When Amanda Mason started going to Hope Fellowship CRC in Courtice, Ont., she needed shelter amid a convergence of storms in her life. She found that and more.
Mason had grown up Anglican, attending church with her grandmother into her teenage years. Her partner’s family during his childhood years had joined a Mormon congregation. Now raising three children, they wanted God in the life of their family and had begun looking for churches online.
Hope Fellowship’s website introduces itself with an honest invitation: “Welcome to Hope Fellowship Church! We are thrilled you decided to check us out! At Hope Fellowship we recognize that life is messy. More often than not, we’re all just trying to figure it out. It’s through that lens that we approach this thing called ‘church.’”
This attitude appealed to Mason and her partner, she said, but it wasn’t until tragedy struck, with the death of their baby, that they began to attend. Reflecting on that time, Mason said, “The most prominent attraction and benefit we found when we started attending Hope Fellowship was the acceptance and love of the community there.”
The family’s challenges became more complicated when their son was diagnosed with a rare illness requiring special care. Then along came a stressful pregnancy with their daughter. Through it all, said Mason, people from the church were there to offer help, support, or a listening ear.
The family has felt the love of their congregation in a variety of ways, said Mason, “Be it through elders, pastors, deacons, members, or administration. We had experiences with many members, through phone calls, Facebook messages, prayers for us via our private prayer group, cards sent in the mail (sometimes anonymously with a grocery gift card in them), and gifts of cupcakes and candy when my children were too sick to go out for Halloween.”
Those expressions of love helped to bridge what Mason thinks of as “cultural differences.” Unfamiliar with the Reformed branch of the church, it took some time for Mason and her family to feel at home in the faith community at Hope Fellowship.
After some time attending Hope Fellowship, though, the couple publicly reaffirmed their faith and had their children baptized. Settling into the life of the church, Mason said she began to feel a calling into pastoral ministry. Not sure how to explore this calling, she spoke to the senior pastor leading Hope Fellowship at the time. He praised her growing faith and desire to serve, but when she learned the details of the path to ordained ministry, Mason said, she felt very discouraged.
As a woman at age 39, a mother of four, living in a common- law relationship, and having no undergraduate degree, she thought, “There is no way I could go back to school, get my bachelor's degree, and possibly be accepted to a seminary.” So she pushed the idea to the back of her mind, she said.
But, said Mason, “God had a different plan in mind. One of our pastors, who had just recently been ordained at our church as our pastor of worship, was a woman who went to Calvin Seminary.” When the former senior pastor moved to another province, Nicole McLeod stepped into the role of senior pastor. Seeing McLeod preach and serve as pastor, Mason said she felt God nudging her again to explore and respond to her own calling to ministry.
Mason met with McLeod. “She told me all about Calvin and how our classis might help offset some of the cost of seminary, and she arranged for me to meet with the liaison for Calvin, Pastor Shawn Brix.” They met, and Mason began to think about what seminary might look like for her.
A few weeks later, said Mason, her mother told her she had lung cancer. “I felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach at full speed, and my entire world changed in minutes. However, through this experience again, the Lord provided the right people at Hope Fellowship and guided them and me together,” said Mason. A former deacon with whom Mason has connected knew about the journey of walking with a parent with cancer. Knowing Mason and her partner wanted to marry, she helped them organize a wedding at Hope Fellowship while Mason’s mother could be present.
“This was also a way for us to get married, as we could not afford it at the time, and it was such a beautiful day put together by some of those wonderful people we had met and begun friendships with at Hope Fellowship. I was amazed at the generosity and selflessness of the volunteers from our church. Not a single person asked for monetary compensation except for the cost of food. They were there to offer their time and effort to help our wedding succeed,” said Mason.
Mason said she continued to pray about her calling into ministry, often parking her van in the empty church parking lot on a weekday to pray, worship, walk, read the Bible, and reflect. Going through the book of Job one day, she decided, “If Job could go through all those things and still hold on to his faith, then I could go through all the things in my life as long as God guided my way. I prayed to God about Calvin Seminary and left that prayer with him.”
Not long afterward, Brix let her know about some developments at Calvin Theological Seminary that would make her seminary journey easier, such as fewer ancient language requirements and a shorter timeline for a course of study. Members of Hope Fellowship, as well as the former senior pastor, agreed to serve as references for her application to the seminary. Classis Quinte offered funding and support to help Mason with the costs and stresses of attending the seminary.
Now midway through her studies at Calvin Seminary, Mason said, “The way God works through our lives is impressive. We can see his plan for us if we can connect the dots later when we reflect on our hardships and blessings. We had lost a baby the week before we entered the doors of Hope Fellowship. If that had never happened, we may never have gone to that church. And now, six years later, we have been blessed with a new church family, many new dear friends, and a new daughter, and I am in my second year of seminary.
“There have been some losses, like my mother's passing, and some hardships along the way, but without those hardships, I would never have reached out to strangers to help me get through the storms, and now some of those strangers from Hope Fellowship have grown into some of my most cherished friends and biggest supporters.
“What made us want to be members of Hope Fellowship and what makes them stand out and help make newcomers feel welcome are the people, the feeling of community, and the feeling of being a blessing to others, which in turn makes you want also to be a blessing.”