When armed police entered the sanctuary of the Church of God in Aylmer, Ontario, last month to evict its parishioners and lock their building, Pastor Henry Hildebrandt had a Bible verse ready to read to them.
Hildebrandt and his church had been publicly tussling for some time with the Ontario government over a provincial order restricting even outdoor religious gatherings to 10 people. Both congregants and media were therefore present on May 16 to record when law enforcement showed up during the service with a court order to shut them down.
As the officers made their way toward the front of the church, Hildebrandt read from the third chapter of the Book of Daniel, which recounts the story of three Jewish men named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The men, who had been raised in the courts of Babylon, refused to bow before a golden image erected by King Nebuchadnezzar, who decreed that anyone who failed to worship it would be thrown into a fiery furnace.
Reading their response to the arrogant king as his congregation cheered, Hildebrandt directed the words to the officers before praying for them: “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”
Before God supernaturally delivered them, an enraged Nebuchadnezzar ordered Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego tightly bound and tossed into a furnace that had been heated to seven times its normal strength.
“We Have Had Real Issues”
The Church of God and its pastors face $183,000 in steadily mounting fines for continuing to congregate. After they were forced out of their building, they began to meet outside. As news of their situation spread internationally, the number of outdoor congregants swelled by the hundreds, and the church was recently fined $66,000 on top of the $117,000 initially slapped on them.
“We have had real issues here,” Hildebrandt told The Daily Wire. “The government does not want to allow us to gather as the people of God, as the Bible would teach us to do.”
For the past 14 months, Hildebrandt explained, his church has had “constant run-ins with the government” as police have hounded them relentlessly regarding the 10-person limit in Ontario, which has seen 8,931 COVID-19 deaths out of a population of more than 14 million as of Thursday.
“We’re doing everything that is within our power to shut [Hildebrandt] down,” Aylmer Police Chief Zvonko Horvat told the CBC. As an officer flung a court summons at Hildebrandt’s feet in January, he said, “God’s not giving us the problems right now. You are.” When Ontario Superior Court Justice Bruce Thomas finally mandated that Hildebrandt’s church be locked in May, the judge said he “hoped his ruling would be an example for the church and others who are considering breaking Ontario laws.”
“I think we have somewhat become the lightning rod because we’re right by the main highway as you come into town and because they dealt with us from last year regarding the drive-in services,” Hildebrandt said, referencing a previous battle with the province. “I would say that maybe they have no choice but to single us out because we have been openly defying them, not meaning to cause any trouble, but because we were determined that we are going to do what the Bible tells us to do.”
A small town of approximately 7,500 people, Aylmer lies just north of Lake Erie, about a two-hour drive from both Toronto and Detroit. After migrating to Mexico during the first half of the 20th century, many Canadian Mennonites began to move back to Canada during the 1970s, for which reason towns such as Aylmer have a sizable population of the German-speaking sect. As Hildebrandt describes it, the Church of God is “just an evangelical Bible-believing church,” but many of its members are from the Mennonite tradition and follow its customs.
“They Definitely Have Singled Out Christianity”
Hildebrandt’s church and the tiny town of Aylmer have received international attention since their building was locked, but he notes that mainstream Canadian media are not particularly sympathetic.
“Of course the mainstream media is very much against us,” he said, though he commended conservative outlet Rebel News in particular for “telling the story like it is” about church lockdowns. “But generally speaking, especially the media that is owned by the government is on the government’s side.”
Hildebrandt discerned that provincial governments across Canada have seemingly targeted Christians. “I would say that they have been especially hard on churches because I would have thought that they should have at least given the churches the same liberty as they would have given a Walmart or Costco or the liquor store or the donut shop,” he reflected. “But when they don’t do that, it would seem to me that they definitely have singled out Christianity or have put a lot of pressure on acting as if meeting with the people on Sunday is not a big deal.”
Conducting church services virtually is not sustainable long-term, Hildebrandt explained. “In order for us to feed our souls, in order for us to gather and to get that healing that we need from being together, you don’t do that virtually. You can’t properly do it. You can do that for a week or two, but not on an ongoing basis.”
Hildebrandt is being represented in court by Lisa Bildy, an attorney with the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms. “Although most churches have been either following the rules, or quietly flying under the radar, there are a number of churches that have become targets for enforcement that has escalated dramatically over the last few months,” Bildy told The Daily Wire. “That’s in no small part due to vigilante citizens, corporate media, and police who are quite happy to take down a church or an anti-lockdown protest, but say not a word of criticism when a politically favorable rally or event takes place.”
“Liberty was already on life support in Canada before the pandemic hit,” Bildy continued. “Canada’s been on a steady march toward a collectivist and authoritarian mindset over the course of a decade, and the events of the last year have made the culture shift undeniable. Group rights are in. Individual rights are out. In part, that is a reaction to what is perceived as distasteful, rugged individualism in the United States. Our national identity is largely centered around not being American.”
“Our Country Is Slipping”
Regarding allegations that he is simply stirring up controversy to promote his own ministry, Hildebrandt said the issues his congregation is facing are much larger than himself and his church. He pointed to the other pastors and churches in Canada who have been punished for gathering during the pandemic, such as the Church of God Restoration in Hanover, Manitoba, which potentially faces $1 million in fines.
Hildebrandt recounted how he traveled to Edmonton, Alberta, to support Pastor James Coates when he was jailed for 35 days in a maximum-security prison for refusing to suspend services. He mentioned Pastor Artur Pawlowski of Calgary, who was arrested on his way home from church in the middle of a busy highway and tossed into a police van. He brought up Pastor Tim Stephens, also from Calgary, who was imprisoned until his legal counsel argued that he was arrested illegally. Hildebrandt also went to Toronto to encourage Adam Skelley, who was billed around $180,000 after police shut down his small business.
“This is about our God-given freedom,” he said. “It’s not about me or our church.”
Hildebrandt said he is grateful to the many Americans who have turned their attention to the ordeals of Canadian Christians. “My message [for Americans] is please pray for us, that the Lord would help us; that we would stand and remain standing and that many more will join. And we thank the Americans, every single one of them who is sending messages and prayers.”
“We thank them for it and we ask that they would please continue praying for us, as our country is slipping on a slippery slope,” he continued. “And it’s very, very, very alarming — not just for Christianity, but generally speaking — that our God-given freedoms can be taken away with the turning of a hand or somebody just making up a rule, and then that our God-given freedom is gone like that is very alarming.”
Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Hildebrandt ultimately trusts God to deliver his church, whose attendance has doubled amid the controversy. “People are hungry, people are thirsty, they want to hear the Word of God, and we are determined to go on,” he said. “This Friday, we are back in court. We presently have fines of $183,000 facing us for the services that we have had, and I hear that there’s more fines coming this Friday.”
The church has since started a crowdfund to help offset its exorbitant legal fees.
“So we are praying that the Lord would just somehow work it out where things can deescalate; where we can freely meet again, as we should be able to in Canada, seeing that we have religious freedom,” he added.