In April and May a delegation of leaders was hosted by ecumenical committees in eight cities across Canada, including many CPJ members. They had three goals: to share information about poverty in Canada and climate justice; to listen to local reflections on engagement and advocacy, and prepare their Church Leaders’ Pastoral Statement to be developed later this summer.
The traveling church leaders included Susan Johnson, National Bishop of the Evangelical Church in Canada, Rev. Willard Metzger, Executive Director of Mennonite Church Canada, and Rev. Karen Hamilton, General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC). I was honoured to accompany the Justice Tour throughout the country, speaking in some venues and moderating events in other centers. The Tour visited Vancouver, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Kitchener, Halifax, Montreal and Ottawa.
In 2011 important interfaith statements were issued on poverty and climate change, yet most people in the pews were never made aware of their content. Citizens for Public Justice, an affiliate member of the CCC, has used these statements in various educational and awareness-raising opportunities, including publishing two books of reflections and action suggestions, to encourage the work of the churches and engage faith communities in further action.
These two priority issues for the CCC’s Commission on Justice and Peace are especially strategic in 2015 with the civic engagement that will occur during the federal election, and because of two key international events: the UN climate conference in Paris (December), and the UN General Assembly on Sustainable Development Goals (September). The announcement that Pope Francis will release the first-ever encyclical on the environment in July may also give these issues greater weight among Roman Catholics.
The church leaders heard from dozens of experts, local politicians, and church members passionate about public justice issues, at events attended by over 700 individuals. At the risk of simplifying this tremendously rich experience, it could be said that the leaders heard five main messages repeated over and over again.
- First, it was clear that people in the Canadian churches really care about poverty and climate change. Many people are involved in ministries addressing these concerns in myriad ways, and they called for moral leadership and even risk-taking from their faith leaders as well as substantive action from their governments.
- Secondly, people clearly see links between climate change and poverty concerns, with an overlay of acknowledgement that Indigenous rights must be addressed as we respond. It was often remarked that poverty has many faces, including the faces of Indigenous peoples and newcomers to Canada, but it is the poor that suffer most from climate disruption. We heard that the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor are one and the same, or in another’s words, “nature is the new poor.” In addressing both issues, it is climate justice and justice for the poor that is required, rather than limiting our churches to charitable responses.
- Third, the leaders heard a communal lament due to the breakdown of relationships: with God, with creation, and with each other. Canada, it seems, has changed, but there is a yearning to revitalize communities. It was recognized that faith communities can and must play a role in changing the dominant discourse and allowing the bridging of cultures, re-establishing hospitality and re-creating community.
- Fourth, the church leaders were also firmly invited to work in partnerships. This included working with other denominations and other faith groups as well as engaging partners in civil society. While acknowledging that collaboration makes our voice stronger, there were numerous calls to avoid dominant structures but to proceed by always including people with lived experiences of poverty and climate injustice in our efforts.
- Finally, the leaders always discerned the presence of hope. People were not giving up, but rather accompanying all the analysis there was urgency in the need for action for change. Justice Tour participants focused on the CCC’s two priority issues (climate justice and ending poverty in Canada), because the 25 members of the CCC firmly believe Psalm 24: “the earth is the Lord’s and all that’s in it, the world, and those who live in it.”
Drawing on what was learned during the listening tour, a Church Leaders’ Pastoral Statement on Climate Change and Poverty in Canada will be developed and shared this summer for study and response from church constituencies, candidates for political office and the public. Locally-led engagement activities will follow the Statement, resulting in various local engagement and advocacy plans, such as meetings with candidates, reflections/prayers/hymns and liturgical activities, etc. Canadian church leaders will participate in, and report back from the UN meetings with international faith-based partners. A federal election resource, including sections on these two priority issues, has already been prepared for use by ecumenical committees.
Church leaders received these many challenges in good faith during the Justice Tour 2015, offering their valuable time and engaged attention to the many concerns expressed. The ecumenical participants and the many concerned persons who inhabit church pews are now invited to pick up the causes of poverty in Canada and climate justice and make them their own.