Reflection on pilgrimage of justice and peace: We came, we saw, we listened…
In 2015, Bishop Susan Johnson, National Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, The Rev. Dr. Willard Metzger, Executive Director, Mennonite Church Canada and I, The Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton, General Secretary of The Canadian Council of Churches, took to the road for the Church Leaders Justice Tour 2015.
Actually, we took to the skies. We travelled across Canada stopping in eight Canadian cities for a total of fifteen events. In a country the geographical size of Canada that means flying. And for scheduling reasons it meant flying very early in the morning. Our latest departure was 7:30 a.m.!
The Church Leaders Justice Tour was coordinated by The Canadian Council of Churches and Citizens for Public Justice. We three Church Leaders traversed the country, with the logistical support of CPJ’s Executive Director, Joe Gunn. We three did not traverse the country, stopping in those eight Canadian cities and attending fifteen events as those with any particular wisdom. Rather we came, we saw and we listened as those who needed to hear from church and social justice people of local communities, in local communities. Every one who gathered was encouraged to “Come to pray, engage and learn what faith communities are saying and doing about climate change and poverty.”
Vancouver, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Kitchener/Waterloo, Halifax, Montreal and Ottawa were the eight cities we journeyed to, made a pilgrimage to one might say. In each city, at each afternoon and evening event people gathered to recognize the traditional territories on which we were meeting. Representatives from the local bodies, faith bodies and secular organizations spoke about the ways that they were engaging with poverty and climate change and indigenous realities and the ways in which those three challenges and more are intimately intertwined. For the bulk of each event, we three Church Leaders listened and took notes. It was only at the end of each session that we reflected on what we had heard both at the individual events and as we journeyed across the country.
We heard concrete things such as the vital importance of a national guaranteed annual income, a national housing strategy and a national daycare programme in order to combat poverty. We heard those particular concrete needs named in almost every one of our listening events. We also heard about the importance of such resources as free public libraries and free skating and swimming lessons for the building of just and equitable communities. Many times the importance of transit passes for people of lower income was stated as a necessity. We were reminded that faith communities and government do not pay enough attention to the working poor and that there is much incidence of hidden poverty – professionally trained people who cannot afford the fees to belong to and be certified by their professional bodies, for example.
There was exceptional wisdom expressed at a number of our pilgrimage stops in discussion about how to draw local, regional or national bodies together to work on any particular issue. We were reminded that half of those at any discussion table must be people who are directly affected by the particular challenge at stake. There needs to be much more consultation on poverty with people actually living in poverty. Public space was named as a way of building a just and equitable community using in one instance the catchy line, “Building democracy one playground at a time.” And there was a statement that travelled with us at a very visceral level and as a constant refrain– “Statistics are people with their tears dried off.”
There were also some very strong and clear themes that emerged in the words we heard from a wide variety of people from a wide variety of organizations in a wide variety of places. It was at our first stop in Vancouver that one of the younger of those gathered stated that she had never seen the Church take real leadership on an issue in her lifetime. Others mused about the Church’s past role in social movements and wondered where that faith commitment is now. It was stated that what is needed is political will and that the churches are not only behind on pressing climate change issues but have generally been too quiet on all social justice issues. It could not have been more strongly stated that commitments to indigenous peoples must be advocated for and honoured by all sectors of Canadian society. Part of what that involves is deep and equitable partnership with indigenous peoples and that involves listening.
We heard over and over again as the Justice Tour continued that the churches must take moral leadership, working with each other, working with other faith communities and working with all parts of civil society as a whole for the sake of any given community as a whole. We must do so out of the depths of our theology and faith with the appropriate knowledge and data in hand. Expert knowledge of the key data in any issue and the stories of the people affected must go together, grounded in the belief and proclamation that all people are made in the image of God. It was some of the non faith-based organizations that we heard from who strongly stated that faith institutions still have a moral voice in society, a moral voice that will be listened to but that they are not using it.
The biblical theme of hospitality, the faithful, deep hospitality that cares for the needs of the vulnerable was named along with the rhetorical question about what we, as the Church do to train up prophets in our midst? There was an expressed longing for prophets who would remind us and the world of such realities as the moral issue of climate change and the fact that those least responsible for it pay the greatest price. Faith communities have not only the potential to train up prophets but also trans-national connections, the capacity to build social capital, a balance of both patience and impatience and the long-term commitment and tenacity to make a difference even in problems that seem intractable.
It was in Edmonton in the context of a very powerful presentation of the interconnections amongst poverty, climate change and indigenous realities that an indigenous sister did me the great honour of presenting me with an Eagle feather. The words she spoke to me as she presented it remain with me and will continue to do so. As she handed me the Eagle feather she declared that she gave it to me confident that as a result of our listening tour I would speak the words and take the actions that need to be spoken and taken. I am honoured, I am humbled and I hope and pray that I have and will continue to listen and act such that my life may reflect her trust for the sake of all God’s people.
We came, we saw, we listened…May we so respond, may we so proclaim, may we so live.
Karen Hamilton is the General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches.