‘A place of safety in a storm’

Former MB pastor couple start an LGBTQ-affirming congregation in British Columbia

Janet and James Toews lead The Ark in Nanaimo, B.C.— Janet and James Toews Janet and James Toews lead The Ark in Nanaimo, B.C.— Janet and James Toews

A former Mennonite Brethren pastor couple in Nanaimo, B.C., have started a new Anabaptist church that aims to be a safe place for LGBTQ ­people and their allies.

Called The Ark, it is led by James and Janet Toews, who formerly served at Neighbourhood Church, a Mennonite Brethren congregation, in that Vancouver Island community.

“We call it The Ark because we want it to be a place of safety in a storm,” James Toews said of the goal of welcoming and affirming LGBTQ people and their parents and friends.

While there are mainline churches in Nanaimo that welcome and affirm LGBTQ people, some who grew up in evangelical environments don’t feel comfortable there, he said.

“We want to meet the needs of those whose needs are currently not being met by evangelical churches,” Janet Toews said.

James added: “Those who come from evangelical backgrounds say those churches don’t work for them. It somehow doesn’t fit.”

The couple also want The Ark to be a witness in the community. “So many think negatively of Christianity for how it has treated LGBTQ+ people,” Janet said. “We want to change that impression, if we can.”

The Toewses, who retired in 2020 from Neighbourhood Church, are aware that starting up a new congregation might feel threatening to people in their former church.

“We don’t want that to be the case,” James said. “We don’t want to be a distraction from what they are doing. We wish them well. We want to see them thrive in their mission. We just see a need for a church from the Anabaptist tradition that has a different kind of mission.”

The Toewses would like to be part of the British Columbia Mennonite Brethren Conference, but due to the new congregation’s stance on LGBTQ, it isn’t possible.

“I reached out to them, but it’s not promising,” said James, who turned in his MB pastoral credentials before starting The Ark.

Starting The Ark is also personal. “We have LGBTQ+ people in our own family, and we have sat with so many other families of gay children who feel the church has abandoned them,” Janet said.

They want to create a place where LGBTQ people and their allies feel welcome. “We hope we can be a family to them,” she said.

For Elizabeth Kroeker-Bach, a member of The Ark’s leadership team, the new church is needed because “there are many folks in our community who have been rejected and hurt by the evangelical churches they have been a part of. There is a need for a place that intentionally expresses its acceptance and commitment to inclusion.”

She hopes those who have felt the pain of rejection from their churches in the past will find The Ark to be “a community that creates a safe and caring place where folks can come and not be afraid, to feel truly safe and embraced into a community that seeks to live out Jesus’ love, a shelter for anyone who comes.”

Rebecca Hill, also on the leadership team, used to be part of an evangelical congregation.

“I found my values and beliefs related to affirmation of the LGBTQ community out of alignment with where my church stood on these issues,” she said.

She noted there are Christian young people experiencing pain due to their church’s opposition to LGBTQ welcome and affirmation. For her, the “stakes are too high for young people navigating these realities to wait for churches to figure this out.”

She hopes The Ark might draw people who have been rejected by the church because of their sexuality back to faith so they can “find the God who has always loved them and wants to walk their life journey with them.”

John Longhurst

John Longhurst was formerly Communications Manager at MDS Canada.

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