In a little red church, in a grassy orchard, on a sea slope, on a small island in the Salish Sea, lies Shelagh MacKinnon’s dominion.
The United Church minister has spent the past 20 years nurturing her healthy-sized – for an island of 3,600 – congregation. (The church can hold 80; sometimes it’s full, sometimes it’s not.)
But this Sunday, for the last time as their minister, Shelagh will stand in the glow of the Celtic stain glass windows and tell the loyal crowd, “There’s nothing you can do to make God love you less, there is nothing you can do to make God love you more.”
And then she’ll leave.
Shelagh is heading to Victoria to sermonize a new congregation and rejoin her wife, Cheryl Black, who is a church minister in the provincial capital.
Her departure is a loss that reverberates into the quiet corners of a community that relies on volunteer work. Beyond Sunday services and the regular ministerial duties, Shelagh’s served on dozens of committees, organized dozens of events, and become a spiritual advisor to many outside her congregation.
When she started in September 1998, initially as a part-time employee but later becoming the church’s first full-time minister, Shelagh understood that the job would entail more than preaching.
“They wanted my time to be spent immersed in the community,” she says. “And I have loved doing that job.”
But there is a certain acquired taste to being a small town minister.
“When I’m on this island, I’m at work,” says Shelagh. “I would think that would be something that every rural minister understands.
“I do not feel that I would be free, if it would ever be of interest to me, which it isn’t, to go and have too much to drink at the bar and say, ‘It’s my night off. See you Tuesday.’
“I don’t want that, because often times I’ll be somewhere and someone will say, ‘You know my mum’s just going into care.’
“But I don’t resent it in the least,” she says. After all, Shelagh knew what she was getting into when she took the posting.
It was a winding road that led Shelagh to Bowen Island.
Born in Vernon, B.C. but raised in Ottawa, joining the church wasn’t always Shelagh’s plan. She did an undergraduate degree at Trent University in Peterborough and then her path shifted.
“It was little bit of a fragile time in my life,” says Shelagh. “I’d been a victim of a very serious crime and had never planned to be a minister.
“But when I discovered this awesome love of God was bigger and stronger than the worst humanity had thrown at me, I thought, well, I guess my life has just changed for the better and went off to college.”
Graduating from Queen’s University with a master of divinity, Shelagh was ordained in 1980 and headed off to Saskatchewan.
Landing in a town of 1,500 people, about an hour and a half away from Saskatoon, Shelagh didn’t take to Lanigan immediately.
“When I first got there I thought I’d been sent to die,” she says. “Then after a few years in I just got to see their struggles.
“I learned the power of community because those prairie towns had come through a combination of the Depression plus the Dust Bowl and that had really eviscerated the financial life, but not the community.
“In fact, that’s where they learned how to be community.”
“I learned about how community dealt with loss and all those things that are still the cornerstone of life in a small church, which is in many ways what we’re doing here.”
“Like here we have an open pantry food bank. You just go and help yourself. And you know what else happens there? People who will put stuff up,” she says.
“I used to sit in Collins Hall for an afternoon and people stop by and they’d come in with three bags of groceries, just to fill the shelves. They don’t leave their name. They don’t get a receipt. They just do it.
“That’s why it feels like a continuity from Lanigan. Small communities know that unless we all do it, it won’t happen.”
After six years in Lanigan, Shelagh moved to St. Thomas Wesley in Saskatoon.
“It was in what’s called the inner city and was night and day difference,” says Shelagh. “That’s where I started doing my training in drug and alcohol addictions.”
It was while on the prairies that Shelagh met her now wife.
“We were not a love-at-first-sight couple,” laughs Shelagh, who’s been married to Cheryl nearly since the law changed to allow gay marriage, “She looked at me and thought I was a wing nut.
“I think she still thinks I’m a wing nut.”
Also while on the prairies, Shelagh sponsored two girls from El Salvador, Ana Luz and Marina. They’ve both since grown up and had children of their own and live in the Lower Mainland. Shelagh smiles fondly, describing her taller-than-her grandson.
“I love them to bits,” she says.
In 1993, Shelagh moved to St. Andrew’s-Wesley in downtown Vancouver, which proved to have its own set of challenges.
“It’s hard to believe now, but in ’93, AIDS was still an epidemic emerging crisis in that part of Vancouver,” she says. “It was on the edge of the gay village at Nelson and Burrard.”
But then, Bowen called.
Helen Wallwork was on the hiring committee back in the 90s. “It was love at first sight,” describes Helen. The seasoned, community-minded Shelagh was exactly what the committee had been searching for and they were hooked.
Under Shelagh’s watch, the United Church on Bowen, known as the Little Red Church, blossomed. The congregation grew such that they had to expand the church building, knocking down a back wall. Dogs in the pews, peals of laughter and themed services became the norm on Miller Road.
“We’re kind of buried in banners,” chuckles Lynn Ellis-Williams, the church’s part-time minister of music. Most recently Shelagh held a Christmas in July service, though that was because she’d be missing Bowen’s December version this year.
Beyond the church, Shelagh’s been a spiritual advisor for the island’s Orchard Recovery Center since 2002.
Craig Trunkfield was a client at the Orchard six years ago. The lumber broker was struggling with alcohol addiction when he met Shelagh.
“She was instrumental in my recovery,” says Craig.
“I was really resistant,” he says. “I had no religious background.
“She had to teach me that there was a difference between spirituality and religion.
“She’s incredibly intuitive,” he says. “I guess it’s compassion when you come down to it.”
After completing the Orchard’s program, Craig stayed in touch with Shelagh, attending the odd service at the Little Red Church and, when his mom died a few years ago, she went over to the mainland to conduct the service.
“She knows my whole family,” he says.
In a funny twist, the island became home for much of Shelagh’s family. After becoming minister here, both of her elderly parents moved to the island, living across the street from her. Both have since passed. Shelagh’s sister Carol also lives on island.
After this week’s service, Bowen’s United Church will go without a permanent minister for a while, says Helen, who is still on the church board and hiring committee. She says that the island needs some transition time.
“She’s leaving big shoes to fill,” says Helen.
As for Shelagh, she’ll be back to visit. But in the meantime, she’d like to say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you to Bowen Island.”