With Christmas only days away, United Church minister John Sellwood is preparing for special Christmas Eve services. Recently, John spoke to Northern Pride about the churches he travels to, how long he’s been involved in the church and what people should be mindful of this Christmas.
Q: Tell me about the area you cover.
A: I’m responsible for Loon Lake, Paradise Hill and St. Walburg. On Dec. 24, I’ll be travelling to all the communities for their Christmas Eve services. I’ll be in Loon Lake at 5 p.m., then St. Walburg at 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. at Paradise Hill. These services are when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. We sing hymns and it’s sort of a candlelight service with a short message. This year my theme is Tree of Faith and Memories. I have a rod-iron tree and we’ll light some candles and remember different things. We’ll have scripture readings as well and it’s probably one of the best attended services of the year for all the churches in the community.
Q: Why is it so important?
A: Even folks who aren’t regular attendees find there is something at Christmas that draws them back to the church at Christmas Eve. Easter is also a big day in the Christian church where people seem to be called back. It’s a sense of community and it’s a big family day. Families come together because families are home for Christmas. It’s been a tradition for as long as I can remember.
Q: How long have you been involved?
A: I’ve been involved with this pastoral charge for two-and-a-half years. The travelling is alright – I’m used to it. I spent more than six years in Dinsmore, SK where I had three congregations too. The hard part is not every church gets me every Sunday. The church in St. Walburg has me four times per month, but the other two churches have me twice a month.
Q: What’s it been coming to the St. Walburg area?
A: This has been a great community to be in. That not only applies to my church folk in each community, but also applies to other churches in the area. Once a year, we plan to have a unity service. We’re also working on a food bank, which we started this year. These are great communities. They’re generous and are committed. They’re great people to work with and they’re supportive. I spend a lot of time in the communities on coffee row – wherever there are people. People also have respect for one another. We don’t have strife and everyone gets along.
Q: Where is the food bank?
A: Right now it’s in my home. I’ve been the catalyst to start it. It started about five months ago after I got to know people in the community. The community has been generous and people will come out to me on the street and give me money for the food bank. I received a half-ton load of food from Hillmond Central School on Thursday (Dec. 17). Eventually, we hope to have space in a thrift centre. Our mission is to provide emergency groceries and food vouchers when available. I have the items in a pantry in my home, so when people come it’s more of a homey situation. The hope is it’s more than handing out food, but also providing some ministry and listening. Some people come and they don’t know their rights or what they’re entitled to through government. If you’re a single person on welfare, it’s pretty hard to make it.
Q: How many people have used it?
A: I have had 14 people come by. We started off by collecting the food first to make sure we had the product. Now, I’m promoting it through the community on our website and on Facebook. The worst thing you can do is start something when you’re not adequately prepared.
Q: Do you provide other services outside of the church?
A: We do referrals through the mental health system. I’m not a counsellor, but we would still support a person going through the program. We see our position as helping them get the right help and knowing how to access it. That’s how we approach it. Our ladies group also provides tea for funeral luncheons. Our ladies group is our fundraising branch of the church, which raises money to keep us going.
Q: How many people are in your congregations?
A: In St. Walburg, we have about 100 people on our mailing list, but there’s 12-14 attending services. In Loon Lake, there are about 10 people and Paradise Hill is at 10-12 as well depending on the week and what’s happening. But, outside the circle of people who come on Sunday is a great list of supporters who help us.
Q: Have you always been a minister?
A: No. I was 63 years old when I went back to finish my training. I had the call since I was about 12 years old, but it wasn’t until I was 63 I joined the program for people over 40 through the United Church. The training was like an apprenticeship like you’d study at a university, but you were a minister and student at the same time.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: From Collingwood, ON. I grew up in the United Church and I was involved with the Salvation Army for 38 years. Then, I returned to the United Church in 2000 and, in 2006, my wife Georgina and I came to Saskatchewan on Thanksgiving weekend.
Q: Have you had any other careers?
A: I had a catering van for 38 years. It was lovely. I served and sold food to factories, banks and construction sites. I was known as the holy man on the route. I learned a lot about what people do for a living, so it’s a good life skill when you’re meeting people. You have an understanding of what they’re looking at and you can provide a common ground. I still think after worship on Sunday – the ministry on the street and relating to people in the community – is where I believe the real ministry is done. Not that worship isn’t important on Sunday, but as the church is evolving it’s about being out there with people in a loving, understanding and compassionate way without judgement.
Q: What was your role with the Salvation Army?
A: I was a lay person. During that same period of time I was in business. I was responsible for the pastoral care of 10 senior homes and I had a volunteer staff of 35 folks. My job was to coordinate it, make sure there was a worship leader and there was music on Sunday. We also did some spiritual care by visiting people and whatnot.
Q: Tell me more about your wife.
A: She has three children and I have three children. All of our children are living in Ontario. My wife is a writer. She writes Christian romance novels. She’s had some books published and they can be bought on eBay. She’s written five books now. Some are self-published while others are hardcover published and some are on the Internet. We met volunteering with the Salvation Army. When I decided to go back to the United Church, she decided to come with me and we joined together.
Q: Does your wife travel to the other communities with you?
A: She will for some functions. She’s involved with other groups in St. Walburg and she also does some writing courses. She also does some editing for publishers before the books go to the press. She does accompany me sometimes for worship, but doesn’t follow me every step I go.
Q: Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
A: I see myself retiring in two years. I’ll be 74 and I will be returning to Ontario. I’m not sure where the spirit will lead from there. I expect I will be doing funerals or supply work for ministries when they’re away. As we age, we don’t have the same energy levels. It will depend on if the energy is still there to do a good job. You don’t want to hang on until you’re a bluttering old fool. It’s hard to discern because I waited since I was 12 years old to do what I really wanted to do in life. I’d like to go on and on, but sometimes minister’s families get the crumbs and I don’t want that to happen to my family. I’m going to go back and spend time with them. My children endorsed us to come out here, but they want us to come back.
Q: What should people keep in mind this Christmas?
A: We celebrate at this time the teaching of Christ and I think it’s important to remember Jesus’ advise to love thy neighbour. This is challenging for us, especially in Canada as we received 25,000 people who think differently, perhaps dress differently and have a different culture. My biggest thing is to help people connect with the spiritual wherever they see that to be.