Conference affirms value of everyone

hands hold a candle next to a flyr that reads "talking about social justice"
 on December 1, 2020

Workshops seek to tear down barriers

“No one is disposable” was the theme of the diocese’s outreach conference, held Oct. 24. The conference underscored that message by tackling the feeling of exclusion that is felt by many people. The annual gathering, which has been held every year since 2003, took place online and drew more than 100 people from across the diocese.

In a hard-hitting keynote address, Bishop Peter Fenty, the area bishop of York-Simcoe, highlighted the theme and raised the issue of racism amongst Anglicans. He noted that the Apostle Paul provided a vivid image of the Church as the body of Christ in a famous passage from the Book of Corinthians (I Corinthians 12:12-27). God is showing us that the body needs the unique contributions of all its parts, including the weaker parts.

Similarly, in God’s economy there is room for everyone. “Our Lord always showed particular concern for ‘the least,’ such as widows and orphans,” said Bishop Fenty. “The whole body is weakened if any part is lost. The same is true of the Church. It requires all of us to honour the other.”

Bishop Fenty noted that that there are diverse communities in our midst, and that diversity should be celebrated. That includes valuing and welcoming people who are marginalized and those with disabilities. “We must put our own house in order. We cannot ask others to do what we are not willing to do. Do you believe no one is disposable? What is life like in your parish? Do you engage with people who are very different from you? Do you even see them?”

When a participant asked the bishop how he responds when asked why an organization like Black Anglicans of Canada is needed, he said the question is “an insult,’ similar to how he feels when people say they don’t see colour when speaking with people of colour. “You are saying you don’t see me,” he said.

He said he has been monitored in stores as a possible shoplifter, an experience echoed by the Rev. Canon Dr. Stephen Fields, the incumbent of Holy Trinity, Thornhill.

A workshop on housing as restorative justice made the issue of inclusion real by focusing on the challenges that former inmates face in finding housing and in being accepted back into society. Restorative justice approaches crime in a way that focuses on who has been hurt by crime, how relationships have been broken and how they can be made right.

Workshop co-leader Eileen Henderson from Restorative Justice Housing Ontario (RJHO) noted that restorative justice is based on the value that “a person is worth more than the sum total of their worst offences.” She related the tragic story of “Peter” (not his real name) who was approaching release after serving a long sentence. He’d burned bridges with the people he’d known before imprisonment. As his release date approached, he became extremely anxious. After he was told he’d have to live in a shelter, he killed himself.

The story of “Don,” however, showed how a restorative justice approach can turn a person’s life around. After being imprisoned in the United States on drug offences, Don was living in a crowded dorm, at risk of getting COVID-19. Supporters in Canada were able to get him on an airplane home and rent an apartment for him. “We can make a difference,” said RJHO board member Jim Harbell.

Yet a lack of affordable housing prevents many from reintegrating back into the community successfully. About 3,000 of the estimated 10,000 people released from prison each year in the Greater Toronto Area try to rebuild their lives without a stable place to live. Studies have shown that former inmates with stable and supportive housing are far less likely to reoffend than those without such housing. One person that RJHO helped had been forced to live in a storage locker, since he had nowhere else to go.

Lack of decent affordable housing was also a focus of a workshop called Washing Your Hands: Vulnerable Neighbours in a Time of Covid, led by the Rev. Canon Brad Smith of St. John the Evangelist, Peterborough. After a local shelter closed, some homeless people began living in tents in a park adjacent to the parish. Mr. Smith allowed some of them to pitch their tents on church property and formed relationships with them. Not everyone welcomed his approach. “I took a lot of heat”, admitted Mr. Smith, both from Peterborough residents and from parishioners worried that the tents would damage the grass on the church’s property.

His stance of welcome to the homeless was motivated, he said, both by the gospel as well as by a political strategy to raise the issue of homelessness in a city with Canada’s lowest vacancy rate. “The invisible (homeless people) had to be made visible or nothing would be done,” he said. His boldness paid off: governments at all levels quickly began working together and in 2019 Peterborough found housing for 275 people on affordable housing waiting lists.

Keeping safe from COVID-19 is difficult for homeless people, noted Mr. Smith, mentioning that the simple act of washing one’s hands is a challenge without a home and when public washrooms are often closed.

Researcher Laura Cattari told a workshop on the basic income proposal that the widely-used Canada Emergency Recovery Benefit (CERB) to benefit people made jobless by the pandemic has proven that the idea that governments can’t take decisive action is “dead wrong.” She applauded the 41 Anglican and Lutheran bishops who wrote a joint letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last May, urging his government to immediately implement a basic income.

Other workshops highlighted the needs of disabled and marginalized people, anti-racism work, and ministry with Indigenous people.

As part of a closing reflection, Elin Goulden, the diocese’s Social Justice and Advocacy Consultant, discussed the story of the Good Samaritan. She noted that the Samaritans would have been treated as disposable in biblical times, yet perhaps because of his experience of exclusion, the Good Samaritan is moved to help the injured man lying on the road. “We are all connected,” she said. “We are all part of one body.” The conference wrapped up with a powerful litany encouraging participants to work to tear down the barriers dividing us.


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