Nestled against Lake of the Woods, Kenora is a picturesque community with ample natural beauty, regular forays by out-of-town cottagers and flanked by First Nations reserves. As far west as you can go in Ontario before hitting the Manitoba border, First Baptist Church, Kenora, holds the distinction of being CBOQ’s western-most church.
A Brief History
Geographically isolated, it’s easy for southern Ontarians to forget about them, yet, they have been a part of the CBOQ family for generations. Planted by summer students from McMaster Divinity College in the late 1800s, the church was originally named Rat Portage Baptist Church after the numerous muskrats in the area. In anticipation of their expected growth, they erected a large church building with a seating capacity of 350-400 people. Despite the lofty dreams of the builders, the church struggled. Pastors—mostly young men—would come and go, perhaps lured by the call of more densely populated areas. The church failed to grow to the hoped-for hundreds, but remained a smaller, committed group. Then, in 1953, as a result of being missionally minded and not, perhaps, gifted engineers, the church building suffered the fate of any structure built on a combination of rock and bog; it was condemned. After being homeless for a couple of years, the current church building—notably not built on a bog—was completed in the mid-50s, when it enjoyed a significant boom in attendance and commitment. Those same people who were the young families then still attend, and many are now in their 80s and 90s.
The Modern Era
When Rev. Gord Day-Janz arrived as pastor in 1989, the church was looking for next steps, and searching for how to connect with its community. An innovative group of people, the church had been running Bible camps for many years all summer long, but it had since been sold to a church in Manitoba. To help find new ways to be present in the community, the church, led by Gord, started a theatre company, which initially seemed like a temporary measure. Now, years later, they’re celebrating their 30th anniversary and have become a major arts influence in the community. While the church hasn’t always embraced it—Pastor Gord confesses that it has been awkward at times—at worst they’ve allowed it to happen and at best it’s been a wonderful way to be a part of the community. For better and for worse, the theatre company is now inextricably written into the DNA of the church.
After 30 years with the same congregation, Pastor Gord is beginning to think through what comes next for his congregation once he has retired from leadership. As he considers his goals for the next few years, he’s hopeful that they will take time to consider their identity as a church. “We haven’t asked that question for a long time,” says Pastor Gord. “Who do we want to be? How does that impact who we look for as a new leader?”
Pastor Gord’s hope for his church continues to be focused on mission. “I would love for us to explore that [artistic] side of who we are. We haven’t been ignoring it, but to be a little more intentional about being a place where artists can feel safe and they can express themselves in their gifts and potentially their strangeness and embrace them in our community… We have a very creative body of people in Kenora, and I’m not sure that many of them have a church connection.”
Right now, and particularly with the added challenges of COVID-19, there are more questions than answers. “It’s partly exciting and partly exhausting,” says Pastor Gord. “I look at the leaders in the congregation (official or not) and they’re getting tired… like any small church.” There will be challenges in the transitions to come, but also the opportunity and adventure that only following in the footsteps of Jesus can offer.