A pilgrim encounter in Nicaragua fundamentally shapes this young woman's faith journey and life choices.
Answering God’s call to ministry is a fundamentally transformational experience. Vocation Sunday is a great opportunity to lift up these reflections from those who God called to leave their home community of faith and engage in ministry with Mission & Service Partners in other parts of the world. The People in Partnership program of The United Church of Canada supports face to face encounters between United Church people and global partners, allowing us to accompany each other in God’s mission, and learn more about the joys and challenges of each other’s contexts. Here are stories of encounters that changed people’s lives as they answered God’s call to ministry through global engagement.
Despite being immersed in the United Church growing up, Sarah Jane Wetelainen drifted away during what she calls her "angsty" teenage years. Then a trip to Nicaragua with Open Hands United — a ministry of Burton Avenue United Church and Shining Waters Regional Council — changed everything. She came back to Canada with a new vision of what it means to be the church. An avid church volunteer, Sarah Jane won the Baillie Volunteer Service Award in 2016. She hopes to pursue ministry as a vocation.
What was it like growing up as a so-called PK (Preacher's Kid)?
My mom was a single mother and a minister, which people might think was hard. But it wasn't. It meant I grew up in the church. I spent a lot of time colouring under the pews at presbytery meetings. The congregation members were like my surrogate grandparents and extended family.
So church has always been a natural part of my life. It was never like, '"Oh no, I have to go to church" — until I got older.
You had a life-changing trip to Nicaragua. What happened?
After I was confirmed, I entered those “angsty” teenage years. Then my mother said, "Hey, you should apply for this mission trip to Nicaragua.” And I thought, "Well, if it's going to be a free trip, why not?”. From my perspective at the time, it was something I didn't fully approve of: mission trips were all about white missionaries coming in with a colonial agenda. I applied; I went. But it was nothing like what I thought it would be. It was about people and relationships, with my church family here and with the community in Nicaragua. Even though the faith [in the Moravian Church of Nicaragua] is what we [in The United Church of Canada] would call conservative, the zeal and passion for church there changed me.
Tell me about life after the trip.
My participation in church life grew, so that at one point I was on 19 different committees — that was the busiest year of my life! The more I became involved, the more I witnessed how it is possible to be the church in the world. Church is more than old people talking in pews and exchanging jams at Christmas time [laughing]. It can take a million different forms.
I became involved in my congregation, presbytery, and then Conference. I went to Youth at Conference and then started planning and organizing it the following year. Getting involved at the national level and going to Youth Forum [at General Council], attending Rendez-vous [a United Church of Canada national gathering for youth, young adults, and youth leaders] — all those new experiences allowed me to encounter new ways of being church.
People my age roll their eyes when they ask what I'm doing for the weekend and I tell them I'm going to church, but for me, church is where I want to be.
What ministries are you passionate about?
Our right relations work in The United Church of Canada is absolutely critical. I was a member of the Simcoe County chapter of KAIROS, a Canadian organization for ecumenical justice. I've facilitated and participated in the Blanket Exercise many times. Reconciliation is an amazing step-by-step journey that I'm so glad the United Church is taking. Churches are supposedly behind the times, but we apologized before the federal government. I'm proud to say that's my church. We didn't just apologize either, but are actively working to change.
I've been part of a lot of Affirming ministries. At the presbytery level, I'm on the Affirming Ministry Team. It's such important work that is not just about the LGBTQ+ community, but much, much more-like making church buildings accessible.
As someone planning to go into ministry, how do you feel about the shrinkage we're witnessing?
It's an exciting and slightly scary time to be in the church. Sure, the church is shrinking... and I might need to be a minister with a side job or marry rich [laughing]. Growing up the way I did, with a single mother on a minister's salary, I know the reality of living on a tight budget. I want to do what I'm passionate about. There's nothing else that I could consider doing that I would enjoy half as much.
— Sarah Jane Wetelainen is an avid church volunteer, she won the Baillie Volunteer Service Award in 2016 and hopes to pursue ministry as a vocation.
Sarah Jane Wetelainen was interviewed by Julie McGonegal. This interview has been edited and condensed.