Veteran of urban ministry passes on wisdom

A pair of hands hoving over the keyboard of a laptop
 on December 1, 2016

Author hangs in for long haul

When I became the interfaith minister for ministry to St. James Town in 1970, Barry Morris, with his mass of black hair and huge black beard, in his rumpled black rain coat, pockets bulging with papers, was already a familiar figure on the streets of Toronto’s Don Vale neighbourhood (later to become part of Cabbagetown). Wherever I encountered him, Barry was clutching a new book, and he would greet me with, “You have to read this book. It’s seminal.”

Barry was ordained a minister of the United Church of Canada and left Toronto 40 years ago. I lost track of him until a couple of years ago. Now, all these years later, I encounter him again in a book with a 25-page bibliography that is a virtual seminary of all those seminal books, and many more, introducing his readers to a vast company of theological thinkers and writers. Called Hopeful Realism in Urban Ministry: Critical Explorations and Constructive Affirmations of Hoping Justice Prayerfully, the book is based largely on a doctoral thesis but augmented by more recent reading and reflection.

Barry has been the staff person for 27 years at the Longhouse Council of Native Ministry in Vancouver’s east end. He has hung in “for the long haul,” a phrase he uses many times throughout his book. As neighbouring Baptist minister and long-time friend Tim Dickau says in the foreword, “You can trust him. And you can trust that his vision for ministry will give you courage to confront what is in front of you, hope to embrace God’s renewed future… ready to go back to work in the place and parish God has called you with a realistic, prayerful hope.”

Always a vociferous reader and student of theology, especially the theology of justice-making, Barry has created a helpful resource for anyone willing to make the commitment to urban ministry and wanting to know what’s needed to stay in it “over the long haul.”

He asks, “What, pray tell, does a faithful urban ministry require if not a triadic relationship of prayer, justice and hope?” The book tackles this triad from every angle: hope and justice without prayer; prayer and hope without justice; justice and prayer without hope.

He begins with realism and then delves deeply in separate chapters into the lives and writings of Jurgen Moltman on hope, Rienhold Neibur on justice and Thomas Merton on contemplative prayer, reflecting along the way with help from the great cloud of writers, thinkers and practitioners from his lifetime of reading and practising on a wide range of topics: the need for realism, the reality of sin, passion leading to compassion, charity vs. justice, resilience, burnout,  the meaning of faith, the necessity for networking, mutual support and accountability; even, at the end, a powerful emphasis on the imperative, or at least the possibility, of a vowed life commitment. Barry presents both a profound analysis and a helpful prescription for a life in urban ministry.

He includes a chapter on his own Longhouse Ministry, where there is a constant struggle to transform charity – the imperative to meet immediate need – into advocacy for justice and social change, despite cuts in funding. Here Barry stresses the critical importance of participation in three city-wide efforts – education, advocacy and community organizing – and dedicates a section to each. That, he says, is what provides for mutual correction, support and accountability in the long-term work of “justice-making and justice-keeping.”

There is also a helpful exegesis of Rienhold Neibur’s original serenity prayer, which has been foundational in Barry’s life: “God grant us the grace to accept with serenity the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things that ought to be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Anyone about to embark on a justice-seeking vocation in urban ministry, or anyone already engaged in ministry in the city, wanting to learn “what makes and keeps an urban ministry pastorally and prophetically faithful for the long hauls” and willing to learn from a brother who has been faithfully “showing up” for a long lifetime with steadfastness, dedication and determination, should read this book.

It isn’t easy reading. But it is seminal.


To order Hopeful Realism by Barry K. Morris, visit The book costs $19.20 from the publisher or $24 and up from other retailers.


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