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Louise Hart: From school teacher to God's intern

People of the Peace
Louise Hart sits in St. Luke's United Church in Fort St. John.

Louise Hart’s life has taken quite a shift over the past few years.

She’s gone from teaching kids French in Ontario to teaching families about God in northeastern B.C.

This is quite a change for Hart, whose only sense of anything approaching rural was camping as a child in Burlington, Ont.

After graduating high school and getting her university degree, Hart decided to try her hand at teaching, although she said she “didn’t really want to be a teacher at that time.”

“I said to myself, I’ll do this for five years, and then I’ll go on and do something else,” she says.

Those five years would end up to be 25 years.

“I just liked the playfulness of kids,” she says, sitting in the sun-soaked pews of St. Luke’s United Church in Fort St. John. “You’re spending time with people that believe in magic, they believe in Santa, they believe in, you know, fairies ... I just really felt that it kept me young.”

Hart taught French and P.E., and encountered a number of children along the way. One of them was a “sensitive little boy” named Steven.

“He wasn’t really outwardly bullied, but he didn’t really have a lot of friends either,” she says.

But Steven opened up to another boy, Ramon, who was physically disabled – he only had the use of one arm.

“I looked over, and Steven was playing with just one hand,” she says. “I thought it was such a nice gesture. He wanted to be like his friend.”

Even in her 30s, Hart considered a career in the Christian ministry. And over time, she began to struggle with the educational system. She was placed into ever-larger classes with more and more children who had developmental challenges.

“These kids were forced to take French. They found it hard, and I felt it was hard on them,” Hart says. “I just kind of questioned the value of teaching them French when I knew that they had trouble learning English, and in other areas.”

Eventually, she decided to give ministry a try.

“When I was teaching school, I had a heart for kids experiencing problems and bullying and being disadvantaged, but I couldn’t talk to them about God because it was a public system,” she says.

The United Church appealed to her, in particular for their open stance on gay and lesbian parishioners.

“To me, that felt in line with Jesus’s teaching, as he did reach out to all people,” she says. “When they’re excluding one group, I really see it as they’re excluding probably others.”

The United Church was one of the first religious groups to accept Christians regardless of sexual orientation, even allowing men and women to become clergy in the 1970s. The current national head of the United Church of Canada, Gary Paterson, is gay himself.

There are obviously some Christians who might disagree with the United Church’s choice. But for Hart, her church is as Christian as any other.

“We no longer stone people for adultery. So, you know, there are people who read the bible literally, and I think sometimes that’s dangerous,” she says. “Sometimes you have to interpret in your time and in your context ... there are some texts in the Bible that we just don’t believe are in line with Jesus’s teaching on hospitality and inclusion.”

Hart studied theology at Emmanuel College in Toronto, learning about the history of the Bible, pastoral care and homiletics – the study of writing sermons – with many fellow students whom she found inspiring.

“Each one had to communicate a mission to the people – to inspire people to do something, to act in a way that you believe God is calling you to do, so maybe to give to the poor,” explains Hart. “Maybe there’s a need of congregration – perhaps they’re dealing with trauma or depression. So you’re trying to address a human need, a mission to make the world a better place.

“There has been a conflict in that some people have left denominations where they were not accepted, where they were not even accepted as members. They’ve been kicked out of these churches for their sexuality.”

For these people, their sexual orientation didn’t deter them from seeking ministry.

“There are gay people in all denominations,” says Hart. “You just can’t say that they’re not there, but whether they’re comfortable to be out there or to be in roles of leadership.”

When she graduated, she was matched up to Fort St. John through a national program, but she admits that she was a bit concerned before she came to the Energetic City, a more remote and isolated place than she’d ever lived.

“I was worried that it wouldn’t have a lot of amenities,” she says.

But Hart was pleasantly surprised when she arrived at how similar FSJ was to her home city of Hamilton, population 504,000.

“It has all the stores that I need, it has really nice clothing stores – there are lots of things to do,” she says

The people she has encountered here have also helped her feel right at home, she says: “They won’t just say hello, they’ll say it’s a nice day and often that’ll turn into a chat.”

While she is still officially serving as a student minister, and can technically be called an “intern,” she is called to do many of the duties of a regular minister.

“I have a lay support team and their goal is to evaluate me, so to challenge me and to tell me what i’m doing well, what I need to learn,” she says.

“In the United Church, you’re hired by the congregation, so you’re not all-powerful,” continues Hart. “You’d be expected to, I don’t know, be more experienced – whereas in this environment, I’m expected to have the knowledge of a student.”

She says Fort St. John is also different in the way churches interact. While in Ontario, she didn’t see too many churches that would share facilities. But in St. Luke’s United Church, both her group and the Presbyterian Church share the same facilities, and sometimes even the same services.

Hart also talks, with a bit of lament in her voice, of the strong divisions between churches in the Energetic City.

“There are churches in the community that question us, whether we’re Christian or whether we are on par with them or whether we’re going the right way,” she says. “I didn’t hear that before I came here.”

Nevertheless, Hart has certain goals she wants to accomplish during her time in Fort St. John. In particular, she and other ministers face generally declining church membership in the Energetic City, even as the total population grows.

The United Church – and many other churches throughout Canada – are facing the same issue: declining membership. In 2011, the National Household Survey reported that there were 820 members of the United Church in Fort St. John. In 2001, that same number was reported at 1,540.

Various other, larger Christian churches, including the Baptist, Anglican and Lutheran faiths, have also reported declining memberships here. In 2001, of the approximately 16,000 people surveyed in Fort St. John, about 10,300 reported holding a Christian faith.

But in 2011, despite more people – over 18,000 – in the Fort St. John survey, only about 8,400 people reported themselves as Christian.

“I want to move the church into a 21st century, where a lot of people don’t go to church,” says Hart. “They don’t want to go to church on Sunday morning and sing hymns ... there are a lot of young people who don’t go to church.”

“We’re developing a program called Friendship, Faith and Fun,” Hart goes on to explain. “We’re inviting young families to come out and have a form of worship on Thursday evening ... it’s not going to be old hymns. It’ll be fun songs. It’ll be telling them in a fresh, fun way.”

She takes references in stride to churches that try and match people’s interests to faith, such as combining skateboarding with the Christian message.

“I am an older person – I like the traditions,” she said. “But I am aware that we need to find new ways.”

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