Circus, symbol and flash of grace #KAIROS20

Tom Sagar, Roll with the Declaration event in Ottawa, 2011.

When I refer to KAIROS as a circus, I am not trying to be funny; I’m only trying to acknowledge the power of KAIROS to engage diverse people in a variety of ways.  A circus is literally a circle – and KAIROS, at its most effective, is an ever-widening circle. For me, KAIROS evokes a circus in every sense of the word. KAIROS Board member, Reverend Jim Dekker, prophetically and memorably using Biblical language, made the same point at the 2007 Fall Conference at Ancaster, Ontario. At this gathering on the theme of Just Power, Dekker spoke twice: on opening night and the next day at the Network Development Meeting. He cited Isaiah 51:2: “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes.” KAIROS is meant to be like a huge tent covering four inter-related pillars: relevance and responsiveness to its community and effectiveness and resilience to itself. A KAIROS chapter becomes impactful, relevant and responsive when it conveys an understanding of community realities and conveys an alignment with an inclusive and shared vision.

“KAIROS deliberates on issues of common concern and strives to be a prophetic voice in the public sphere”.   

My involvement with the movement began more than twenty years ago. I was originally invited as a representative of my church to attend a meeting of the predecessor group of the York Region KAIROS group located in Southern Ontario. The concern of the moment was the Jubilee Initiative (third world debt reduction) at the turn of the Millennium. Today, York Region KAIROS is still my ‘justice’ home. In the intervening years, I was elected and re-elected for eight years (2005 – 2013) as the Representative for the Great Lakes – Saint Lawrence Region (an area which stretches eastward from approximately Marathon, Ontario to anglophone Quebec).  In conjunction with the officially named representatives of the churches or church entities, as well as the paid staff, my role became that of helping “to animate the base.” The theme of the 2010 fall conference, “Walking, we make the way”, in a sense, evokes the challenges of facing the unknown, dealing with discouragement and learning more about the importance of patience, persistence and prayer.      

 The perseverance of a single person has the potential to inspire other people to a greater sense of commitment. For me, during the early years of KAIROS, (2001 and 2002),  the person who modeled perseverance was Mary Orr, leader of York Region KAIROS. During each of those first two years, there was a conference at Elim Lodge, near Peterborough. The guest speakers were inspiring; but it was difficult to find anyone to accept, for anything more than a brief period, the regional leadership position for the suggested three year term. It was discouraging for everyone. Having taken the minutes (in longhand) in both years, Mary Orr returned to the York Region group, determined to motivate the rest of us to further action. With patience, Mary’s approach worked. In 2003, the fall conference took place at the Bronson Centre and Jean Smith of Etobicoke organized a bus from the GTA, picking up KAIROS supporters at various stops on its route to Ottawa. The lengthy bus trip provided an opportunity for people to chat and get acquainted. Towards the end of the conference, where we had heard about the World Social Forum that had taken place at Porto Alegre, Brazil earlier that year, there were several awkward moments. Would anyone be prepared to lead the group? Where would we meet the following year? Which KAIROS group would act as host? On the second issue, there were no takers, to start with. After having spoken to him on the bus to Ottawa, I understood that Jim Lindsay had lots of experience in organizing people and events for his pre-KAIROS coalition group in Dufferin County. I spoke to Jim at the meeting and we agreed to volunteer our two KAIROS groups to co-host the 2004 conference at the Mount Alverno Retreat Centre, located between our communities of Orangeville and Newmarket. What had I got the Dufferin and York groups into? 

Help with the project materialized quickly. Reverend Shelley Roberts of Palgrave United Church volunteered to be registrar. Mary Orr and her KAIROS friends made an undertaking to go to Palgrave on a regular basis to help plan the conference. Mary’s encouragement was one of many key factors in ultimately stabilizing the activities of the Great Lakes-Saint Lawrence region. As the years unfolded, KAIROS demonstrated its effectiveness and resilience. However, for the volunteer sector, the experience of burnout is always a possibility. Discouraged groups disappear very quickly. During the first few years of KAIROS, feelings of disorientation were palpable. (Some people were tentative about their commitment to the new entity; others felt undervalued. There were five regional leaders in four years. Some pointedly referred to KAIROS as “chaos.”) 

Mary Orr of King City United Church died suddenly at the age of 80 on February 4, 2006. She had consistently demonstrated her conviction that the issues that KAIROS championed could change lives, in her own community as well as far away. She mobilized the members of York Region group to embrace the possibilities of the new KAIROS configuration. During my eight years in KAIROS regional leadership, I was fortunate to meet many people who were ever-ready spark plugs in their congregation or community. Mary Orr was the first such exemplar of the KAIROS spirit that I happened to meet. Subsequently, I met others, including the late Linda Parsons of Trinity United Church Newmarket. Linda’s passion about living into right relations with First Nations communities merits a comprehensive tribute.  

Would that every group experience a Mary Orr or a Linda Parsons to stretch and strengthen their heart for KAIROS. What were the secrets of these women? Each was rooted in her community; each was uncompromising in her commitment to confront the pressing issues of the day; each was open to all who came her way and each was fearless in her determination to make her voice heard; each had an enthusiastic willingness to welcome the stranger and each had a shrewd ability to assess the gifts of others in her circle.  

Steady, insightful  leadership at all levels is essential for survival and a huge boost to the understanding of who we are called to become, came with the creation of the identity or mission statement which was approved by the KAIROS Board on September 19, 2003. Reciting it together became the single best way to tune out the negative vibes that had plagued the volunteer community. One of my personal commitments was the decision to read the KAIROS identity statement every night before I went to sleep. This daily ritual continued well after my commitment to help organize the 2004 conference. In later years, the recital of the mission statement became an integral part of Great Lakes – Saint Lawrence KAIROS meetings.  I do believe that over the years, KAIROS has lived into its four-fold commitment to unite, to deliberate, to advocate and to empower. KAIROS calls for an ecumenical response to the issues of the day. To make a faithful ecumenical response is far from easy especially when there are noticeable cultural differences with regard to governance and organization as well as serious theological issues separating Christian traditions from each other. It took two years to write that statement and every word of it has a mission to contribute to the creation of a common identity and a common purpose. The original notion of symbol (a word of Greek origin, quite compatible with the notion of kairos) implies hospitality; it refers to a token of friendship and the completion of an agreement. The KAIROS mission statement is, in the etymological sense, a symbol. It is that which gathers us together rather than that which drives us apart. “In times such as ours”, the KAIROS symbol is the tent of our identity from which we reach out in mission. 

Another symbol of our common purpose as a KAIROS community emerged organically, or so it seemed. At the 2005 conference at Mount Alverno, keynote speaker, Sister Priscilla Solomon spoke to the theme “Pure water, a God-given right.” The theme, a reflection of the KAIROS campaign at the time, captured the imagination of the participants and was the seed of an ongoing KAIROS commitment to what we have come to understand today as watershed discipleship, watershed justice. The insightful words of Sister Priscilla (“What we do to water, we do to ourselves”) continue to have a long term impact. She came to Mount Alverno with the KAIROS group from North Bay and she volunteered to help provide speakers for the conference the following year. In November of 2005, the members of the coordinating committee of the Great Lakes – Saint Lawrence Region travelled together to North Bay to meet with the North Bay KAIROS group who would be organizing the September 2006 conference at the Motherhouse of Sister Priscilla’s congregation on the shores of Lake Nipissing. Attendees at the 2006 conference remember being part of a seminal event with a far-reaching impact. Well over a hundred people came (half of them within driving distance of North Bay and half via bus from southern Ontario).  

At the North Bay conference, all participants received an artistic “water drop” to wear around their necks; there was a sunrise ceremony on the shore; there were talks by John Beaucage on aboriginal rights and political processes; and by Elder Josephine Mandamin, who moved the group by her personal mission to walk around each of the Great Lakes as a Mother Earth Water Walker. The following year, many KAIROS supporters from the GTA joined Josephine Mandamin when she arrived from Thunder Bay to begin her walk around Lake Erie. “Keep us informed”, our members had told us. “We want to be involved”. For many, it was the first time that so many of our KAIROS volunteer supporters had heard such thought-provoking presentations by charismatic Anishnaabe leaders. More and more, Great Lakes-Saint Lawrence cheerfully accepted the challenge to be a prophetic voice in the public sphere and to amplify and strengthen its public witness.  

A ‘water drop’ to be worn around the neck, along with a small explanatory card was given to each participant by a member of the organizing committee. The card bore the words: “Behold the water drop! Use as prayer focus for the preservation of the earth’s waters and as a remembrance for the mission that we have set for ourselves as KAIROS people. The shimmering metallic BLUE symbolizes water as a living, vibrant substance. The WHITE denotes the misuse and/or loss of drinkable water from our earth. The BROWN is a mark of the abuse and/or pollution of water systems and finally the GOLD suggests the new threat of water being considered as a commodity instead of a God-given right. The stylized feather on the back is a memory of this conference and its content: Water: Sacred Gift, Sacred Trust. Creator God, we give you thanks for the precious gift of water. We remember the instructions you gave to water. We long to ensure that your sacred gift will forever bring life, healing and wholeness.” 

As mentioned, the original etymological notion of symbol implies hospitality, friendship, being legally responsible to each other.  At its core, a symbol is supposed to be an object which brings people together in a good way. First Nations peoples have a deep appreciation for the presence of the Creator and for the power of symbol. Shared water drops, sacred medicines, covenant chain links, wampum belts have the power to remind settler people of what too many of us have never known or what we have chosen to forget. In Canada and in other countries, on many levels, we are currently trying to cope with a crisis of symbolism, a crisis that creates a great deal of angst and often leads to violence. The use of the water drop during the 2006 KAIROS fall conference long remains in my memory as a powerful symbol of our common purpose and mutual respect.   

The fortieth anniversary of ecumenical partnerships that preceded the creation of KAIROS was celebrated in 2013 by an inspiring service at the Church of the Redeemer in Toronto. When KAIROS was first formed, many people in the volunteer community questioned whether the work of the previous coalitions would be continued through KAIROS; that suffering people in the Global South would still have a champion through KAIROS; that voices that had been heard within the coalitions would continue to be heard through KAIROS. Undertaking to provide a “faithful ecumenical response” was an act of courage on the part of the many supporters of the pre-KAIROS movements. The fortieth anniversary service organized by KAIROS coincided with the tenth anniversary of the mission statement of 2003. KAIROS had become a big tent circus featuring many amazing trapeze acts and feats of juggling.  

Just as in a circus, KAIROS provided no end of surprises. How would the high wire performers fare when the safety net of Canadian government CIDA funding was removed? Would the KAIROS trapeze artists, capable of so much dazzling and daring action, go away? Answers to these questions came without delay after the infamous announcement of November 30, 2009. Reaction on the part of KAIROS supporters was immediate and pointed. Within the week, many had contacted their Members of Parliament.  Dorothy Wilson, who organized two KAIROS fall conferences and numerous other events as chair of the Oakville – Mississauga KAIROS group, shared her letter to her MP. The sentiments that Dorothy expressed echoed the reaction of everyone in the Great Lakes – Saint Lawrence Region:  “Through the well researched resources that KAIROS has provided I have learned a lot about justice issues that are affecting the lives of people around the world. I have been inspired by KAIROS to share the information I have gained with others and to advocate on behalf of those affected by injustices….The recent decision for KAIROS to be denied CIDA funding…sends a message…that the government does not think it is important for them to be informed about the injustices of the world and how they can respond.”  During December 2009, I joined the KAIROS group in the Kitchener-Waterloo region. The group included five current or former Members of Parliament, numerous clergy leaders and KAIROS supporters. The ad-hoc group spearheaded a concerted, organized pushback which led to a large gathering in the spring of 2010 on the same University of Waterloo campus where the National Gathering had been held just months before.  Would KAIROS people on the ground go to extra-ordinary lengths to keep the circus going? There was no question that it would. The KAIROS circus did NOT pack up its tent. It was effective and resilient.  Etymologically, the notion of symbol (binding us together) has an opposite. Government decisions designed to tear KAIROS away from its partners in the global south and tear KAIROS supporters away from each other can only be described as diabolical (in the sense of driving us apart). What the government chose to do had a sulfurous impact that caused an immediate stink. The “KAIROS is NOT going away”     t-shirts became the memorable response to that bad odor and became a very popular action that drew many folks to the KAIROS Big Tent.  

Finally, KAIROS is all about dedication and fellowship: An outstanding example of dedication was the initiative of Gail Lorimer, who wanted to invite representatives of the Grassy Narrows community to talk about the ongoing (and still unresolved) issue of the poisoning of the waters of the Wabigoon river system. Her Hamilton – Burlington KAIROS group requested regional funds to help finance a speaking tour in southern Ontario. The tour attracted much attention; however, the event almost did not happen as the speakers were stranded by snow and the opening event in Orangeville had to be cancelled. After that setback, we were even more determined to make sure our speakers were heard. “Always be prepared for an unexpected flash of grace” inspires me to savour moments of fellowship. As KAIROS, we had square dancing at Mount Alverno, group singing in North Bay, social justice hip-hop artist ‘Testament’ in Ancaster and enthusiastic children ringing bells for climate justice. We have had impassioned, intense and inspiring testimonials, wherever we gathered.  And always, there were gestures of kindness, hospitality and gratitude at events large and small.  

Written by Tom Sagar 

Filed in: #KAIROS20 Anniversary


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