Rev. Billy Isenor has a recipe for spiritual guidance.
The new minister at St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Ocean Park has had multiple careers – and one of them was as a working as a certified chef.
It’s not all that big a stretch, he noted in a recent interview, between preparing dishes and setting a table and inviting people to gather together and share spiritual nourishment.
Isenor, with his wife Danna and their three children, Alison, six; Florence three; and new baby Micah were welcomed in an informal drive-by ceremony this July in the church parking lot.
Formal induction followed on Aug. 25 in a ceremony conducted by the Right Reverend John Stephens, Bishop of the New Westminster Diocese.
The Penticton-born-and-raised Isenor – who has also lived and worked in Kelowna and Vancouver – comes to the community from Spruce Grove, Alberta, where he served as minister at St. Augustine’s, Parkland, Anglican Church for the last four years.
But prior to living out his vocational calling, he worked as a chef at many restaurants in B.C. and won the Grand Gold award for cuisine in the Western Canadian Culinary Arts Festival in Kelowna in May 2002.
However rewarding that career was – and he retains an interest in fine foods and wine to this day – he found his life was lacking an essential ingredient.
“When I was 28, and still a chef, I kind of decided to go back to the church,” he said.
“I had stepped away from faith, as young people often do. I was into cooking, and partying and travelling. But after doing all that, I had a conversation with God and realized I wanted that communion, that sense of belonging, again.”
Isenor notes the many symbolic Biblical parallels between the imagery of preparing and serving meals and the act of ministering to spiritual needs.
“There’s a sense of serving others, of bringing people in, of getting together and breaking bread – of building relationships and being able to laugh together and cry together,” he said.
“I want not to be a leader, but a spiritual chef, if you will – that’s my honest way to look at it. There is an objective beauty in God’s hospitality.”
Isenor’s faith also led him to become a friar with the Order of St. Luke and a brother in the Anglican religious order called the Order of Saint Francis (St. Francis of Assisi).
It’s a commitment, he said, “not just to a ministry, but to a way of life.”
“What we try to do is live holistically, in a relationship with God and the outside world. I try to listen to the whispers of God that guide me and push me.”
Isenor’s heritage is Metis, he said. His family, in fact, has direct historical connections with leading figures in the Northwest Rebellion of 1885 and the climactic Battle of Batoche that sealed the fate of Louis Riel and his supporters.
“I’ve never talked about it,” he said. “I just am it – I live it.”
“I have become a learner of my grandmother’s language – Michif,” he added.
“When I grew up, we didn’t say who we were. There was a lot of racism. The attitude was ‘if they ask you, you’re French’.
“As a Michif person, I’m trying now to teach our girls about our history.”
Family members also experienced, first-hand, Canada’s residential schools tragedy, he said, and he thoroughly supports the calls to action of the 2015 National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, as a simple case of the need to “do the right thing.”
At the same time, Isenor said, he resists being cast as an expert in the stories, traditions, practices and faith of the Metis or the assumption that, in spite of family connections, he is equipped to speak for the traditions and experiences of other First Nations, or the Inuit peoples.
As a newcomer to this area, for example, he is the first to admit he has no direct knowledge of the culture of the Semiahmoo First Nation.
“But I’d like to get to know them and learn from them about who they are,” he said.
He has also served as associate pastor at Inner City Pastoral Ministry; campus minister at St. Joseph’s College at the University of Alberta; and adjunct guest lecturer in Christology for vocational deacons through Newman Theological College.
Prior to his ordination, beginning in 2005, he served in a variety of ministries in which he met people in some of the more dire extremes of human experience – including being chaplain at Alberta Hospital and the St. Francis of Assisi Hospital in Philadelphia, as well as the Edmonton Institute, a men’s maximum-security prison.
“I’ve served people in prison, I’ve served people in hospital,” he said, but noted that, no matter what their situation, their spiritual needs did not differ markedly from anyone else’s.
“At the core, everybody is dealing with human brokenness,” he said. “We all need some kind of mentoring – and spiritual food is what helps us break the bonds of brokenness.”