There's a new priest in town, Squamish

Rev. Cameron Gutjahr on starting anew at Squamish’s St. John the Divine Anglican Church — and why it is OK if you swear in his presence

Rev. Cameron Gutjahr is not what many would expect of a priest. He is young, 28, easy-going, quick to smile and plays the ukulele. He also wears sneakers and says it is OK if people swear around him, though they often seem horrified when they do.

On July 1, Gutjahr became the full-time spiritual leader at St. John the Divine, taking over from Rev. Nick Parker who retired in May.

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The Chief sat down in Gutjahr's office and later in the chapel, for a chat about his new role, being new to Squamish and welcoming people to the church.

What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

 

Q: You are new to this church and to Squamish, where did you come from?

A: I was born in Vancouver, grew up in Surrey. I did my undergraduate degree in biology at Douglas College, in New Westminster, and at UBC. Then, I spent the last three years in London, Ontario at Huron University, getting my master's degree in divinity.

Q: You are a Millennial. As you are well aware, the number of people going to church has gone down so having a younger person must be a draw?

A: It is definitely a little different, I know. People do a double take, like, "Who are you? What are you doing in that funny shirt?"

But, I am just me. I am a young priest now and one day I will be an old priest and I hope that I will still be able to be me and reach out to people and make connections.

Q: What led you to this work?

A: I grew up going to church, but then I had a kind of awakening in high school. I had some very intense experiences of religious community that were absolutely transformational for me and helped me understand what this whole church thing might be about. It was a gradual thing. Throughout my biology degree, I was sort of trying to discern where I needed to go — where I was being called. What resonated with me was that people had made really incredible safe communities for me where I felt loved and supported and where I was able to encounter God and I felt a call to do that for other people too. I think that is what the role of a minister or priest is.

Q: Why Squamish?

A:  I had just finished seminary, a few months ago now. How it works in the Anglican Church is, usually, once you have graduated, and you are ordained, you are connected to a church through your particular diocese and bishop.

It is usually like an apprenticeship. I would go to a larger church, with a more experienced priest in it and I would learn for a year or two. But, St. Johns was looking for a new priest and our Archbishop Melissa Skelton thought we would make a really good fit, so decided to send me here, without that apprenticing first. I am very honoured and excited to be here. It is also very overwhelming. It has gone really well so far.

 

Q:  Do you like the outdoors activities we have?

A: I really like hiking and I really love cycling so I need to get myself a bike. I have never mountain biked before, but I am going to give it a try.

Q: For many these days, church and its figures, like you, can be intimidating. Not knowing how to act, or "Oh my gosh! I swore in front of a priest." What would you say to those people?

A: That is the sort of funny thing. People will stop swearing around me. Why? I am about real life. I don't need some pretend bubble of perfection. I am not expecting that of myself and I am not expecting that of other people. That makes me very sad when people think I am judging or holding them to some impossible standard.

Q: What would you like to say to people in Squamish, who are scared to go to church or to go back to church?

A: First off, there are lots of reasons why people are intimidated: lack of knowledge — or the loudest religious voices can sometimes say things that are really hurtful. Or sometimes people have had really bad experiences.

I want to honour that. Religious people, people who wear things like I am wearing, have really hurt people. And the church has really hurt people. And that is terrible and that makes me very sad. I don't want to explain that away. To people who might be interested, every Sunday I just say "Welcome." If anyone wanted to come, no matter where they were at, or what they believe, I just want them to know they are welcome. We would be delighted to make space for them. If you decide that you don't want to be involved, that is OK too. We can still be friends.

Q: Is there anything you want the public to know about what may be coming up with the church?

A: Right now my goal is getting to know people and starting to dream and imagine together what could be possible. That is a pretty exciting place to be. Most of my experience is with young people and families. We are going to be focusing more on families and that is exciting, but I am not sure what that will look like yet because we are in the early stages. We are also going to be having more opportunities to walk the labyrinth as a prayer practice. So, I am really looking forward to that starting in September.

I also play the ukulele and there are a few people who are learning the ukulele, so we are going to have a little ukulele hymn-jam group.

For more on St. John the Devine go to https://www.squamishanglicanchurch.ca/

*Please note, this story has been modified since it was first posted to clarify the answer about graduating from the seminary.

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