Journey of a Social Justice Newbie- Part 2

Hello again,

This is Tim Bowman. For those who read my previous blog post, welcome back! For those who haven’t, I’m a straight, white, male, United Church of Canada minister in the Fraser Valley of BC. I’m also an Undivided program participant. I invite you via this blog to listen as I work to integrate the justice and spiritual practices presented via Undivided with my personal and professional practice of Christian life and ministry. As is true of all of us, I am a work in progress. Thank you in advance for your grace as I invite you in to my learning journey. If you are also inspired to wonder whether the Undivided program is for you, so much the better!

Weekend Two (held in Vancouver) and Three (held on beautiful Bowen Island) were once again filled with deep sharing, valuable learning, spiritual reflection, a good deal of laughter and a few tears. What a blessing!

Just before Weekend Three, I was honoured to be a Commissioner to the forty-third General Council of the United Church of Canada in Oshawa, Ontario. This is where we make decisions about the course of the Church. The timing was fortuitous, as there were some significant events at General Council that touched everyone deeply. I had barely returned from that trip when I packed my bags again, this time for Xenia Retreat Centre on Bowen Island for Weekend Three of our program.

One of the most important features of Undivided is that it is not merely theoretical: our learnings are explicitly intended to inform our practice in our individual lives. That being the case, I’d like to tell you about how the program  intersected with and helped me process my General Council experience.

At General Council we were blessed by the presence of Intercultural Observers who reflected on our work from their various lenses and identities. On Friday, the last day of business, the Rev. Paul Walfall made a personal and compelling speech about racism in the United Church. Here is a link to the full speech. I highly suggest listening/reading it for yourself! I was impacted by the following key points: racism exists within the United Church, not just outside it; we have not condemned the racism within, nor asked racialized people for their stories; inclusion is great, but welcoming someone to the table as a guest (who must eat what they are given) is different from welcoming someone to the table as a member of the family (who has a say in the menu).

Afterwards, many people of colour shared their stories. It was a painful, powerful, and holy experience.  Action was needed, and it was not up to people of colour to teach the dominant culture how to improve.

I came away saddened, shocked, overwhelmed and a little confused. Among my reactions was a feeling of frustration. The critique of our attempts at justice and solidarity, and the critique of our attempts to address those critiques, hurt and left me thinking in frustration, “If none of our attempts are good enough, why bother trying?”

I found myself remembering these emotions a week later on Bowen Island as we learned about stage models of identity development: the processes by which people with marginalized and dominant identities become aware of the systems that target or privilege them, and the thoughts, actions and emotions typical to each stage. We used a working draft of a model developed by Natasha Aruliah and Jin-Sun Yoon, which will be available in a forthcoming book. I realized that at General Council I had experienced the third stage, Compensation / Resistance: characterized by emotions including shame, bewilderment, anger and paralysis, and perhaps (as in my case) withdrawal and distancing in face of rejection (“well, I tried and they weren’t interested. So much for that.”)

I had also noticed throughout the week that, although Commissioners were tightly restricted in time and subject matter while at the microphones in order to keep things orderly and moving, the Indigenous elders who were present often spoke at length. “Don’t the same rules apply to everyone?” I thought. “Aren’t we all here under the same guidelines?”

When I mentioned this in a conversation on the way home from our Undivided weekend, I was given a very helpful perspective: no, we were not all present under the same guidelines. Canadian society and the Church has perpetrated, among other things, cultural destruction and abuse at residential schools, dishonouring of land treaties, and denigration and attempted eradication of Indigenous spirituality. The presence and wisdom of Elders at General Council, despite this history, was in fact an incredibly generous gift to the Church.

Thinking about that perspective further, it seems to me that the presence of Indigenous Elders is a gift of patience and goodwill, a gift that keeps open the possibility of forgiveness (not forgetting) with justice and works towards reconciliation.

As the Church often ignores and silences Indigenous voices, creating space for Indigenous people to be heard and honored is a step together towards reconciliation. A step that requires those of us in the dominant culture, such as myself, to learn from the modeling and wisdom of Indigenous Elders and practice patience.

In Undivided, we are encouraged to dig deeply into our own cultural and religious traditions. My Christian tradition teaches that Jesus loved to gather friends and strangers around the dinner table as equals. The Rev. Walfall spoke of something similar. If I want to follow Jesus, I have to continue to learn how to take my place at the table as an equal. I have to continue to learn how my various identities (white, straight, male, Christian, etc.) may cause me to take up more space than I realize and act as more than an equal, thereby squeezing out others. The spiritual component to Undivided helps me to think about how to feed myself while I do this work and to think about how others are fed. Perhaps Undivided is about table manners.

Undivided isn’t just arid theory, divorced from the real world. We reflect on our experiences and put into practice what we learn. I’m very glad to be a participant.

Stay tuned for Weekend Four and my final blog entry.

Thanks for reading,

Tim