It may not be as recognizable as the Woodward’s building, laughs Christine Wong, but the Canadian Bible Society building at Fraser and Kingsway is a local landmark nonetheless. That’s one of the reasons it was hard for the organization to make the decision to finally close its doors last New Year’s Eve.
“People in the neighbourhood know it is ‘that Bible place,’” says Wong, the elected B.C. representative on the board of the Canadian Bible Society.
It’s hard to miss, for anyone who has driven up Kingsway in the past few decades: a geometrical aquamarine building dominating a major intersection, with a sign that is at once self-explanatory yet begging of questions. Canadian Bible Society… a group dedicated to the Bible, clearly, but what does it do?
Wong is quick to insist that, despite the loss of the landmark location, the society’s work in B.C. will continue. The building is for sale and they are seeking other space. The bookstore, which was the most visible aspect of the society’s building, was never intended as the core of the society’s work, she says.
“The purpose of the Canadian Bible Society is to make the Bible understandable and accessible to communities, whether it’s a local community, nationally or overseas,” she says. “Mainly this is done through translation of the Bible to various languages or publication, distribution of various materials.”
For more than a century, CBS has been part of the global United Bibles Societies, which get the Christian holy book into the hands of people in at least 145 countries. An ecumenical non-profit — it is not affiliated with any Catholic or Protestant denomination — the society not only provides Bibles in the diverse languages of Vancouver’s polyglot Christian communities, it also distributes theological resources, religious artefacts and the kinds of things Sunday school teachers need.
Still, says Wong, its mission does not require a storefront bookstore and the old building was just too big — and required too many reparations — to justify staying, despite the nostalgic pull.
“There was a lot of thought and planning put into the decision because the storefront has been in the neighbourhood for so long that people recognize it,” she says.
Wong isn’t sure how long the society has been on the site, but I can’t remember it not being there and I’m getting long in the tooth.
“I think that slowed down the decision process too, because there was so much emotional attachment to it.”
A sale has not yet gone through and Wong doesn’t speculate, but the state of the real estate market suggests the prime piece of property will let the society find a nice, newer, smaller place for its work.
Based in Toronto, the Canadian Bible Society is supported by individuals and foundations that support its simple mandate of making the Christian Bible as accessible as possible. They hold events, where people learn about the group’s work, and a lot of their support comes through word of mouth. That’s how Wong got involved just four years ago.
“It was mainly through a friend who works at the Bible Society,” Wong says. “She asked me to help out on a couple of events and I enjoyed it. The usual story, I guess. I enjoyed the work and I found purpose and value in the work being done.”
The ecumenical approach of the society fits Wong’s own type of Christian faith, which she defines as non-denominational.
“I grew up in Vancouver and my family has more of a traditional Chinese background,” she says. She took it upon herself to start attending church while in high school, drifted away a bit in university and came back more devotedly in the last few years.
“During high school, I think the message of hope was very beautiful to me,” Wong says. “I think that growing up in a home that was open to spirituality but not religion caused me to think more about, well, what is it about Christianity that is so different from everything else? It was really the question of hope and the story of Jesus, who came to be the saviour of the world. That’s the nutshell of the Christian message. Hope, love. It was a very good time for me to hear that message.”
I ask if she is concerned that people will notice the disappearance of this landmark and see it as a sign of the West Coast’s continued decline into secularism and away from Christianity.
“The primary work of the Bible Society isn’t being a bookstore,” she says. “If that is the case then we’re in trouble.”
True, I suppose, that if one were to bet on the survival of Christianity around here versus the survival of bookstores, I know where I’d put my money.