Bob Brandon came to St. Albert with a vision.
"Most people put church in this box," says the former pastor of Victory Life Church: it's separate from the community, a place you go to get your soul insurance renewed. "That's not what we were going to be."
Churches are meant to reach out and help the needy, Brandon says. "If there was a need we could meet in the community, regardless of the cost, we were going to do it."
So when the community needed several thousand explosive shells, the church obliged.
Victory Life Church is celebrating its 10th anniversary in St. Albert this year by blowing stuff up. For the seventh year in a row, its members are organizing the city's New Year's fireworks show.
It's one of the many ways that the church has given back to its neighbours over the years. "We have a responsibility to help," Brandon says, "so we did."
New priests on the block
Brandon, 60, founded the St. Albert church in October, 1999. It was one of about 2,000 other churches established by the Lethbridge-based Victory Churches of Canada, an evangelical Protestant church.
"When I was 30, I had a God encounter that changed my life," Brandon says. He had a steady sales job, but also had a burning passion to help others. "The challenge for me was to put up or shut up." He quit his job, got his theology degree, and became a pastor for Victory Church.
In 1999, he was asked to move to St. Albert to start a new branch. After an organizational meeting at the St. Albert Inn, he and the church's 40-odd members started meeting in his condo, filling the dining room, living room, hallway, stairway and basement. "I'd sit in the middle of the living room in a chair and teach the lesson for the week," he says.
That didn't leave you a lot of personal space, says Jessica Lupul, Brandon's daughter. "Sometimes you'd want to have a movie night, and there'd be 50 people in your house!" It was fun, though, and they enjoyed it. "Before we even started it, my dad said if we couldn't do it as a family, we're not doing it." The church moved to its current location in the Mission Ridge strip mall about a year later.
A red door opens
It wasn't long before they noticed some unexpected guests. One day, following a strange smell in his office, Brandon says he found a group of about 15 youths behind the church smoking and dealing drugs.
Instead of calling the cops, Brandon started a lunchtime program. "We painted the back door red and called it the Red Door," Brandon says.
Lupul, then 19, ran the program, offering soup, hot drinks and entertainment to upwards of 140 people at a time. "We had couches, video games, and music." By the time they closed the program two years later, the drug dealers and vandals had mostly disappeared. "They must have been just bored," she says.
The church also opened its doors to the St. Albert Creative Preschool, Brandon notes, leasing them space at a substantially reduced rate. Members also supported the St. Albert Food Bank and Driving Miss Daisy.
Lighting up the hill
A meeting of the minds in 2003 started the church's most visible contribution to the city — the annual fireworks show.
The city announced that November there would be no fireworks show on New Year's Eve as it didn't have any money for it.
Rob Kowalyshyn, who had performed that show for free since the mid-1990s, says he was stunned by the decision. The shows had always been popular, and often rivaled the ones held in Edmonton. "[St. Albert] is such a great city; I couldn't see there being a lack of funds for that."
Church member Peter Jackson was surprised too, and started talking with resident Randy Cameron at the church about it. "What the heck," he says, "we've got no money; maybe we should do it anyhow?" Then-pastor Brandon overheard their conversation, liked the idea, and put it to the congregation.
They literally applauded the idea, Brandon says. "People love New Year's Eve fireworks," he says. "We were just filling a void."
And it wasn't a small void either. "The actual annual budget if we had to pay for every single thing we did is about $28,000," Jackson says. Church volunteers handled the labour cost, while Jackson tapped his contacts in the development industry for the rest. Cameron knew a fireworks importer in China who gave them their rocketry for half price. That fireworks guy knew another guy who knew Kowalyshyn, who ended up running the show.
The show went extremely well, Kowalyshyn says, and the church made for a fantastic ground crew. "It can be - 30 C and they're out there laughing and having fun," he says. "I wish I could work with that group every show I do."
The church now funds the show through a city grant and their own pockets. It's their way of thanking the community for their support, Jackson says — a gift he hopes will inspire further gifts to others. "The more generous we are, the more generous people will be in the community."
Saved from the fire
That generosity was on full display when the building across from the church exploded.
At about 6:15 p.m. on Dec. 14, 2005, an explosion ripped through a suite in the Lacombe Parks Estates condo complex across the street from the church. Flames soon incinerated half the complex.
Brandon was helping the local preschool with its Christmas recital at the time. "All of a sudden there was just this huge explosion," he recalls. "I walked to the door and looked across the street, and the two units from the end were engulfed in flames."
Firefighters spent the next 12 hours battling the blaze. "I let the fire chief know that the people could come here for warmth," Brandon says. The church soon became a refugee centre for the residents, offering hot drinks and shelter from the -20 C cold.
Joanne Carey was one of the many people who benefitted from the shelter. "When the fire happened, everyone was around and saying, 'If you need help, just ask,'" she says. The problem was that she and the others didn't know what they needed at the time, as they were still in shock.
That's where the Victory Life and Salvation Army folks helped. "I didn't know what I needed, but they seemed to put food in front of me and say, 'Eat something.'"
The church became the base of operations for her and the other tenants over the next few weeks. "It gave us an anchor point," she says, a place to meet, make calls and regroup. "They were never judgmental of whether you went to service or not. They just helped you."
Donations poured in from the community, and the church soon had several room-loads of furniture for the tenants. "It was like shopping at Wal-Mart and not having to pay," Carey says. "It really opens your eyes to what a small community church can do."
St. Albert's generosity during that time was amazing, Brandon says. "Those are the great things you never forget. You just see the goodness of people come out at that time of year."
The victory of generosity
Fireworks aren't typical church fare, Jackson admits, but they have found justification for it in the Bible. "It talks about putting your light on a hill and bringing out the God colours in the world," he says. "By being open to others, you prompt people to open up with God."
The church plans to keep doing the fireworks show in the future, says Scott Debrecen, the current pastor, and is working on another celebration to honour local soldiers.
Brandon stepped down as pastor two years ago to start another Victory church in B.C. That didn't pan out, so he's still in St. Albert.
Looking back, he says he's glad the church did what it did. "I wouldn't have changed the experience for anything."