homeless people. They support the campaign against sex trafficking and will continue to work with vulnerable people after the Games.

“Like Christ we are called both to embrace and to critique culture, and sport is a huge part of North American culture. The Olympics represents an amazing opportunity to touch our world with God’s love and forgiveness. We can’t sit on the sidelines.”

Each day the countdown clock ticks closer to February 12, 2010. The Olympic Games have brought churches, agencies and individuals to the same table as they co-ordinate events, prepare to meet needs and discuss the issues that affect the city. The Games have brought people and groups together who would otherwise be isolated and working alone.

Prayer for the city is growing and people are working toward common goals, getting out of their church buildings and into the community.

Dwayne Buhler is the director of Missions Fest Vancouver and a member of the More Than Gold network’s prayer working group.

Originally published in Faith Today, September/October 2009.

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