Justice looks like a refugee mother serving Ethiopian food to a gathering of volunteers who welcomed her to the city.
Justice looks like a teenager being free to express themselves through art, dance, and music because someone believed in the creative beauty of their imagination.
Justice looks like family-style meals where everyone breaks bread together and overturns systems of paternalistic charity.
Where is the Spirit of God working for justice in the city of Toronto? This was the incredibly complex and multifaceted question that we addressed during the summer of 2017 through the Living Justice Project. The question was daunting, intriguing, and humbling to say the least.
A ministry of justice proclaims freedom for the captives, sight for the blind, release for the oppressed and ultimately the year of the Lord’s favour (Luke 4:18-19). When we pursue justice, we are responding to what God is already doing in our city. So rather than engaging in identifying the justice needs all around us, we entered into a process of observation, listening, prayer, and storytelling to help us see where the Spirit is already at work.
We arranged to sit down with 29 different people including frontline workers, veterans in the field, activists, priests and pastors, founders and directors of nonprofits, authors, social workers, and volunteers. At the heart of these conversations, we met a recurring theme: injustice is always at a place of deep disconnection between people. At the heart of all injustice and poverty is a poverty of relationships. And, where we saw a living and embodied justice in people’s lives, we saw a flourishing of human connection and the renewal of relationships amongst neighbours.
From a movement that inspires abundant living through deep relational engagement to an organization connecting homeless men to new home communities; from support groups for the social reintegration of past offenders to family-style drop-in centres; from a neighbourhood oriented church community to a network of interfaith leaders for action, we saw a city ripened for rich relationships that restore the oppressed and broken-hearted to renewed life.
Our neighbours who are poor, Indigenous, or mentally ill, those who experience racial discrimination, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and other marginalized people are fighting to be seen, heard, and known. And the Spirit is busy calling us to lives of friendship and community building with these neighbours. We cannot ignore this epidemic of loneliness.
We were given a very important reality check by Mary Jo Leddy, founder of a transition home for refugee claimants called Romero House. “You shouldn’t be involved in justice,” she warned us, “if you don’t have a friend who’s poor.” If we are going to be people of justice, where are our friends who are poor and disenfranchised?
In the face of this epidemic of loneliness, we must abandon relationships of paternalistic charity or self-righteous morality and embrace a friendship of justice that accompanies our friends in their suffering. Mary Jo and Romero House director Jenn McIntyre suggested this kind of just friendship with the poor is only made possible by suffering alongside them. Jenn brought it all home for us when she pressed upon us the necessity to hear a personal call from God. We cannot wait for those more skilled to complete the work of justice; each of us carries the responsibility to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our whole lives. We need to hear from God that our lives are bound up with justice. If we heed these words, would we not be subverting Toronto’s greatest poverty – the poverty of relationship in a climate of loneliness?
This is just one of the life-changing conversations we were fortunate to have. We had the privilege of seeing firsthand the fruit of those who have been working for social justice in Toronto. In this city we have seen profound feats of compassion as well as justice for the oppressed. Yet there is new work to be done that has been left for our millennial generation. It is to this generation we dedicate this project, trusting you will take our assessment to heart so that loneliness will no longer oppress our city.