Be Not Afraid – 40 years of bold witness to ecumenical social justice

May 8, 2013, The Church of the Redeemer, Toronto

Joe Mihevc, co-editor of Coalitions for Justice

Jennifer Henry, Executive Director of KAIROS

Jennifer Henry + Joe Mihevc at KAIROS 40th Anniversary Celebration (photo by Alan Lissner)

Jennifer Henry + Joe Mihevc at KAIROS 40th Anniversary Celebration (photo by Alan Lissner)

Jennifer: Tonight we are here to celebrate 40 years of bold witness to ecumenical social justice.  We want to ground the work of KAIROS in a sense of gratitude over what has been accomplished, in deep relationships of compassion and solidarity that have been nurtured, and in a profound sense of contribution to God’s Promise.

Joe:  I do this reflection as one of the writers and editors of the book Coalitions for Justice, where along with Chris Lind, we collected 12 stories of the Inter-Church Coalitions in the early 1990s.  Those stories are rich in insight on the inspiration that drove the churches to this work, and its significance to the Church, to Canada and to the world.

Jennifer:  The book was published in 1994, one year after I began, half time, on contract, to work at the Ecumenical Coalition for Economic Justice (ECEJ).  I speak from this recent part of the story, the coalitions in the 90’s, the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative and, since 2001, KAIROS.

Joe: Together we found five points of connection, threads of continuity and challenge in the story.  We want to gather these threads together, weaving in the wisdom of mentors and elders to help shape our present and our future.

Theological Reflection

Joe: An ethic of praxis with little explicit theological reflection marked the beginnings of the Inter-Church Coalitions 40 years ago.  Organizers went with what worked. What was important was the issue, whether it was refugees fleeing from Latin America, or oil exploration on Aboriginal land in the Arctic, or apartheid in South Africa, or poverty in Canada.  The fact that, post Vatican II, both Roman Catholics and Protestant denominations were working together was brand new and exciting.  The social movements of the 1960s were in full swing. The coalitions were thus created in a historical period of optimism and hope, where Church leaders saw that it was possible to do together what may have been impossible to do alone.

It is fair to name this period as a time when this ethic of praxis meant that theological differences among various Christian traditions were to be bracketed.  And yet the creation of the Inter-church coalitions came from a very deep place within the Canadian Christian consciousness of the times.  It was guttural and experiential, or better said, the movement was borne from a deeper spiritual place that in the early 1970s, was scarcely able to be articulated.

Jennifer:  When I first started at ECEJ in 1993, I tried to find a Bible in the office to contribute some biblical reflection to the ECEJ book Reweaving Canada’s Social Safety Net.  I searched and finally found it buried underneath the entire text of the Canada/US Free Trade agreement.  The biblical commitment was there, but it was deep, under the research, analysis, and action that was the visible witness of the coalitions.

As we began the Moral Economy Workshops in the 90’s and then the Jubilee Initiative in 1998, we worked more and more to uncover the biblical and theological foundations.  The Jubilee vision statement in 1998 was a bold, collaborative project of contextual biblical interpretation—of liberating biblical study.   Our biblical reflection nourished our action, which in turn stimulated more biblical reflection—volumes and volumes worth.  The Bible had this way of keeping the horizon of justice before us—it pushed us to be more prophetic more radical—radical in terms of getting to the roots of our faith.

We are once again in a moment at KAIROS when the theological witness is more and more visible—not one common ecumenical voice but diverse voices speaking from the particular wisdom of their own tradition.  Weekly biblical reflection now graces our website posted right beside action opportunities and in depth analysis of policy issues.

Courage and Determination

Joe:  Courage and determination marked the early years of the Inter-Church Coalitions and it continues to this day.  Anglican Primate Ted Scott in 1985 visited the then infamous prisoner Nelson Mandela, followed by Marg Bacon and Wendy Hunt of the Inter-Church Coalition on Africa (ICCAF) who were denied visas to enter South Africa in 1986.  Taskforce on the Churches and Corporate Responsibility (TCCR) staffer Renata Pratt and Moira Hutchinson and folks like Jesuit Jim Webb, in what must have felt like Don Quixote tilting against windmills, bravely attended many corporate annual general meetings, and faced the fierce critique of the Confederation of Church and Business People.   Folks like Fran Arbour, John Foster, Bill Fairbairn, starting in Chile and then in other South and Central American countries when human rights violations were commonplace, showed courage and determination, often putting their own lives at risk.

The inspiration of these Canadian coalition builders fed off of the convictions that solidarity partners displayed around the world: their struggle became the food for Canadians’ courage.  Anglican Priest Michael Lapsley, outspoken critic of apartheid, was nearly killed with a letter bomb after visiting Canada in 1990.  A year later he came back with steel hooks for hands in a show of tremendous courage and determination to not let the apartheid regime have the last word.  These stories of our global partners in turn nurtured the courage and determination of many Christians in Canada to act in solidarity.

Jennifer:  Tonight we named Kimy, Pascal, Esperanza… and so many others killed in their passionate defense of human rights.  This horror continues and in a very real sense, with every new death, we feel that the bundle that is their work and passion comes also to our shared hands.  The courage of those who step directly into their shoes is prophetic to us.  The words of Christ in the gospel of John–“do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27)–is only one of 365 times in the scriptures where our texts call us to “fear not, be not afraid.” Our partners reveal this scriptural witness, they are living testimony.    If they have courage in the face of tremendous risk—we must, in much greater privilege and security, find that daily biblical courage towards a prophetic future,

It’s hard in Canada right now to stand up for human rights and ecological justice. Coalitions staff used to co-host human rights consultations with government, partnerships with CIDA were mutual and expected, and Ministers, even Prime Ministers, welcomed (or at least tolerated) our delegations.  The kind of moment we have now—the kind of exclusion from policy debate—would not even have been imagined. To stand up for the witness of our global partners now, to stand firm for right relations with Indigenous peoples and the earth, is to face defunding, to be called names, to worry about your charitable status.

And yet we know that being ahead of the curve has in some ways always brought these kind of challenges.  In early times of the apartheid struggle, the churches and coalitions were also ridiculed, accused of extremism, of funding terrorism.  What can we learn from those whose determination helped them hang on, until the tide turned, until justice rolled down like water?  How do we hang on now to mining justice or just peace in Israel-Palestine? Hanging on, out on the limb, takes determination.  But when our partners take risks so much greater than ours, how can we not hold on.


Voices from the Margins

Joe: The brilliance of the Inter-Church coalitions was their ability to act as mid-wife from the margins of Canadian society and the global south to the mainstream of Canadian and Canadian church life.  Ten Days for World Development regularly brought partners from abroad to speak to Church congregations, parliamentary standing committees and federal agencies.  It was one thing to hear about our Canadian analysis of the debt crises; it was another matter to hear those who experienced direct effects.  Ten Days for World Development, often partnering with Gatt-fly, or the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America (ICCHRLA) or the Canada Asia Working Group (CAWG), or ICCAF, or the Inter-Church Fund for International Development (ICFID) or the Inter Church Committee for Refugees (ICCR) did a lot of heavy lifting on issues of food security, global debt, human rights, and refugees.  Dozens of visitors from abroad toured across Canada during a ten days Lenten periods to give voice to those who had no voice.  In the process, hundreds of Ten Days groups across the country were empowered to carry on the work left to them.  Project North and the Aboriginal Rights Coalition (ARC) also brought many an Aboriginal leader to south Canadian locales to speak to issues of land rights, oil development and mining.

This was the churches acting at their best, as midwife for the powerless and oppressed.  Partner stories became our stories; their dignity became our dignity, their struggles became our vocation.

Jennifer: Now when we work in social movements, we are told so often that the gift that we bring is the relationships with those who are most affected by the issues.  We work hard not to speak for people, but to bring their voices right into the places of power to testify passionately to their own reality.   We endeavour to work with, and not for.  In KAIROS now, we watch in awe and respect, as women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Palestine support Indigenous women in Canada, and Indigenous and migrant women in Canada support Colombian women under the banner of Women of Courage, with our role simply to help weave the connection.

In the Isaiah scripture that we read today, the Spirit is sent to comfort those who mourn: ”to provide for those who grieve in Zion” (Is 61:3).  And it is the spirited “mourner” who then rebuilds: “they will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated, they will  renew the ruined cities” (Is 61:4).  The message rings out: it is those most affected, in our time by war, ecological devastation, human rights violations–grief and loss of all kinds—it is those who have the wisdom and the courage to reveal the pathway to healing and justice.  Our job is to not to make the road but to walk along side those who know where the path to justice leads.  Idle No More is just one place today, where we strive to respond respectfully to the gracious invitation into common cause of Indigenous peoples.   Together from our woundedness we will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated.


Balancing Acts

Joe:  The early years of coalition building for the churches had to balance or dance between the need to be strong, focused and politically effective AND the need to be broad-based and carry the Christians in the pews with them.  There were people like Tony Clarke, John Foster, George Cram, Ernie Regehr, Peter Hamel – who drove an agenda hard, who logged thousands of airline miles, who could analyze a political moment whether in Canada or abroad with great acumen.  We relied on their analyses, the Inter-Church statements that they wrote, and the leadership they showed in the public arena.  These folks were our elders, or our vanguard, who showed how to be church in the world.

At the same time, and as Jeanne Moffatt, long time Executive Director says in her recounting of the story of Ten Days, the coalitions were about “the thousands of people across Canada.” They were the people that Dennis Howlett, David Reid, Jean Ann Ledwell, Lorraine Michael and so many others engaged through popular education and action.  Yes, the coalitions were a minority movement within the churches, we would have to confess, and political and economic leaders in the country knew it.  But it was a movement–of regular, faith-inspired church people who wrote their letters, went on their marches, lobbied their political leaders and made change happen.  It was church in a different way.  And it had an effectiveness beyond its numbers.  This movement showed that anthropologist Margaret Mead was right when she wrote never to doubt the effectiveness of small groups of people to change the world.

Jennifer:  We continue to build that ecumenical movement, recognizing that it has not always—and does not yet—reflect the true and gifted diversity.  Gender justice conversations continue.  We are not fully inclusive of churches and communities of colour.  Our connections with movements of young people are new and tentative.    A deep acknowledgement of our desperate failure in residential schools, and our own rejection of Christian triumphalism in an ever more plural world, drives us to find an invitational and responsive voice—a voice that is humble but still strong.  It is a difficult balance.   We need both confession and proclamation, bold prophetic witness of church leaders and the hard, slow work of bring diverse communities together in shared action.

As church, we are destabilized by our shifting role, and our declining numbers and resources.  It’s hard—very hard.  We know that ecumenical work will need to rely much more on individuals if it is to survive, to thrive.  In this time of challenge, we can retreat into our structures, separate, or we take new risks together for the sake of the gospel.   We know that Isaiah 61 becomes Luke 4, the proclamation of Jesus that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed and to proclaim the acceptable year of our God.”  This Jubilee good news is our mandate whether we are mighty institutions or a holy remnant—the gospel endures.  Perhaps with our ears less full of imperial noise we can, with humility, hear better the deep calls of justice for people and the earth.  To do justice is still and again what our God requires.


God in the Struggle

Joe:  Where is God in all of these stories and struggles?   The Inter-Church coalitions did not do too much explicit theological reflection.    But God was present…certainly in the struggles themselves, and in the in between spaces that brought people together across various divides, and certainly in the suffering and hope and solidarity.  Veteran Quaker activist Fred Franklin said it best in 1987 marking the 10 anniversary of ICCHRLA:  “Over time, many visits brought us face to face with the tremendous religious faith, buoyancy and steadfastness of the Latin American people.”  That’s where God was present:  the Inter-Church coalitions searched for God in the spaces between the wealthier North and the global South, in between those suffering on the front lines of oppression and injustice and those who could advocate for them in Canada.

Jennifer:  We continue to find God in between us.  In the tentative, but heart felt, steps towards right relations with Indigenous peoples.  In the dialogues between the elders and the younger leaders who take up the ecumenical challenge with passion and hope.  In between the church and emerging social movements.

Joe:  Looking ahead, there are many challenges, to be sure:  a harder Right wing global agenda, internal funding crises, growing secularism, new faith communities with whom to coalesce.  Time will need to be found to sort all of these issues out.

In celebrating today however, we lay claim to a beautiful and proud story that was born 40 years ago in a time of different though ever similar challenges and hopes for humankind.  We have had deep experiences on how to do justice and walk humbly with our Lord; we are better at politics with prophetic integrity and wisdom.  We know whose voices are key to understanding how and where we hear the voice of God.  And we are re-committed to building communities of compassion and justice.  This is why KAIROS is in a celebratory moment today, a moment that begins the next 40 years of faith-filled action for social justice and a better world.

Jennifer:  What the coalitions are and were to me, what KAIROS is to me, is passionate hope—living breathing hope.  Hope by people who believe in resurrection, who take Christ’s promise of abundant life to heart, who believe enough–more than enough– to make our world better or to die trying.  To the saints, and the elders, to colleagues in the present struggles, to Indigenous and global partners with whom our destiny, our liberation, is intertwined, and to the young leaders and the ones left to come–I am deeply grateful for your passionate relational faithful hope.  You make me believe that, with our incredible God–these crazy impossible dreams of justice and peace—are still possible.



Filed in: Spirited Reflections


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