'We wanted people to feel like they belonged': Rural Alberta churches celebrate 2SLGBTQ Pride

Across Alberta, more rural churches are celebrating 2SLGBTQ communities, but activists say there's still work to do.

'Jesus never talked about tolerating people. He just talked about loving them,' reverend says

Bashaw church board chair Ben Wilson, left, and Rev. Robin King outside the Bashaw United Church. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

Rev. Robin King took over a church in Bashaw, Alta., and desired to make the congregation more inclusive.

His initiative helped spread love even further.

"Jesus never talked about tolerating people. He just talked about loving them and accepting them for who they are," King said.

Many churches throughout rural Alberta are striving to become more accepting of the two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community — cohorts of people who have historically been discriminated against by those of the Christian faith.

Among them is King's church in Bashaw, a central Alberta town about 110 kilometres southeast of Edmonton.

King took over the church fourteen years ago. Around seven years ago, he said he wanted to begin celebrating Bashaw's 2SLGBTQ community and create a safe space for everyone. 

WATCH | Rural Alberta churches celebrate Pride:

Rural Alberta churches celebrate Pride

3 months ago
Duration 2:57
Across rural Alberta more churches are working towards accepting their LGBTQIA+ and two spirit community. The United Church in Bashaw, Alta. is showing its pride with a large rainbow-painted staircase.

The church's outside steps were painted rainbow-coloured, launching a conversation about becoming more open, King said — although a number of church members were displeased.

Then, the church displayed more artwork around the building, some of which were created by members of the 2SLGBTQ  community.

"We focused a lot on doing community things and connecting with people in the community," King said. "The more we did that, the more we realized we really want to go beyond just saying, 'Hey, we're at church and we're open to anybody.'"

The church aims to include the 2SLGBTQ community in everything, he added, such as sermons, group discussions, crafting events and movie nights that include 2SLGBTQ films.

Ponoka, Alta., church becoming more open

Chris Struik has attended Ponoka United Church on and off since they were a kid.

Located in Ponoka, Alta., a town about 95 kilometres south of Edmonton, the church and its congregation — along with other churches in the community — have a history of being intolerant toward the 2SLGBTQ community, according to activists. 

The stairs outside of Ponoka United Church, shown here, were painted after King took over. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

Struik, who is gender fluid, recalls an incident in 2008 when the then-minister said anyone who is unaccepting of the queer community and gay marriage could leave the church — and many did.

"Here, there is a lot of open homophobia," said Struik, who helped form Ponoka's gay-straight alliance. "That has been the case up until just before [the COVID-19 pandemic], and then it slowly started changing."

King and his church in Bashaw partnered with the Ponoka United Church five years ago. He now leads both churches, and his work in Bashaw set a foundation for change happening about 40 kilometres west in Ponoka.

Ponoka United Church, too, painted its steps rainbow-coloured.

It also partnered with the town's gay-straight alliance, providing a room in the church for meetings and walking with the alliance in the Ponoka Stampede parade.

Church support 'is a statement'

Tanya Heyden-Kaye also helped create Ponoka's gay-straight alliance. The town, she said, is starting to slowly accept her community — but there some intolerance remains.

Heyden-Kaye doesn't attend church, but she's still grateful to have support from a religious institution. 

Church members take part in a crafting event last May. The church said they decorated candles in paper mache rainbow colours. (Ponoka United Church/Facebook)

"Having [King] actually come with us in the parade is a statement," she said. "It really says something about how accepting that church is."

Heyden-Kaye and Struik both hope Ponoka, and other rural Alberta communities, continue working toward more affirmation. 

"It's taken Ponoka a little bit longer [than Bashaw]," Struik said, adding that some people's beliefs are "very entrenched."

"The more open you can be, the more you are willing to talk to people, the more they can start to see that you're really just another person and not scary."

King walks with Ponoka's Gay-Straight Alliance during the town's Stampede parade in June 2018. (Ponoka United Church/Facebook)

Heyden-Kaye, meanwhile, wants to see churches practice what they preach.

"Jesus said, 'Yes, there are commandments. But the most important commandment is that you love one another the way that I love you,'" she said. "If churches just did that, it wouldn't be a problem."

King believes more churches in small, rural communities in the province are becoming more progressive, albeit slowly.

"A lot of rural communities are way more diverse than they think," he said.

"We want people to feel like they belonged here."


Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi is a CBC reporter based in Edmonton. She worked in newsrooms in Toronto, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Yellowknife before joining CBC North in 2017.