Christians snap up convent as place to pray for politicians

Ottawa, Canada - A former Lowertown convent that sat empty for three years is being resurrected as a place for evangelical Christians to pray for politicians on Parliament Hill.

The National House of Prayer, which opened in November, has the financial backing of churches and religious organizations with links to the grassroots evangelical groups that helped Stockwell Day defeat Preston Manning in the 2000 Canadian Alliance leadership race.

The groups belong to the "charismatic" stream of the evangelical movement, which has its roots in Pentecostalism and gets its name from the emotive and activist forms of worship encouraged by its leaders.

Charismatic evangelicals are known for their belief in prophecies, mystical callings and high-energy worship. They have been at the forefront of campaigns to ban abortion, minimize gay rights, and ensure religious freedom in Canada.

"An element of their worship often included reference to the concept that God was going to bring a great revival to the nation and that it was going to begin in the capital, Ottawa," wrote Lloyd Mackey, an Ottawa-based journalist for several Christian publications.

Rob and Fran Parker, the couple behind the prayer house, bought the 11,000-square-foot building on Myrand Avenue, off Old St. Patrick Street, for $900,000 -- half the $1.8-million asking price.

The couple raised a $500,000 down payment with the help of their church in British Columbia, as well as charismatic-leaning leaders such as Dick Dewert, founder of an Alberta-based Christian television station called the Miracle Channel. An unidentified Chinese church in Toronto also provided a $225,000 loan.

The project has the endorsement of David Demian, the charismatic Christian leader of Watchmen for the Nations, a group that stages public rallies drawing thousands into spontaneous dancing and "prophetic prayer."

David Mainse, founder of the 100 Huntley Street TV show, is also a supporter and was an early visitor to the prayer house.

Since the prayer house's opening, the Parkers have hosted church groups from across the country, including a delegation from Nunavut. Members of these "prayer teams" spend a week in Ottawa praying with other Christians, meeting MPs and senators, and touring Parliament Hill. Many pay for the trip themselves, or are sponsored by their churches.

"Many of these people have never been to Ottawa, so it's a chance for them to see for themselves how government works, and to inform their MPs that they're here," says Mrs. Parker.

The three-storey retreat -- the former home of the Catholic Sisters of Wisdom -- can accommodate up to 35 people.

The Parkers describe the prayer house as a registered charity that welcomes Christians of all denominations. They say it is not an advocacy group, and does not endorse political parties. They also don't claim to have privileged access to MPs and lawmakers on the Hill.

"We're asking God to bring wisdom and righteous decisions to all Parliament. And that's our mandate -- to pray for our nation and our nation's leaders," says Mr. Parker, a former paramedic who, in 1982, became a born-again Christian while working on the oil rigs of Libya.

Last year, the couple left their home in Vernon, B.C., where Mr. Parker served as a pastor of the Community Baptist Church. The Parkers, who now live in the Aylmer sector of Gatineau, say they were summoned by God to establish "an embassy of prayer" in Ottawa.

At the time, the Parkers had no startup funds to launch the venture, although their $2,000 monthly living expenses have been covered by their Vernon church since they came to the national capital region.

Their move coincided with federal debate over gay marriage legislation, but the Parkers downplay suggestions they were galvanized to act by the controversial bill.

"It was a step of faith that God actually called us here," says Mr. Parker.

The Parkers insist they never intended to take over the former convent when real-estate agents first showed them the property. The building had been owned by a realty group that had unsuccessfully planned to turn it into condominiums.

But Mr. Parker says they decided to buy the property after God spoke to him and his wife through prayer. The Parkers say they were even instructed to make an offer of $900,000. "God really was clear that this was the building we were to take on."

Mrs. Parker is aware skeptics might question their motives.

"It scares some people. They freak out and worry that Christians are going to try and gain control and take over our nation," she says.

"I suppose if I wasn't a Christian, I might think that, or feel threatened by something I don't know. But rightly, Christians are frightened about some of the decisions that are being made, and they see a nation turning from really good values."

While Mrs. Parker is reluctant to elaborate, her husband doesn't hesitate to point to issues of concern to them. In addition to same-sex marriage, the Parkers are worried about federal proposals to legalize assisted suicide.

According to Mr. Mackey, charismatic Christians have been aggressively trying to dominate Stephen Harper's Conservative party, even though they have been unsuccessful so far.

At times, they have alienated evangelicals who prefer a more dispassionate approach to politics and public policy.

"The charismatics could appear intimidating, almost frightening, to the more traditional evangelicals," Mr. Mackey wrote in a new biography called The Pilgrimage of Stephen Harper.

"While they shared many political goals, the traditionals considered the charismatics' tactics to be excessive and at times bullying."

Mr. Mackey says that, in the 1990s, charismatic Christians supported Reform Party founder Preston Manning, a devout evangelical. However, they were frustrated when Mr. Manning insisted they temper their expectations and work toward incremental change.

During the Canadian Alliance leadership contest in 2000, charismatic Christians helped sign up thousands of new party members to help Mr. Day -- potentially "God's anointed leader" -- defeat Mr. Manning.

When Mr. Day's term ended and Mr. Harper replaced him, charismatic Christians threw their support behind the new leader. But they remained wary and at times critical of Mr. Harper, in part because he opposes same-sex marriage yet defends state-sanctioned civil unions for gay couples.

Mr. Mackey suggests charismatic Christians were leading the push for an early election last year because they believed they had much to gain. Either Mr. Harper would win and block same-sex marriage legislation, or he would lose and be replaced by a leader who would potentially be more sympathetic to their views.