Retirement is when people traditionally take it easy after a lifetime of work. However, when Gerald Vandezande, co-founder and former national public affairs director of Citizens for Public Justice, announced that he would retire on his 65th birthday, nobody believed he would dedicate himself to golf or put his feet up and take it easy in Florida. And they have all been proven right.
In the first weeks of his supposed retirement, it is hard to find him at home. His days are filled with meetings, two of his current interests being a longstanding multi-faith group addressing inequality in religious education in Ontario, and a recently formed group that addresses child poverty in all parts of Canada.
“In my mind, I would like to do so much more,” he said in an interview. “But unfortunately, my body won’t let me.”
He is referring to a series of small strokes he has suffered in recent years and other ongoing health concerns. But the Dutch-born Vandezande’s history and experience has filled him with opinions and ideas and a commitment to justice that won’t let him rest.
I’m trying to work out the integral meaning of what it is to be a follower of Jesus in this society with full respect for the rights and views of people of other faith perspectives and different politics. Gerald Vandezande
In a farewell tour last fall, Vandezande crossed the country and gave a series of speeches, each one different and each one characteristically digressing from his prepared text. Instead of warm and fuzzy reflections, they were a series of musings on current public situations and challenges to those who will carry on his work.
His speech in Toronto, for instance, mentioned the inspiration he derived from Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, two people who opposed racism in the American South at great threat to themselves. He pointed to how individuals can make “a powerful difference for the common good.”
From there, he went on to challenge what he feels are the dominant ideologies of our time, individualism and materialism, and linked them to problems with Quebec and national unity, our treatment of Canada’s First Nations, the federal budget, the environment, the compartmentalization and secularization of public life, and so on, constantly stressing social justice and non-partisan solutions.
A rich and varied career
Pinning Vandezande down on his accomplishments is an exercise in frustration. He claims not to remember when he did what, but a quick scan reveals a rich and varied career. His role in CPJ alone saw him approaching different levels of government with public-policy alternatives in areas such as finance, social justice and social union talks. In turn, Members of Parliament, provincial premiers, and mayors of major cities have met with and responded to Vandezande on topics as diverse as poverty, gambling and trade, among others.
But he was also involved with Vision TV as an assistant producer and member of the advisory committee, interviewed many noted Canadians as a radio host, was executive secretary of the Christian Labour Association of Canada for ten years, and was a member of the general council of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.
Current activities include membership on the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition and the steering committee of the Campaign Against Child Poverty, and serving as government coordinator for the Ontario Multi-Faith Coalition for Equity in Education.
Vandezande is a prolific writer, no surprise for such a profuse speaker. There are three books to his credit: Christians in the Crisis:Toward Responsible Citizenship published by the Anglican Book Centre, Let Justice Flow! about justice in a wounded world, and Political Action in an Era of Budget Cuts, which suggests what faith communities can do about poverty. As well, he is the author of numerous articles for not just the Catalyst, but also Christian Courier, Catholic New Times, Anglican Journal, Catholic Register, Toronto Star, ChristianWeek and others.
Vandezande is a member of Grace Christian Reformed Church in Scarborough, Ontario and credits his faith and his parents, who helped save Jews from the Nazis in Holland, with inspiring his life. Though a deeply faithful Christian, he is realistic about Canada’s increasingly pluralistic society and critical of communities that are turning inward.
“What worries me the most is that various faith communities increasingly withdraw from participation in society, that they make fortresses around their sub-culture thinking that you can’t do anything about the big issues out there. They haven’t understood that the gospel is as sweeping and as radical as I understand it to be. If you remove the gospel from everyday reality and make the church and the Wednesday-night bible Study the key of our life, then you’re going to get secularization. They don’t realize that they are the authors of what they oppose.”
It is this approach that steers his commitments, his belief that all people must come together to determine core values common to all and that this should form the basis of a healthy society and, harking back to his reference to Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, the influence people can have.
He illustrated the power of people in pointing out how the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) was stopped largely by a groundswell of opposition by ordinary people. While the MAI may be resurrected in a different form, Vandezande says that there is no permanent victory — there will always be a struggle – the focus should now remain on society’s core values.
While challenging those he meets, Vandezande doesn’t end there. For someone who seems to have a lot of answers, and at his time of life, it is interesting to note that it is himself he challenges most.
“I’m trying to work out the integral meaning of what it is to be a follower of Jesus in this society with full respect for the rights and views of people of other faith perspectives and different politics,” he explained.
As for his personal life, Vandezande has been blessed with a committed marriage and family. After raising their two daughters, his wife Wynne went back to school to complete a social work degree.
The complement of these two personalities has been an interesting one. As one person who spoke at his Toronto appearance put it: Wynne comforts the afflicted while Gerald afflicts the comfortable. A match made in heaven.