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Gratitude and My Faithful Bit

Dear Do Justice readers and co-labourers in the sacred call of justice, peace and reconciliation.

Some of you may have heard that I’ll be stepping away from employment with the CRC at the end of summer after more than 20 years of beautiful and challenging service with justice ministries.  This note is a remembrance of these years with a helping of gratitude, and a reflection or two.

When I first started this job in 2002, it was a blessing to have a series of wonderful mentors. One of them was Gerald Vandezande, certainly an Elder in the movement of Christian faith and justice advocacy. Gerald reminded me that the work of justice is long and the pace of change is often slow. He said something like:

Mike, your job is not to change the world. Take the good work of those who came before you and refine it in diligent work, and constructive-respectful dialogue. Do your faithful bit and recognize that future generations will pick up the good work and God will perfect it all in time.

I often remember this conversation when I hear the famous quote from Oscar Romero – we are prophets of a future not our own. Well, in these 20 years, I hope I’ve approached that faithful bit.

One of the things that I’ve been asked to do to support a smooth exit is to write a retrospective of these years. It turned into a long and detailed piece of work that I won’t bore you with – but it was a rich experience to reflect.  The reflection reminded me of my deep gratitude for hundreds of rich relationships with Elders and mentors, GREAT colleagues, members of the amazing community that is the Committee for Contact with Government, ecumenical and civil society partners, policy makers and shapers, and a wonderful community of justice seekers in churches across the country.  The call to justice, peace and reconciliation is done in community and I’m grateful for the wide circle that has been a central part of this journey – in the heavy lifting and in the joy we experience Creator’s goodness and grace.  Thank-you for the honour of walking together in this calling for these many years!

Bear witness – advocacy as liturgy

Early in our work on Truth and Reconciliation, an Indigenous education policy expert, said to Committee for Contact with Governement member Michelle Nieviadomy and me: when it comes to support for reconciliation in education, we need you to bear witness. He explained that Indigenous communities have known since the 1970s that equity and justice depend on Indigenous leadership in all aspects of education – and that the problem is a lack of political will at the federal level.  So the challenge to bear witness was about challenging public and political indifference to the serious inequities in First Nation education.  

This phrase – to bear witness – is a fundamental posture that we’ve tried to work from since those days. There is a common attitude in Christian circles, and the CRC is no exception, that our advocacy offices should be focused on protecting the church and focusing only on a subset of ‘Christian issues’ like religious freedom, life and sexuality issues at the like.  This attitude makes Christians a special interest group and I firmly believe it to be a wrong posture. 

Churches are characterized by public liturgy as the visible and present gospel.  Liturgy by its definition is public service.  A humble and selfless commitment to public service is the substance of a visible public expression of the Gospel in public. For this reason, I believe it is misguided for churches to focus on a narrow set of issues that are perceived as self-interest, and it is important for churches to be vibrant places of welcome, care, and justice seeking for the public good.  And that is deeply contextual work that is shaped by the neighbours that we rub shoulders with – bearing witness to the needs and strengths of our neighbours in communal life is a public liturgy and ministry of presence that is vital to the witness of Christ.  And to bear witness with integrity, we need to listen to the neighbours with deep humility. 

Faithful… and faltering bits:

The work of justice, peace and reconciliation inside a Western church system comes with failings too. As a long-term leader in such a system I am a part of its beauty and brokenness. A system like the CRC has unexamined defaults and assumptions that affect ministry.  For one I think our pride of intellect leads to idols of theological precision and administrative efficiency. A drive to certainty and control is a result – and it's typically uncomfortable with the mystery and messiness of justice seeking that is relationally accountable.  The Committee for Contact with Government and the Canadian Indigenous Ministry Committee have kicked at this darkness to some effect over many years, and the Decolonization and Anti-Racism Collective is becoming a profound addition to this important work. 

I’ve seen women, people of colour and Indigenous colleagues and friends do the work of faith and justice in the CRC with integrity, passion and grit.  In far too many cases, these good people bear a heavy weight of emotional and spiritual labour with significant personal cost.  The experience of tokenization, minimization and silencing of women, people of colour and Indigenous people is common in the CRC and the church at large. It's rare for malice to be at the root of these experiences, but obliviousness to defaults and privilege by dominant culture leaders – including me – is an all-too-real cause. With the wise and gracious counsel of Elders and BIPoC friends and colleagues, I’ve been challenged about my own complicity in this brokenness, and have leveraged – in a faltering and imperfect way – any institutional influence I had to encourage an opening of space for the leadership of  BIPoC kin and women, and to encourage curiosity about non-Western ways of knowing and being. I know that this work and journey has been flawed and comes with pain for many of us involved – I grieve this deeply, even as I’m grateful for the flashes of light that we’ve been blessed to see. 

Thanks to those of you who love with the courage to confront and challenge. You are grace and blessing and powerful teachers of shalom, critical to the integrity of the church.  As the song says, our salvation is bound up together.

Gratitude & faithful bits:

A dear Elder once said to me that nothing is one-dimensional. So as I reflect on these 20+ years there are failings and imperfections and some really incredible bright spots. I know that as I leave the employ of the CRC there are deep tensions and brokenness related to recent synodical decisions. These tensions are dissonant with the incredible blessings that I see in work like Hearts Exchanged and the early promise of the Decolonization and Anti-Racism Collective.  So since nothing is one-dimensional, it's important to seek out the blessing and nurture it as a way of living well in tension.

I’m often struck by Elder and Brother Harold Roscher’s practice of beginning his prayers with gratitude: Creator, we come and give thanks for the gift of this day.  This posture of gratitude is moving to me and I think it's foundational. At NAIITS – An Indigenous Learning Community, I’ve learned the gratitude teachings of Indigenized Appreciative Inquiry (IAI).  Similar to asset-based community development, IAI focuses on what is working well in a community or system and builds on those assets, rather than concentrating on fixing problems. In maximizing the good of what works, prayerful-communal creativity and persistence can help communities to be vibrant.  

So as I step away from work with the CRC, please allow me to reflect on some vibrant assets that I see.  In the 50+ years of a national presence of the CRC in Canada deliberation and action on justice is a persistent theme in our history (I’ve dug into the archives in some PhD work).   Sure, none of this work is perfect or complete and it includes the common gulf in Western Christianity between our articulated and lived commitments. However, I think the persistence of the themes of justice, peace, reconciliation and inclusion, demonstrate that the Spirit is active in the work of stretching us toward shalom.  The same goes for the collection of profound statements on a wide range of justice and reconciliation topics…. In research I’ve seen how seeds sown in the Indigenous ministries in the mid-1970s have been tended in fits and starts – and the stories and relationships connected to that tending ultimately drew us to the profound work connected to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Hearts Exchanged. There are similar patterns in generations of work with World Renew in refugee sponsorship and community development.  I’ve experienced the presence of the Spirit in these long, imperfect and faithful steps.

As I’ve observed the church’s gospel work of justice and reconciliation for these 20+ years, it's at its best when relationships are central. And people are the blessing that give this work meaning, purpose and joy. The stories of Afghan expats about their home and culture, the stories of couples struggling with infertility, the stories of Refugee families, the truth-telling of Indigenous friends – these stories and so many more have been the very best of this work and journey. In these stories I’ve heard the voice of Creator and the call to reconcile all things - I’ve learned that justice and reconciliation is about honouring the people and communities behind these stories.  The stories are gifts that challenge the church to bear witness in taking the many, many faithful steps of shalom. Honouring stories and relationships help us move from abstract ideas about truth and justice to faithful steps of living them out.

Thanks for the gift of these years – I suspect we’ll see each other on the good road somewhere.

Photo provided by the author of a feast during discussions of the CRC's Doctrine of Discovery Task Force. 

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