Cynthia Thibert was sitting through a presentation at the Salvation Army church in Sarnia, Ont., when she bolted upright in her chair.
A single word the pastor had uttered had seared through her mind and was about to change her life in ways she’d never imagined.
Born in Etobicoke, Ont., Cynthia “grew up knowing of God but not truly knowing Him,” she says. Though her grandmother attended a Salvation Army church in Toronto and Cynthia vaguely remembers attending it with her as a child, her first real experience of the Army came decades later.
“We’d moved to Sarnia, when my husband accepted a transfer,” Cynthia says, “and in 2004, some of my children were given the opportunity to attend The Salvation Army’s Glen Huron summer camp.” But when the summer came to a close, the kids were also invited to attend an evening program at The Salvation Army’s Sarnia church.
“Of course, my children jumped at the chance but someone was going to have to bring the kids there and back,” smiles Cynthia. “And that ‘someone’ turned out to be me.”
It wasn’t just a matter of dropping the kids off and picking them up, though. It meant Cynthia got to know the pastors as well as the volunteers who staffed the programs. Gradually, she started to arrive earlier and earlier.
“I enjoyed sitting at the back,” she says, “watching the activities and listening to the children sing. There was a level of care and commitment that I’d never seen before.”
In 2007, the pastors and staff put together a children’s program for the Christmas service and all the parents were invited to attend.
It was during the sermon that the pastor said the one word that changed Cynthia’s life.
Captain Deborah Steward, then the pastor in Sarnia, was giving a brief introduction to the mornings attractions.
“These children performing for you come from various backgrounds,” she explained. “Some of them have a faith background but many of them are unchurched.”
“At the mere mention of that word, for some reason, something just clicked,” says Cynthia. “That’s me! I thought.
“I knew what the term meant—someone who is not connected to a church or who has little connection to one—but I’d never thought of myself as unchurched,” she says. “I realized with shock that the expression perfectly described my life at that point. I may have been going to church, but I really wasn’t part of the church I attended.
“I prided myself on being a faithful churchgoer, but I was only attending when I needed to be there—Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving. I’d been going through the motions, saying the right prayers, singing the right songs at the right time in the service. But there was really no connection with God.”
That stopped her short.
“There’s more to being a Christian than just showing up,” she says. “If I believed in God, I knew I had to step up and commit.”
“Then Do It”
That thought stayed with Cynthia as Christmas turned to a new year and then to Easter.
Over that time, as Cynthia processed what the pastor had said, she could feel some of her ingrained bad habits slipping away. She realized that she needed to start attending church as a participant, not a bystander. And that’s just what she did.
“I remember seeing my pastors’ faces when I walked in that day,” laughs Cynthia. “Captain Debbie and her husband, Dale, were used to seeing me weekday evenings, never on a Sunday morning. But then they saw me at church the week after and the week after that. Something’s up, they must have thought.
“I felt so welcome,” she continues. “My pastors and the congregation received me with open arms. I was accepted for who I was, and they allowed my faith to grow at its own pace without any set timeline.”
Cynthia was sitting next to one of the church leaders, Rita Price, one Sunday when she suddenly told her, “I know where I need to go and what I need to do.”
“Rita looked me straight in the eye—she doesn’t mince words—and replied: ‘Then do it.’ ”
Trembling, Cynthia stood up and, with Rita by her side for moral support, made her way down to the mercy seat, the simple wooden bench in every Salvation Army church where people confess their sins and ask for God’s forgiveness.
“It turns out that my pastors and a large part of the congregation had been praying for me,” marvels Cynthia. “People I didn’t even know by name!”
Once she committed fully to God, Cynthia’s spiritual floodgates were opened wide. She took the courses needed to become a member of The Salvation Army in 2009. But though she grew in her faith, she did not take the next step right away.
“For more than a year, I was a hold-out,” she says. “I wanted to let the experience sink in. I waited for over a year before I became an official member in December 2012.”
Now, Cynthia is an integral part of her church in Sarnia. She is a committed greeter, a Sunday school teacher, community care ministries worker and volunteers with the food bank, Christmas kettles and other after-school activities. She even helps to chauffeur people to and from church services.
“You might say that I have come full circle,” she says, “and I am about as
un-unchurched as anyone can be!”