St. Andrews Church hall was packed on Tuesday night for the launch of Joe Gunn’s new book, Journeys to Justice: Reflections on Canadian Christian Activism. 110+ attendees of all ages and denominations came together with one common passion: the call to justice and the revitalization of faith-based action in achieving it. The overall atmosphere of the event was a refreshing mix of uplifting reflections, challenging realities, and sometimes humour, to address these incredibly important topics.
Rev. Dr. Karen Dimmock welcomed us to St. Andrew’s Church where she is pastor, and opened with prayer. The event’s MC, Rev. Cannon Laurette Glasgow, offered insightful responses to the presenters throughout the night. Presenters included Joe Gunn, three contributors to the book, and two members of parliament. Contributors John Foster, Bill Janzen, and Tony Clarke spoke with unequivocal passion about their experiences with Christian activism. This theme, woven throughout the book, is a welcome counter narrative to views of church involvement in public life and justice as only right-wing responses to issues of reproductive rights, sexuality, and gender. Faith communities have a unique role to play in the larger journey for justice.
Elaborating on his chapter in the book, John Foster spoke of the plight of Chilean political prisoners under Pinochet’s oppressive regime and the role of faith-based communities in calling on the Canadian government to receive them as refugees fleeing persecution. Foster emphasized the churches’ persistence in demanding action for those attempting to flee and described how, “within months, the doors opened”. He closed his remarks by recognizing the need – and challenges – surrounding the shift from ecumenicism to multifaithism.
Bill Janzen spoke of his task as a representative of the Mennonite Central Committee to negotiate the first successful private sponsorship agreement for refugee resettlement in Canada. This agreement has since become the model agreement upon which, Janzen stated, current Canadian responses are based. Far from resting on his laurels, Janzen further challenged the crowd with an important message surrounding refugee resettlement and activism: “If, in helping the few who get here, we never lift our eyes to those sitting in refugee camps, or we never look at the factors that help to create situations of oppression and war where people become refugees, factors to which we contribute, then perhaps private sponsorship of a few refugees is naïve, not unlike a feel-good private charity.” This profound reflection was followed by an acknowledgement that the faith community has a strong legacy of looking hard at these underlying causes.
With poignant sincerity, Tony Clarke spoke of the frustration and pain he felt while being interviewed on the pastoral letter: Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis. In contrast to the Catholic bishops’ withdrawal from ecumenical justice work, Clarke stressed emphatically that it is “through the ecumenical work that our vision and our understanding of justice and justice in the world has been enhanced”. Clarke finished with a reiteration of the need to rebuild the interfaith movement for social justice lest, as he put it, “all of this work will have been done for naught.”
While members from each political party were invited to attend, the two Members of Parliament present to respond to the book launch were the NDP’s Carol Hughes from the riding of Algoma – Manitoulin - Kupuskasing in Ontario and Green Party leader Elizabeth May representing the Saanich – Gulf Islands riding in British Columbia.
Carol Hughes began by thanking author Joe Gunn for sharing his book with her, calling it an “inspirational and informative read”, while acknowledging that churches, rooted in the social gospel, have led the way for social justice movement across this country. Hughes expressed that faith-based politics are often represented by a narrow band of issues that use religion as a divisive tool, contrasted with the examples documented in Journeys to Justice. Hughes also encouraged the crowd to challenge growing inequality and false scarcity, stating that “we must challenge inequality as the root cause that is holding us back on so many issues”. The interfaith movement, Hughes believes, has the potential to challenge power to create change.
The final speaker of the night, Elizabeth May, provided some comic relief for the crowd with a playful anecdote shared with some local church attendees, followed by a serious statement that “the church was not late to climate action”, referring to the pivotal role the churches played in getting the Kyoto protocol ratified in Canada – specifically, the 80,000 postcards calling on Jean Chrétien to ratify the accord. May also spoke of the role churches played in creating the Earth Charter in 1997, a document which calls for the earth to be viewed and treated as sacred. According to May, voices of faith communities are needed now more than ever. And we could not agree more.
One thing that became clear to all those in attendance: churches have played, and must continue to play, a distinctive role in politics and public life. To learn more about the historic role of Canadian churches in social justice work, and what work lies ahead for us, order your copy of CPJ’s Journeys to Justice: Reflections on Canadian Christian Activism today.
A similar event will be held in Toronto on Thursday, May 31st, at 6:30 PM at the Mary Ward Centre on campus at the University of Toronto.