By Katie Newman

Sitting in a teal armchair in her office, Mona Scrivens has no problem keeping a smile on her face, despite having a life that could easily be made into a movie. A movie full of unexpected twists and turns, but one that offers life lessons and meaning. Her husband, Brian Scrivens, says her energy, “lights up the room.” Her long, dark brown hair and bangs frame her face perfectly. Today she’s wearing a vibrant red cardigan, her glasses perched on top of her head. Her body posture is relaxed and comfortable, her legs crossed and her hands clasped in her lap. The smile catches your attention, but her energy keeps it. She’ll tell you her whole life story in 20 minutes, all you have to do is ask.

It begins in Saskatoon, Sask., born to immigrant parents from India. They quickly moved to St. Catharines, Ont., where her father taught at Brock University. Mona’s childhood was a confusing time. Once her parents divorced, Mona helped translate the paperwork and what the lawyer was saying since her mother didn’t understand English. 

Once in high school, some classmates invited Mona to their youth group, a meeting place for teens to talk about Christianity and hang out. Again, with that contagious smile and a laugh, she recalls herself as an “irritating kid who asked too many questions.” Growing up Sikh, she was familiar with religion, but didn’t quite get Christianity – until she went on a retreat with her friends. “I don’t remember who the speaker was. I don’t remember the music that was playing. But I remember looking up at the cross and thinking, ‘Yeah, this is for me, Jesus died for me.’ That was the moment that changed my life.”

Now the minister of Amberlea Presbyterian Church in Pickering, Ont., Mona worked hard to arrive where she is today. But, Mona’s not someone you’d expect to see every Sunday, preaching about Christianity, when Christian ministers are often stereotyped as being older white men. Her unique path in life has led to a unique way of preaching. Known for using puppet shows, science experiments and costumes, her sermons are entertaining for all ages.

Nearly every week, Mona will bring out some kind of prop to drive her point home. For Christmas Eve services, she brings out her renowned puppets to act out a scene from the biblical story of Jesus’s birth. Mona’s personal favourite being the Sunday she brought in a treadmill and made churchgoers run on it while trying to juggle, a metaphor for juggling a busy life and making room for religion. 

(Katie Newman/T•)

Nancy Varga, Mona’s long-time friend and colleague, recalled how this past December, Mona decided they were going to build a stable in the parking lot, which would also include live animals, such as camels. According to Allen Burke, a long-time member of Amberlea Church, this passion and dedication are what make her such an effective minister and able to connect so well with people. 

Although life still had a few things to throw Mona’s way. After she started her master’s at Tyndale University, studying religion, her parents didn’t speak to her for months. Her mother was hurt by her choice to study a religion other than Sikhism, while her father believed it was a useless degree with which she would never find a career. But when her mother eventually invited Mona to meet her ailing grandmother back in India for the first time, she jumped at the chance.

Information from “Jesus: According to Sikhism” by Mona Scrivens. (Katie Newman/T•)

Information from “Jesus: According to Sikhism” by Mona Scrivens. (Katie Newman/T•)

Once in India, Mona’s uncle was there to pick them up. He explained he had three suitors – a doctor, an engineer and an American businessman – set up as potential matches for an arranged marriage for Mona. 

Mona spent the three-week trip praying, asking her god to protect her and stop the meetings. A small smile appears as she recalls how she somehow missed each man: “I had to say that that was a God thing, that God protected me from that. There was no reason that in three weeks I couldn’t have met at least one of them.”

But she still had to tell her grandmother, the matriarch of the family, about converting to Christianity, going to Tyndale and dating a “white boy” back in Canada.

The scene appears right out of the climax of a Hollywood film. Mona explained the situation to her grandmother – who was not as sick as she had believed – in her “tooty-fruity Hindi,” while her mother helped interpret. A white china teacup, filled with Chai, sat on a tray beside them. The drapes closed, leaving the room feeling sombre. The ornately framed photos of Mona’s grandfather and religious figures seemed dwarfed hanging on the towering walls. 

Scared, staring down at the uncomfortably firm bed, Mona would steal a glance into her grandmother’s eyes. It eventually grew perfectly quiet. Mona looked up at her grandmother one last time, lying in bed, smiling. “‘It’s good, it’s so good that you love God, that you’re studying more,'” said her grandmother. “‘I wish I had done that when I was younger. It’s good that you’re dating this young man and his dad is a minister and they all love God. It’s so good.’”

Relieved, Mona left India with not only her grandmother’s approval, but her mom’s as well. “That was an amazing thing. My mom and I got better. She still didn’t understand, but the lines of communication opened up after that.”

Mona Scrivens (left), and her son Tyler have a quick discussion before service starts. Not many people have arrived yet, so the church is almost empty. (Katie Newman/T•)
Throughout services, the congregation of Amberlea Presbyterian Church will stand and sing while the band plays the music. The words are projected on a screen at the front and even the children sing along. (Katie Newman/T•)

With a mended bond, Mona approaches her relationship with her mother with love and embraces their interfaith dynamic. Though her mother has trouble understanding her religion, they built a relationship based in trying to be there for one another. Though her life may read like a movie script, Mona will just say, “That’s just how things have always been.” 

Everyone who Mona meets is immediately subject to a hug and a radiant smile. She hugs everyone goodbye as they leave Sunday service. Something Nancy Varga loves about her friend. She describes Mona as passionate, sincere and wise. “You can’t miss her when she comes in a room… She’s never content to just be, she’s always pushing to the next level.” 

Beneath Mona’s always smiling exterior lies a sensitive, emotional side. A side not many fully see, said Varga.

“Her heart is really deep. When she puts her heart into something, she really means it. When she loves you, she loves you fiercely.”

-Nancy Varga
Mona Scrivens, minister of Amberlea Presbyterian Church in Pickering, Ont., hugs each person goodbye as they leave the service every Sunday morning. (Katie Newman/T•)

Now sitting in her armchair, in a small, but cozy office, the towering bookcase and sunlit window make the space feel much bigger. A clock ticking in the background is the calming constant to the ever-changing life of Mona Scrivens. Its steady beat fills the pensive pauses left by the moments Mona takes to relive her past. She would never let you think she was unhappy with her life, but you can’t shake thoughts of the hardships she’s stared down. “I honestly don’t know how people without a faith manage in times of loss or despair,” she divulges. “To think that we’re just circling the planet and there’s nothing more… It seems so futile and so frightening for me…But knowing we have a greater purpose is hugely comforting.”

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