Before he became ‘pastor Al,’ Alan Roberts was a 19 year-old campie cooking and cleaning for oil riggers on the BC-Yukon border.
Living out of a trailer on the tundra, there wasn’t much else to do.
“There was nothing,” said Roberts, speaking at Calvary Baptist Church in a check shirt and jeans.
“It was like, stunted trees and snow.”
Today, Roberts is wrapping up his 17th and final year as the pastor at Calvary Baptist, making him one of the longest-serving church leaders in the Beach.
But even when he was a young man bounding around BC and Alberta, Roberts had faith, and a guitar to share it.
And no matter where he went – the northern oil rig, an Alberta plastics factory – the calling found him.
Roberts was in his parents’ kitchen in Newmarket when he got the call that nudged him toward a life in ministry.
On the line was a kind of higher power – his former boss at S & T Drilling. The company was starting another site and wanted Roberts back to help.
But just before rigging out the first site, a guy on Roberts’ crew had lost his fingers. He was holding a big metal sheet when a wind gust sent it sailing into something hard.
Holding the phone, Roberts said he had one of those moments when “time stops, and you assess your life and everything in the universe.”
He didn’t say it, but all that ran through his mind was, “I like playing guitar too much.”
By that time, Roberts was volunteering with Young Life, a Christian group doing youth outreach in Newmarket and Richmond Hill. Rather than go back north, he decided to work at Young Life full-time.
“We did it in a way that wasn’t ‘church-y,’” said Roberts.
The group met in basements and rec rooms, performing music and skits youth could relate to.
Then and now, Roberts says all his various jobs, from framing houses to working at a law firm, have helped him as a pastor.
“It was all one,” he said.
Whatever he was doing, there were no lines dividing his work, faith, and family life.
As it turns out, a similar attitude is written into the DNA of Calvary Baptist Church.
Some 30 years before they finished the church’s Gothic stone sanctuary in 1952, the Calvary Baptist congregation chose to put up a simple hall with folding chairs, a Sunday school, and one of the earliest gyms in East Toronto.
Church life revolved around a lot more than Sunday service. For one thing, there were baseball, basketball, and hockey teams.
“That’s part of the culture of the Beach,” said Roberts, cracking a smile.
“Back in the day, if the boys in the neighbourhood wanted to play on the Calvary baseball team, they had to go to the Bible class on Sunday.”
Those leagues may be gone, but Roberts still plays hockey every week with Gary Harder, retired minister of the nearby Toronto United Mennonite Church.
“They say Mennonites are pacifists,” Roberts joked. “Not on the ice.”
While house-framing and taking a fellow minister to the boards might make for a good Sunday sermon, Roberts also needed a lot of formal education to become a reverend – a philosophy degree from York, and a graduate degree in divinity studies from McMaster.
But although he enjoyed high school, Roberts says he wasn’t born a scholar.
The switch came when he met his wife, Dianne.
“It’s because I met a girl who said, ‘What are you doing for the rest of your life?’” he said.
“What changed was my desire to be equipped.”
After they married, Roberts said it was Dianne who kept the couple “clothed and fed” while he studied at York and worked part-time at a law firm.
Cookie-cutter as it may sound, Roberts remembers the 10 amazing days they shared when he was just starting his first pastorship, in Midland, Ontario.
They had their first child, Aaron, on Aug. 22, and stepped into their first home Sept. 1, 1998. Over the next seven years, Alan and Dianne had three more children, Jay, Hannah, and Joelle.
All was going well until the day Alan sat on his dad’s front lawn and got the question, so, where are you going next?
“I don’t know where I’m going,” he answered. “But there’s one place I’ll never go – Toronto.”
Two months later, Roberts heard Calvary Baptist was looking for a pastor, in Toronto. He tried listing a few other places he’d never go – Hawaii, Bermuda – but the gig was up.
“It’s not because I disliked Toronto,” he said.
It was just that after growing up in small-town Newmarket, he pictured a similar place for his kids.
Growing up, he said, his whole family walked to work or school, walked home for lunch, and walked home again for dinner together.
“I had this home that backed onto an old abandoned orchard,” he said. “There was a pine stand, a frog pond, and then you went through a farmer’s fence to Bogart Creek where there was an old mill wall I used to sit on and fish from.”
“It was just heaven for a kid – I didn’t know how good I had it.”
But after settling here, Roberts discovered that Toronto is a city of ravines, with plenty of creeks to play in.
And at Calvary Baptist, he and his family found a congregation as big on community-building as any small town.
For more than 60 years, volunteers have turned the church basement into the Grace Pascoe Care Centre.
Named for the former ESL teacher who started it, the centre is part of the Daily Bread Food Bank and the main food bank and clothing centre for everyone living in the Beach and surrounding neighbourhoods.
Director Kathie Collins-Williams said the centre receives donations from several other Beach congregations as well as private donors, a local bakery and a coffee shop. But the centre also relies on Calvary Baptist itself for things like fridges or the new computer system.
“It’s all accomplished with a pretty small bunch of folks,” said Roberts.
“I think what I’ve appreciated about serving here is the cooperation of different faith groups in the neighbourhood to do together what they can’t do themselves.”
That’s true at Grace Pascoe, the drop-in Beach Interfaith lunch that tours four local churches and a synagogue, and a multi-faith service that Roberts took part in one rainy day at the Kew Gardens bandshell a few years ago.
Under umbrellas, members of local Jewish, Muslim and Christian congregations met to share parts of their worship traditions and share a meal.
“For me, if there was a moment where I kinda went, ‘Yeah, this is what it’s all about,’ that was it,” Roberts said.
After Easter, Roberts and Dianne will move again, this time to Windsor, Ontario. It’s a little easier to do now that they are grandparents – Thea, daughter of their son Jay and his wife Karly, turns one year old next month.
But before they go, Roberts got to enjoy at least one more trip to another proud part of Calvary Baptist Church, the 100-acre, all-volunteer retreat centre in the woods near the Ganaraska River, west of Peterborough.
“Our culture moves pretty fast,” said Roberts. “I think if there’s something our culture misses, something it can use more of, it’s stillness and quiet.”
Jesus showed that in the gospels, he said, though he added it’s as much about good health as it is religion.
“They were busy doing things and he would say, ‘You guys go along, I’ll go up the hill and just pray,’” he said. “He modelled that – be engaged, be busy and all that, but then stop.”