There are many camps or tents that get pitched on the day of the Prince Rupert Relay for Life. They all surround the track and form a makeshift temporary community for just that day. Their function is to protect its inhabitants from the rain, but no one ever said they had to be boring or dreary.
Anyone who has walked that track every late May knows to expect one tent in particular. It’s immediately visible upon arrival, and probably visible from 100 feet in the air.
Balloons, streamers, costumes and cheering reaching high decibels — you’d think you were at a Rupert Rampage game when you strolled past the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church camp on relay day.
The people inside the camp make up the congregation at the church. Some are survivors, some are supporters and all are thinking of those who were once at the camp and walking that track, but have since passed.
“You’ve seen our spot. It’s a colourful spot. We decorate because we want to bring life,” St. Paul’s Lutheran Church Pastor Jim Whaley said.
“In fact we’ve won the spirit award so many times they’ve stopped giving it out.”
It’s always a team effort, but Pastor Whaley is instrumental in the St. Paul’s team and not just because he leads the congregation. Using his truck, he transports rods, poles, tents and whatever else needed from the special events office to Patullo Field, the site of the relay, on the day of the event. He doesn’t, however, take part in the fundraising events.
“It’s a bit of a conflict. Sometimes it’s hard to say no to the pastor, so this pastor doesn’t do fundraising,” he said.
Nevertheless, St. Paul’s is consistently among the highest fundraisers year after year thanks to the enthusiasm of its team members, which includes relay organizer Sheila Seidemann. Even the parishoners who are unable to walk the track come May 27, will be there in spirit, or sitting under the tent.
“Because some of our seniors are too elderly or physically challenged to do the walking, they’ll bake cookies or they’ll send water … I remember one year we actually had a bubble machine and so when people walked by, they actually walked through bubbles,” said Pastor Whaley.
But it’s never been a discussion as to whether the parish will attend Relay for Life or not. It’s just the thing that’s done for the church.
“St. Paul’s congregation has always wanted to be connected and be part of the community, and so for us, participating in the cancer Relay for Life is just what we’re called to do as people of God, people of faith and people that live in the community that want to be part of the community,” he said.
“We have a lot of survivors, we have a lot who didn’t survive. And so for our congregation, it’s a real event.”
The luminaries (bags filled with sand and a candle) take on special importance for the pastor. Thirty-four years in Prince Rupert — he’s seen many in his congregation lost to the disease.
“I go through [all the names] and I check off all of those people that are either from this congregation that I knew or those in the hospital — I’m also the hospital chaplain. So when I go walking around that track and see those memorial bags, they’re not just bags, they’re people.”
At the event, there are tears for those sick or lost, internal reflection, and many deep in thought, but life is something to be cherished and that’s most evident in the spirit St. Paul’s Lutheran Church team bring year after year.
“We’re alive until we’re not. So we want to encourage people to celebrate life and to be supportive of life. Because we believe in God’s forgiveness and salvation and life after death, we want to be a sign of hope — that yes, we grieve and mourn those who have died, but there’s still hope. There was hope for them and there’s hope for us in God’s grace, and that’s what we want to be there,” Pastor Whaley said.
“It can be pretty lonely walking around that track and especially if you’re walking around in your thoughts of someone who is struggling, or who has died. But then to see this lavishly decorated tent and these goofy people, it’s like ‘Yeah, life is still here.’”