In 1958, a small group of Christians worshipping together in St. Vital, Winnipeg, decided it was time to become an incorporated church. Because of their location on Sterling Avenue, they called themselves Sterling Avenue Mennonite Church with 18 charter and 14 associate members. 60 years, three buildings, and one name change later, Sterling Mennonite Fellowship continues growing our community and Anabaptist presence in the southern Winnipeg area.
60 years doesn’t come easy, so as 2018 approached, our church prepared for a year of celebrating God’s faithfulness in our lives. We spent time discerning together about God's callings to our future and which themes/passages might guide us as we continue on.
We landed on Romans 12 and the phrase “built for love.” For us, this was a continuation of the verse that had guided us for many years:
“ … you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” - 1 Peter 2:5
Not only are we all “living stones” (vital parts of the house God is building) but we are also called to be people of love. Romans 12 outlines the kind of love to which we believed we are called - and it’s not easy to swallow. It’s the kind of challenging love that doesn’t just appear, but instead must be worked at and can be accomplished only when God works through us.
“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” - Romans 12:9-21
With these guiding thoughts, our celebrations culminated in the weekend gathering on August 11th and 12th, as we met to fellowship, reconnect, share stories, eat food, and play games with past and present members of the Sterling family.
It was amazing to meet people whom I had never met but who were instrumental in building our church. I also met some family members of past Sterling attendees and others I never knew had any connection to Sterling at all. We now only have a few remaining members who were here from the beginning, but we are incredibly thankful that there are still some who could join us.
Of all the stories I heard over the weekend, one stood out to me as an example of the kind of community Sterling is and the lesson we need to keep on learning - that we don't always know how God will use us, our gifts, and actions to bless people, especially when we may never see the results.
Sarah (not her real name) remembers going to Sunday school, as a young child, in the old community centre where Sterling met before owning their first building on Sterling Avenue. She was invited there by one of her neighbours, a founding member of Sterling. Although her family wasn’t church-going, this neighbour convinced Sarah’s parents to come along as well.
The community centre was used for parties most Saturday nights, and those who were there remember having to clean up garbage and beer bottles, mop the floors, and set up chairs before each Sunday service. Even though we may not be able to envision this as a worship space, it was comfortable for Sarah’s parents.
After a few times going to church as a family, Sarah’s parents sat her and her siblings down to talk about the change her family was going to make. This was a shock for her. Her parents said they would be a different family from now on. They would read their Bibles, pray, and go to church. From now on, they would be Christians.
Sarah and her family stopped attending Sterling before it became incorporated in 1958, but that experience had a lasting impact on them. Sarah and her future husband would eventually become pastors and work for other churches. Their involvement in the Church lasts even to this day. It was over 60 years ago that Sarah's neighbours reached out to her family, and I'm sure that they wondered what happened to them after they left Sterling, but it goes to show how God can work in ways that are above and beyond our control. That's one reason we need to choose to be people of love, everyday, even when it doesn’t make sense, because God can use that in ways we may never see.
As I look back on our weekend of celebration, I’m grateful that I can be a part of this church community. My story only started here 7 years ago, but I truly feel at home. Sterling is the kind of church that enjoys the small-church feel; yet we are incredibly welcoming to new people. We are a church that is excited about our future direction but, at the same time, try to hold on to where we have come from.
Sterling is far from perfect, and we recognize that we have a long way to go in actualizing our call to be living stones that are built for love. But as we continue to trust in God and put Jesus at the centre of our lives, we will see the ways in which God will use this church for His glory, in our city and around the world.