Over My Shoulder: Journey of a Social Justice Newbie

Hi there,


Thanks for reading this post. My name is Tim, I’m a straight, white, male United Church minister and I’d like to invite you to watch over my shoulder as I document a journey slightly outside my comfort zone. I’m hoping you’ll laugh, cry, cheer and perhaps pray along with me and maybe even give me a few helpful nudges in the right direction as I inevitably get things wrong (and, I hope, learn by doing so)! Full disclosure: I also hope to encourage you to register for this amazing program next year.


On one hand, social justice is part of the United Church of Canada’s self-image. My favourite tongue-in-cheek description of our denomination is “the NDP at Prayer.” The two congregations I serve are in the midst of a process to consider becoming certified as Affirming of LGBTQ people. So it seems like a United Church Minister should be at home with social justice issues.


On the other hand, I personally don’t have a lot of experience with social justice theory and activism. I have privately grumbled about “reverse discrimination” against my race and gender. I’m still not sure exactly what cultural appropriation is and isn’t. From the outside, social justice seems to be about shaming and shouting at people.


And yet the one I seek to follow, a Jewish preacher, spoke of a God of inclusive love and stood in the tradition of Hebrew prophets of justice. So, with a not insignificant amount of trepidation, I registered for Undivided: Leadership for Spiritual and Systemic Transformation.


Soon I was boarding a water taxi for Camp Fircom on Gambier Island, in the company of about 18 other participants and leaders who were already beginning to feel like friends rather than strangers.


As the weekend progressed I learned that my nervousness was both founded, and unfounded. On the one hand, these people definitely did not fit my stereotype of harsh and judgmental activists. They were warm, funny, welcoming, wise and passionate. On the other hand, I learned that the tools I had for participating and leading equitably in gatherings were quite elementary, and that learning was a bit painful. I was blessed by the presence of a friend, more advanced than I, that I could process the experience with, and I identified one of the questions I need to work on: how can I, with my various identities, leave space for others with less-privileged identities, without feeling like I am thereby relegated to being merely an observer? I realized with a bit of a shock that this was touching on my own ancient wounds of childhood bullying and exclusion. And with that, I understood something about the contemplative approach to justice: that justice work is as much about working on ourselves, as on, or with, social issues and other people.

We left Gambier Island with new friends, new learning, an assignment to small groups in which we will do work between gatherings, and a commitment to developing a project that we will work on over the year. After two meetings with my small group, I am looking forward to our upcoming second gathering, feeling held by companions on this journey, and excited about possible directions for my project.


When we gathered at Dunbar Ryerson United Church in Kerrisdale , I prayed for the humility to listen and the courage to speak, so that I could learn more about contemplative justice.


Thanks for reading!


– Tim