They came together out of necessity, a need fuelled by the recognition that the rapidly growing population and forecasted growth would soon far outstrip their abilities to cope with the demand. They came together in search of land, an age-old story in this country and in their respective religions, land where they were free to worship and could meet the needs of their congregations. They came together and through a partnership based on trust and respect they found their land – now known as Abram’s Land, a strip of land in the Thickwood/Timberlea area of Fort McMurray, and the place where they will build the faith centres they have worked towards and planned for over a decade.
“Both McMurray Gospel Assembly and the St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church were looking for larger facilities and both knew they would need them in the near future,” says Glen Forsberg, Pastor at McMurray Gospel Assembly. “McMurray Gospel Assembly began searching for land in 1999, and when we found the Roman Catholic church was also looking we began comparing notes. We quickly discovered there wasn’t a lot of privately owned land available, and most of it was crown land.”
Gerry Metz, Chair and President of the Abram’s Land Development Corporation, echoes Pastor Forsberg. Metz had been involved from the beginning in trying to secure land for a burgeoning Roman Catholic population. “In 2002 St. John the Baptist made a request to the provincial government for land. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo got a copy of this request, and indicated to us several other groups had also requested land, but there was limited land available,” says Metz.
While both the McMurray Gospel Assembly and St. John the Baptist were seeking land, yet another large faith congregation was also looking. “In early 2000, when we were looking for expanding opportunities, we learned that there was a consortium being developed to lobby for land and making requests to the government. There were a few different religious communities engaged at that time but at the end when we formulated the consortium there were three religious groups in this relationship: St. John the Baptist, McMurray Gospel Assembly and Markaz-Ul-Islam,” says Mohamed Al-Zabidi, a member of the Abram’s Land board of directors representing Markaz-Ul-Islam, and the Abram’s Land Development Corporation treasurer.
It appears that the provincial and municipal governments, recognizing the increased need and demand for land for faith congregations to develop to meet their current and future needs, decided to present the faith groups with a challenge – and an opportunity.
“The government came back to us and said there were several non-profit corporations that want land both now and in the future, and that rather than dealing with each of the groups individually they had a piece of land in Thickwood they believed could be suitable for our needs, so they asked if our groups could do a site plan and figure out how each of us would fit into it, then come back to them and they would deal with all of us at once,” says Forsberg – and so the development corporation was born.
Included initially in the group was Alberta Health Services, also seeking land for the development of a long-term care facility in Fort McMurray. Over time, though, the AHS went in another direction for development, leaving the three faith organizations and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo to divide up the land.
“The land was acquired from the provincial government by the municipality and then sold to the Abram’s Land Development Corporation – and a board of directors comprised of representatives from each faith group became the developers,” says Metz of a plot twist which saw faith groups become subcontractors to develop the property on which they would all one day reside. Each faith organization selected three representatives to sit on the board and bring their voice to the table while they worked towards a common goal – land on which their congregations could worship, and grow.
The name “Abram’s Land” is of significance itself, as each faith group, while having many differences, had one patriarch in common – Abraham. In a show of fellowship and trust they named the new development corporation after the faith figure they all shared, and from that point forward worked together as a cohesive unit to develop the land acquired from the government.
“We are a showcase of tolerance, respect and unity among the different faiths. You can tell from the consortium’s name ‘Abram’s Land’, as it symbolizes and ties these three faith groups to its root that leads to Prophet Abrahim/Abraham (peace be upon him). We believe it is a showcase model in North America that does not exist anywhere else. We are very proud of this relationship; it is mutually beneficial to all with a common goal of serving the one true God. This perspective brings different faith groups together in peace and harmony,” says Al-Zabidi of a partnership that began from a place of necessity and quickly developed into a relationship of trust, fellowship, and understanding.
Jerry Metz agrees. “You’ve got the provincial government, municipal government, Roman Catholics, Muslims, and Evangelicals all working together in total peace and harmony. Over 10 years when you work together as different faith groups any distrust melts away. Any issues never became walls, but challenges and we came up with solutions,” says Metz of a remarkable partnership that began to build bridges of trust between disparate faith groups in a world too often divided along religious lines.
“It has been a journey of faith,” says Forsberg. “There was a long period of time when we didn’t know where we were in acquiring the land, but there has been great relationships built and good connections made during that time. We have been able to reach out to the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and provincial government to speak for the needs of all faith groups and show to them that there will be more requests coming as this community grows.”
What began as a corporation to acquire and develop land became much more over time. “Working together offers an opportunity to understand other’s views, opinions and objectives and at the end of the day the main goal is to offer our communities places of worship. There is only one God and we all belong to Him; people may choose different venues but that is between them and God Almighty, not for any one of us to judge. We are very supportive and respective of each other and that is what builds this strong consortium. It is a big win for our community at large and demonstrates that we all can live with peace and harmony,” Al-Zabidi.
Jerry Metz says, “When you put the Holy Spirit in the middle things can’t go wrong. The lesson to be learned here is when parties work together wonderful things can happen.”
And as Abram’s Land edges ever closer to being fully prepared for building construction to begin, with land clearing and installation of services and roadways within the development nearing completion, the realization of a dream and the product of a remarkable partnership comes closer to reality.
“This has been God at work,” says Pastor Glen Forsberg with a smile that indicates a true sense of accomplishment and pride in a collaborative effort that may well be unique in Canada and perhaps even in North America. “We are not just building churches on Abram’s Land. We are building communities. We came together out of necessity but we have built a relationship. Before any of us are of any faith we are human beings – let’s celebrate it.”
One can expect many celebrations of faith, fellowship, partnership, and community when the faith congregations on Abram’s Land open their doors for the first time, and welcome in the communities who now see each other with trust and understanding based on a journey of faith working together towards a common goal – a home for worship.
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