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Helping hands on Richmond's Highway to Heaven

A three-kilometer stretch of Richmond’s No. 5 Road is home to 24 religious institutions, who are working to dissolve divides and encourage neighbourliness.

Balwant Sanghera outside of the India Cultural Centre of Canada on the Highway to Heaven in Richmond on Oct. 13, 2017.

Jennifer Gauthier / Metro Order this photo

Balwant Sanghera outside of the India Cultural Centre of Canada on the Highway to Heaven in Richmond on Oct. 13, 2017.

Larissa Nelson was in Grade 8 when she visited the Highway to Heaven for a field trip.

A three-kilometer stretch of Richmond’s No. 5 Road is home to 24 religious institutions. Diverse devotees speak everything from English to Chinese, Arabic to Punjabi.

Nelson’s class, from Surrey, spent the day visiting a mosque, a gurdwara, a Jewish temple, a Buddhist temple and a Catholic church.

“I absolutely loved it,” said Nelson, who grew up Baptist. Nelson, 26, teaches high school today.

“The whole point was to ask questions. I remember parents having qualms about the field trip, but our teachers were good at explaining that the trip isn’t about conversion, just education.”

But No. 5 Road wasn’t created with cultural or religious harmony in mind. Its primary purpose was a sanctuary for farmland.

In 1990, Richmond city council thought No. 5’s agricultural land could be protected from real estate development if places of worship buffered the area. There was a mosque on the road at the time, and it seemed like a good model.

That year, the city zoned the area to allow religious buildings in front if they kept farms in the back.

As more places of worship and religious schools opened up on the road, No. 5 became touted as a rosy Canadian example of multiculturalism. “What one Canadian street could teach the world about religious harmony,” reads a recent BBC headline.

But even the Highway to Heaven is bumpy.

“It’s very easy to see the spectacle and automatically jump to ideological celebration,” said Justin Tse, who earned his geography PhD at UBC and researched No. 5. “But it’s not an interfaith road. It’s a road with 24 private religious institutions.”

Language barriers are one challenge. No. 5 is also pedestrian and transit unfriendly.

Balwant Sanghera of the Nanak Niwas Gurdwara, one of No. 5’s first religious institutions, has been working to dissolve divides. Sanghera helped start the Highway to Heaven Association.

“Our main purpose is to broaden our horizons,” he said. “Just learn about each other.”

Welcoming field trips helps. There’s at least one a week, said Sanghera.

Nicole Chan, 17, attends a Christian school on the road, but said before a class field trip she “had no idea what the other groups believed in.”

“I used to think of stereotypes associated with them the same way there are Christian stereotypes,” she said. “Visiting helps us to be mutually sensitive and understand what each other believes.”

There are celebrations, like the Highway to Heaven float in Steveston’s Canada Day parade, with banners from all places of worship accompanied by the Canadian and B.C. flags.

There are the practical tasks that come with being a neighbour, like groups pitching in money to install a sewage pipe.

Parking is shared, important when different groups need space to accommodate extra worshippers driving in during their respective holidays. Tse said not to dismiss parking as trivial; sharing parking means building trust.

Pain is also shared.

The B.C. Muslim Association held a vigil on No. 5 after the fatal shooting of six people inside a Quebec City mosque earlier this year. The road’s Sikhs, Hindus and Christians attended to support their Muslim neighbours.

“Doing multiculturalism isn’t just coming out of your institution and saying ‘Hi neighbour!’” said Tse. “It’s important to be a good neighbour in a practical way.”

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