Friday, August 18, 2017

The Dreams of Immigrants

Image result for behold the dreamers

I've just read Behold the Dreamers an award-winning debut novel by Imbolo Imbue. Imbue is originally from the African nation of Cameroon, which most of us couldn't find on a map, if we're honest. The novel is about the immigrant experience, for a Cameroonian couple, Jende and Neni, who are barely making ends meet in New York City. Jende lands a job as the chauffeur for a Wall Street investor with Lehman Brothers, one of the companies which eventually collapsed during the economic crisis of nearly a decade ago. It seems like a dream job but the undercurrents of American society in a time of greed and turmoil are fascinating.

Image result for cameroon maps google

Both Jende and Neni come to love NYC  and aspire to greater things, working hard, dedicated to achieving a higher education. Of course I can't reveal too much about this compelling story, but I was intrigued that Neni becomes part of a congregation which is accepting, even though she isn't sure if she is a Christian. The worship is subdued compared to the exuberance of her experience back home, but she finds a place there.  The female pastor is wise and encouraging  and willing to help.

It occurred to me the church described in the novel, Judson Memorial, is quite real and I did a bit of research. It turns out that author Mbue has spoken there since the success of her book. I wonder what she association with the congregation might be.  While the church scenes are a minor part of the overall narrative, it was encouraging that the congregation is portrayed in a positive light. The novel as a whole is even more timely given the harsh shift in American immigration policy in the short time since it was published. We certainly have our own challenges with asylum seekers at the moment.

I certainly recommend Behold the Dreamers. Has anyone else read it?  

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Losing Ground

A street person sleeps right on the S/W corner of King and Bay St. as people, cars, and limos pass by within inches of him.
Lost amidst the general outrage about Donald Trump's ridiculous comments about the deadly white supremacist rally in Virginia last weekend was the release of a report on the growing gap between rich and poor in this province of Ontario. The study called Losing Ground was researched by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. It found that the top half of earners grew their share of income from 78 to 81 per cent from 2000 to 2015, while the share for the bottom half of earners fell from 22 to 19 per cent. The bottom half of income earners didn’t even keep up with inflation.

In this same week Premier Kathleen Wynne took major heat from a gathering of municipal leaders who told her that upping the minimum wage will require tax hikes in order to pay for the increases. The food chain Metro announced that it will move toward automation to reduce the number of workers in its stores. And rural business owners argue that raising the minimum wage will eliminate entry level jobs in communities where the owners are lucky to be making $15 an hour themselves. There is an element of truth to all of this, although Metro and other food chains are not in the red by any means.

The Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente wrote a column about this rural challenge, although it has a "let them eat cake" quality to it. She spoke to shop owners in the pretty rural town near her summer place. Hmm. It's nice to be able to afford a summer home and then bemoan the plight of those who provide services for you. And then there was these observations:

Ms. Wynne argues – correctly – that nobody can live on $11.40 an hour. Yet few people have to. Ms Wynne likes to depict minimum-wage earners as hard-pressed single mothers. In fact, statistics from 2014 referenced in the AIMS study showed that 58 per cent of them were between 15 and 24 years old, and 57 per cent lived with family. Only 2.2 per cent were unmarried heads of household with at least one minor child.

Ya, well those young people would probably prefer to have a decent-paying job so that they didn't have to live at home. Many younger people are resigned to not being able to buy any home because of low wages and astronomical housing costs. Wente's argument seems tone deaf to the realities of those entering the workforce.

Sitting with folk at the Bridge St. church meal ministries reminded me that a number of guests were "working poor," struggling along in low-wage jobs and trying to make ends meet at the end of the month. None of them ever described their cottages or vacations.

We may end up seeing a revision to the $15 an hour minimum wage, with graduated or regional increases. Still, this has to be a step in the right and just direction. In order to gain ground decent wages are essential.


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

There's the Church, and There's the Steeple?

One of my favourite craft breweries is Church Key, in a former United Church near Campbellford, Ontario. Not long after starting at Bridge St. Church I referred to this "repurposing" of a country church and one of our wonderful 90+ members spoke to me about it after the surface. She chuckled as she mentioned that her aunt had sung in the choir when it was a Methodist church and is probably spinning in her grave because of it's current use.

It seems that the media pieces on church buildings being decommissioned and put up for sale are becoming more common, and the variety of uses grows. Since the sixties country churches have found new life as homes and antique shops. Today many urban church buildings are office space and anchors for condo developments. The photo above is of a climbing gym in Quebec in an old church structure. How appropriate -- there are antics in congregations which sometimes cause those in leadership to climb the walls!

When the former hotel property next to Bridge St. was for sale recently we wondered if we should put in an offer, but the asking price was too rich for our blood, and we weren't ready to ask the serious questions about purpose. I did wonder whether the day might come when the successive bidder, a condo developer, would approach the congregation about buying the church property.

Bridge St. still has a vital ministry in downtown Belleville and can serve those on the margins of society as gentrification takes place. The two are not mutually exclusive, but it is important that the Christian community continues to live the gospel for those who are often without a voice.

Of course, this is no longer my challenge, yet it still matters to me as a Christian.

Image result for church key brewery cambellford on

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Thirsty Priests

Image result for priests in a pub cartoosn

You may have heard that binge drinking and rowdy groups of pub-goers has become a significant problem in the British Isles. Many drinking establishments have imposed rules about the size of groups entering their premises to control rowdyism. One pub in Wales also prohibits patrons wearing costumes because of the association with revelry which could lead to problems.

Well on July 29th a group of Roman Catholic seminarians showed up to celebrate the  ordination of Father Peter McClaren. They were dressed in their cassocks and turned away by staff members who mistook them for a bachelor party.

I love this story in so many ways. How delightful that Father McLaren's confreres wanted to take him out for a celebratory pint or two. This skewers stereotypes about religious prohibitions on drinking. Jesus did turn water into wine, didnt' he? And it is funny that the staff of the pub figured that they must be imposters of some sort.

There is a pleasant outcome to the story. The pub has renamed one of its brews "The Thirsty Priests." It is described as a “rich, warming ale with a clean, rewarding finish,”  with the added slogan “saving souls and satisfying thirsts.”  I'll drink to that!

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Release of Pastor Kim

A Korean Canadian pastor will be in worship with his congregation this morning and all of us should be relieved and happy to hear this.  Hyeon Soo Lim was serving a life sentence of hard labour in North Korea for alleged anti-state activities, but was released last week after intervention by the Canadian government. Lim was in a harsh North Korean prison for more than two years and during that time his health failed. His family and congregation are delighted to welcome him home. This is good news in light of the dangerous posturing and threats of the North Korean government concerning using nuclear weapons and the ham-fisted response of the American president.

I have wondered though about what Lim was doing there, given the danger for outsiders and nationals alike in this unpredictable regime. Was he engaged in Christian evangelism, or was he there to provide humanitarian support? The dictator, Kim Jong Un is a dangerous dude who has imprisoned Westerners on many occasions, some because they had come to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What are we to make of these efforts? There is a 2000-year history of Christian evangelism and there have been many martyrs of the faith. When I was a kid we sang a wildly militaristic chorus which has thankfully disappeared. Remember this?

Stand up, stand up for Jesus! ye soldiers of the cross;
Lift high His royal banner, it must not suffer loss:
From vict’ry unto vict’ry, His army shall He lead,
Till every foe is vanquished, and Christ is Lord indeed.

I'm not suggesting that Pastor Kim espouses these sensibilities. I just wonder what our role as Christians needs to be in sharing the Good News in the 21st century, and whether taking risks in hostile environments is productive.

All I'm sure of is that I'm grateful he's home and I do pray that he returns to health and a meaningful ministry. We can pray as well for Christians in North Korea who are persecuted for their faith.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Blatant Racist Evil

Image result for charlottesville clergy

This Summer Sunday morning congregations may be smaller yet it's likely that wherever two or three are gathered together they will repeat a version of the Lord's Prayer or the Our Father. It's understandable that many of those praying will mumble through the "deliver us from evil"  phrase without much thought for how that applies to this moment. Is evil the deliberate drowning of illegal migrants by smugglers? Of course. What about those involved in creating child pornography and the sexual abuse of children. Without a doubt.

Evil has reared its ugly head in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend, through crowds protesting the removal of a statue glorifying Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Symbols of the racist Confederacy of the Civil War are being removed across the American South since white supremacist Dylan Root walked into a church prayer group and murdered several black members who initially welcomed him into their midst.

Image result for charlottesville nazi salute

This was more than a quiet march, which still would have been suspect. Neo-Nazis were photographed making the dreaded Hitler salute. Confederate flags were on display and white supremacist slogans were chanted as marchers walked through the streets carrying torches.

State officials decried what transpired and clergy gathered as a counter-protest, although it appears that they were taunted and even roughed up by the supremacists. The next day counter-protestors gathered, fighting erupted, and a car was driven into those opposing the white supremacists, killing one person and injuring others.

Make no mistake, this is blatant racist evil, and the tepid response of the White House is telling. Hitler is long dead, even though his horrendous ideas aren't. So, if the supremacists aren't saluting Hitler, who are they acknowledging? White supremacist leader David Duke gave credit to the president for emboldening those who want to "make America great again" with his exclusionary, polarizing vision for the nation.

I find this so disheartening and while many Christian commentators and pastors are condemning this nonsense, there is little emerging from the right-wing evangelical world to declare this as a gross violation of Christ's teaching.

What has been going through your mind? Has the United States lost it's mind, and it's soul?
Let's continue to pray for sanity and justice.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Dark Side of the Esther Story

The Hidden and The Revealed: The Queen Esther Mosaics of Lilian Broca

It is a Jeopardy answer, for sure. The question is which book of the bible doesn't mention God, not even once? The answer is Esther, one of two books of the bible with a woman's name as the title. If you give the next Jeopardy question correctly as Ruth, for the other, you've done well. Jews celebrate Purim each year each because their people were delivered from annihilation by Esther. It is a very celebratory festival and one of the most interesting commandments related to Purim has to do with drinking. According to Jewish law, adults of drinking age are supposed to get so drunk that they can't tell the difference between Mordecai (a hero in the Purim story) and Haman (the villain). Not everyone does get drunk, but even in Ultra-Orthodox communities some men get sloshed on Purim. In one congregation I served we had a fun Purim service led by the children where adults were invited to boo or cheer throughout the telling of the story, depending on whether references were to the heroes or villains.

Image result for purim

Until the other day it had never occurred to me that the story of Esther has the dark undertones of human trafficking and is not simply kids' play. In a thoughtful Sojourner's piece by Leslie Cox. I'll let you read the entire article if you choose,
but this is a portion of how she reflects on Esther:  

We forget the darkness woven throughout her testimony and we exploit her story without honestly accounting for her victimization and trials. Esther is a victim’s account of human trafficking.The United Nations defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power … for the purpose of exploitation.”...

It is these first two chapters of Esther’s life that speak to the estimated 20.9 million trafficked victims in our world. The United Nations hypothesized that one of the reasons we often miss victims of human trafficking is because we don’t understand the many diverse faces of human trafficking victims. Some of these faces are in our Scriptures, our sacred texts. We have, in our Bible, stories that can teach us how to spot human trafficking, and the danger victims are placed in through the coercion and exploitation of people in power. It is important that we open our eyes to the humanity in our sacred texts. For our modern-day Esthers, there is a story within our holy text that speaks of similar trauma, exploitation, and trials. Most importantly within our Scripture we find our call: Let there be no more Esthers.

There is a happy ending to the biblical story, but Cox raises some important points. In the church we just don't deal well with some of these darker issues of our society. When Ruth was a counselor at a women's shelter we would participate in the annual Take Back the Night walk through our community. I would always remind the congregation I served that it was taking place, but very few people would show up. There was always someone from the RCMP who would address human trafficking before we walked, with a reminder that the issue wasn't "out there" somewhere. In the same way we don't like to think of domestic violence within our church families, we are uncomfortable with the thought of human trafficking in our communities. Yet Ruth has also been aware of this through her current work at the Belleville courthouse.

So, thanks to Leslie Cox for inviting us to consider an ancient story which may not resonate with many of us in a new and important light.