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Outreach conference hears justice work is church work

By Murray MacAdam

The “radical, revolutionary” message of Jesus can sustain us when the signs of the times can cause us to lose hope, said Thea Prescod, the keynote speaker at the diocese’s annual Outreach Conference, held Oct. 19 at Havergal College in Toronto. More than 100 Anglicans from across the diocese attended the event, which featured a range of workshops and an opening prayer by Bishop Andrew Asbil.

Thea Prescod gives the keynote address at the Outreach and Advocacy Conference. Photos by Michael Hudson.

Ms. Prescod, a street nurse and member of Toronto’s Sanctuary community, confessed that when she learned the theme of the conference was “Church as a Centre of Resistance and Hope,” she was tempted to withdraw as keynote speaker since she experienced Christ in this way, but not the Church. “Christ has been my source of resistance and hope,” she said.

Yet upon reflection, she realized that “justice work is real Church work.” She cited the courageous witness of Stephen in the Book of Acts as an example of a faith-filled person doing the work of Christ.

Ms. Prescod’s work with marginalized people is extremely challenging. Eighteen people helped by Sanctuary have died this year, including a friend of Ms. Prescod who was murdered only three days before the conference. Yet she has also seen people who had stopped breathing after drug overdoses come back to life. “I experienced Lazarus,” she said.

She says she could not have survived 17 years of work among marginalized people without prayer from a supportive parish.

If it seems like one’s church community is not responding to local justice issues strongly enough, the solution is to find new allies within the congregation, she said. For example, a pharmacist could be asked to give Naloxone training as a response to the opioid crisis (Naloxone is a medication used to counter the effects of opioid overdose).

Participants learn about opportunities and challenges in rural and small-town outreach.

Workshops at the conference covered a wide range of issues. In a workshop on rural and small-town outreach, Patricia Sinnott outlined how dogged perseverance and collaboration with community partners enabled parishes in the Port Hope-Grafton area to win approval and funding for a 27-unit affordable housing project through an organization they founded called Community Housing Northumberland. Now the group has set its sights on building a 54-unit building in Port Hope. The need for affordable housing is urgent, with a scant 0.3 percent vacancy rate in Northumberland County.

The key to success, said Ms. Sinnott, has been to keep pushing despite setbacks along the way. “You have to have faith. It’s all about finding connections, about talking and partnerships.” Prayer support is important as well. St George, Grafton has a circle of prayer whose members pray each week for the needs of the community.

Three conference workshops dealt with environmental concerns. A workshop on how to respond to grief over environmental harm noted that some couples are choosing not to have children due to deep pessimism about the impacts of climate change. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous book, On Death and Dying, was cited as a resource that can help people come to grips with the death of the world as we’ve known it.

Music, singing and readings during the closing worship.

A worship and educational series called Season of Creation has sparked activity at Toronto’s Church of the Redeemer, Bloor St. Sunday worship services have opened with people processing into the church carrying beautiful silk panels depicting images from creation. The series has also featured presentations, discussions, a concert and a film on the global fashion industry’s environmental impact, resulting from a new parishioner’s fashion industry experience. “We are rich in resources,” said workshop leader Grant Jahnke.

The Rev. Christian Harvey, deacon at St. John the Evangelist, Peterborough and founder of Warming Room Community Ministries in that city, told a workshop on homelessness how we need to embrace the awkwardness of relationships with people very different from ourselves, such as homeless people. After the local homeless shelter closed, St. John’s allowed some homeless people to camp on church property during the summer and encouraged parishioners to get to know homeless people and work with them on their needs. We need to truly listen to people on the margins of society, then amplify their voices, said Mr. Harvey. “As Anglican churches, we’re so worried about the system not taking us seriously,” he said. “The gift of losing our relationship to power means we can be bold and prophetic.”

Turning Tables 2.0 Anger, (in)justice and Solidarity workshop with Rev. Claudette Taylor and Tamique Erskine.

The thorny issue of racism in Canada came to the fore in a workshop called Turning Tables: Anger, Injustice and Solidarity. Participants discussed the blackface incident with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and a powerful article called “Why I hate being a black man.” Author Orville Douglas noted, “There is so much negativity and criminal suspicion associated with being a black male in Toronto.” A survey found that one in four Canadians were victims of racism in 2017. 

A workshop led by and for youth looked at how to teach discipleship and the role of young people in justice and advocacy work. There’s a lot more to God than just going to church.

In a closing summary, Mr. Harvey noted that Anglicans focus much of their energy on ways to keep parishes from dying. Yet the message of the cross is that life comes after death. “The body of Christ is not going to die with us,” he said. “We’re called to courage, to take a stand. How do we pick up the cross?”

Murray MacAdam is a freelance writer.