'Encountering' the Centre on 99th

Stereotypes were squashed by blaring electric guitars & Shakespearean farce during church talent show


WITH the exception of weddings and funerals I haven't sat at a pew in something like twenty years. I've never read the Bible and I don't know the Commandments by heart. Hell (I mean heck), I couldn't even tell you the difference between a Christian and a Catholic, that's how far my spiritual ignorance stretches. Religion's just never been a part of my life.

Which is why I had no idea as to what to expect when my buddy Andrew Gelasco invited me to check out "Encounter's Got Talent," a one-night-only talent show for the young adult patronage of the Church on 99 (9908-67 Ave.), unofficially known as the "Church of Rock." Unfamiliar with any sorta Christian-themed scene, I reluctantly said yes, knowing that an otherworldly faith separates me from the rest of the group.

"It's a great opportunity to meet people: building friendships and enjoying times together without the baggage of the bar scene," explains the Church's official website about this clique of young adults who meet on a regular basis for various activities that range from weiner roasts & tobogganing to actual rock shows. And of course, this what I hope is annual talent showcase of its members.

I recognized the irony in listening to Bon Scott chanting his Devilish lyrics as I sat in my car in the parking lot of the 9910 Centre, where dozens of churchgoers were about to celebrate their respective talents last Saturday (Jan. 23). I turned off the ignition and went inside, still slightly restless over the company of strangers. And I don't mean strangers in the sense that I've never met any of these people before, but rather that our beliefs were of the contrary, destined to clash at some point during the evening.

Didn't happen though.

What did happen was a) the realization that divine dialogue was not on everybody's minds; b) that I could have a good time surrounded by folks who surely say their grace and know passages by heart; and c) that Christian chicks can play the electric guitar!

The 4-year-old Centre itself, located at 9910-67 Ave., is somewhat hidden in a Southside section that shares space with homes and smoke stacks. The 8,000-sq. ft. building is one huge room cornered off with bathrooms and a kitchen, but also accomodates a DJ booth and full-functioning stage.

"We wanted to create a place that can serve the needs of children, youth and young adults," read the Centre's webpage. "When you include youth as key consultants for the design of all the major aspects of the projects, the results are amazing and beyond what we could image. It was exciting to see it come together in a creative way and to have great support from our congregation and the community at large."

Spotlights lit up the platform, artistic d├Ęcor canvassed walls, and there was even a section dedicated to arcade games (including Wonder Boy!!). No more than a dozen round tables were set up in front of the stage, where Andrew was doing his sound check for one of two performances scheduled for the night.

He then introduced me to some of his friends, and we chatted mostly about music and the Centre itself, before we took to our seats and let emcees Darryl Glen and Joshua Varty get things started. Their back-to-back banter set the tone of the night, making me feel at ease right from the get-go. No preaching, no praying, no signs of the religious ambience I had expected to experience. Not that there's anything wrong with that!

The aforementioned Christian-chick-who-plays-electric-guitar (Elizabeth Sumamo) made up one-third of the first act that braved the stage, which also included emcee Darryl. But as it turned out he wasn't the only moonlighter of the evening, as the trio's bassist doubled as a part-time thespian, as did several other multi-participants. The band's cover of Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out" stripped away any conventions I had of folks who spend Sunday mornings in pews. I should've known better!

There were other musical pieces during the next two hours as well, including a pair who summoned Bob Marley via a confident rendition of the reggae legend's "Jammin'," and my buddy's melancholy take on Chris Daughtry's acoustic take on Lady Gaga's "Poker Face." One young woman sang lyrics to a song she authored herself, and another performed a Turkish dance for one (Meagan Kelly). Joanna Lee inspired with her stirring violin solo, Greg Dodds (pictured below) made us "lol" with his impressive magic show, and Lindzie Mangladesh heated things up with an act that fused belly dancing, fire and hoola hoops! By intermission I had realized how talented I'm not. Thanks for reminding me!

Another highlight was a condensed theatre version of the 1995 film Green Eggs and Hamlet, which blended Dr. Seuss' rhyming couplets with Shakespeare's distinguished narratives. Half of the 6-person troupe had returned to the stage at one time or another, including Ray Mailman, who charmed the crowd when he immersed in the fictional Nigel Clearwater to perform a parodic song he called "Puppy Love." It sounded suspiciously similar to Oasis, I must say.

"Encounter's Got Talent" closed with an obscure, yet intriguing, cover of G. Love & Special Sauce's purposely-bizarre "Milk and Cereal," featuring Andrew on electric guitar and Darryl on drums. Attired in matching T-shirts that plugged their collaborative moniker The Gnarly Brohans, Andrew & Darryl shared vocals for the rendition, which consisted mostly of name-dropping our favourite cereals. If anything, it made me hungry for milk and cereal.

And that's exactly what the pair served right after their wrap-up of this pleasantly surprising Saturday night, pouring bowls of Cheerios, Frosted Flakes and Rice Crispies.

I skipped out on late night breakfast and headed home soon after. On that car ride back to the comforts of familiarity I considered that perhaps these talented young Christians could one day be comfortably familiar to me as well. I can't help but appreciate their hospitality and ability to make me feel right at home, without ever knowing what my spiritual background is. But that's the kind of place 99 is. So I've heard!

"It has been our vision to build a place that the next generation can identify with and enjoy," claimed the Centre's official website. "At 9910 you'll find a new church for a new generation. The message and our core values do not change-what does change is how we connect with our community. It's about letting them know that they are valued, building self-esteem and helping the next generation discover their purpose in life." I couldn't have said it better myself.


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