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Justice Tour 2015:

Lessons for the church

Christians expect their churches to care for the poor, often in hands-on ways. We rarely know, however, if our faith community has advocated policy options designed to mitigate poverty. And while all of us assume that our faith traditions care for creation, few of us know what Canadian churches have specifically said about climate change or other pressing environmental concerns.

In 2011 two important interfaith statements were released on these issues – poverty and climate change – and the Christian Reformed Church in Canada supported both of them. Yet circulation was limited: were you ever made aware of these statements by your congregational leaders? Have you heard a sermon preached on these statements, or has your congregation used them in education or action strategies? When the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) realized that most Canadian Christians answered in the negative, the idea of Justice Tour 2015 was born.

In April and May I accompanied a delegation of church leaders to eight cities across Canada to share information about poverty in Canada and climate justice; to listen to reflections on regional realities that inform actions for local engagement and advocacy, and to gather material for a new Church Leaders’ Pastoral Statement to be developed through this process. The CCC, which represents 25 denominations and of which Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) is an affiliate member, hosted these events.

The Justice Tour visited Vancouver, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Kitchener, Halifax, Montreal and Ottawa. The delegation included Rev. Dr. Susan Johnson, National Bishop of the Evangelical Church in Canada, Rev. Dr. Willard Metzger, Executive Director of Mennonite Church Canada and Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton, General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches.

Why now?
Climate change and poverty are priorities for the churches in 2015 with the civic engagement that will occur during the federal election, and because of two key international events: the UN General Assembly on Sustainable Development Goals (this September) and the UN climate conference in Paris (December). Pope Francis’s first-ever encyclical on the environment, released June 18, may also give these issues greater weight among Roman Catholics and others.

What we heard
In all eight cities, five themes recurred. As the Justice Tour began in Vancouver, one young adult stated that, “I spend a lot of time defending the church to my peers. It`s tough though because we haven’t seen the church take leadership on any major issue in our time. We need bold, moral leadership.”

But people in Canadian churches really care about poverty and climate change – that was the first commonality. Many are involved in ministries addressing these concerns, and they are calling for risk-taking from their faith leaders as well as substantive action from their governments.

Second, people clearly see links between climate change and poverty concerns, acknowledging that Indigenous rights are intertwined with and must be taken into account as we respond. As someone in Halifax told the delegation, “We need to find ways to address poverty and climate justice at the same time. Working on one only can increase the effects on the other.” In addressing both issues, it is climate justice and justice for the poor that is required, rather than limiting our churches to charitable responses.

Many Christians did join the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process with Aboriginal people (see related article on page 20). All Justice Tour delegation members were present for the final Commission events and the final report presentation in Ottawa in early June. This brought to mind what an Aboriginal woman in Saskatoon said: “I don’t want your handout; I want your hand. [Change] has to start with you.”

Third, the Justice Tour heard a communal lament over the breakdown of relationships: with God, with creation and with each other. Faith communities can and must play a role in allowing the bridging of cultures, re-establishing hospitality and re-creating community. As a Vancouver participant concluded, “This Justice Tour takes us out of our individual denominational laments into all working together about what’s really important.”

The churches were also firmly and repeatedly invited to work in partnerships. This included working with other denominations, other faith groups as well as engaging partners in civil society. There were numerous calls to always include people with lived experiences of poverty and climate injustice in all efforts.

Finally, we always discerned the presence of hope. People are not giving up; instead, accompanying all the analysis was a sense of urgency and the knowledge that we need to change.

What’s next?
A participant in Halifax emphasized that, “Churches need to educate their constituents. We need to demonstrate that there is political pressure (i.e. not just church leaders taking a position).”

Drawing on what was learned during the listening tour, a Church Leaders’ Pastoral Statement on Climate Change and Poverty in Canada will be developed and shared this summer. Locally-led engagement activities will follow the Statement, such as meetings with candidates and liturgical activities. Congregations should reflect upon the Statement and give feedback, to ensure that this listening and engaging process does not simply end with the visits to these eight cities.

In a few months, Canadian church leaders will participate in and report back from the UN meetings with international faith-based partners. A federal election resource by ecumenical coalitions, including sections on these two priority issues, has already been released, and is available on the CPJ and CCC websites.

As one participant in Edmonton said, the Justice Tour proved that churches can play an important role in starting “healthy conversations on hard issues.”

Take away
Citizens for Public Justice has published two booklets of reflections, prayers and action suggestions (cpj.ca/books-and-vidoes) to encourage the work of all the churches to educate and engage faith communities in further action on poverty and climate justice.

  • Joe Gunn serves as Executive Director of Citizens for Public Justice, cpj.ca.

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