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Racism, terrorists and the wounded church:

An interview with Mary Jo Leddy

Mary Jo Leddy is a writer, speaker and social activist. In 1975, she became founding editor of Catholic New Times, an independent national newspaper (published from 1976-2006). She is the recipient of several honorary doctorates, the Human Relations Award of the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews (1987) and the Order of Canada (1996).
But Dr. Leddy, author of over 700 articles and six books, is most widely known for the “text” of her life: her advocacy for refugees and the founder (as well as resident) and now Director of the Romero House – a community home for refugees in Toronto.
Christian Courier editor Angela Reitsma Bick had the honour of interviewing Mary Jo Leddy in December.

The Conservative government has said it will “prioritize” religious minorities in deciding which Syrian refugees to accept into Canada. Do you think that’s a helpful strategy?
No, I don’t. In fact I was just at a meeting last night with a Jesuit priest who is the head of Jesuit refugee services in the Middle East, and he’s Syrian. He lives in Damascus and works there.

He said, “As a Christian really listening to the gospel, how can I possibly say ‘I will look after you because you believe this and I won’t look after you because you believe something different’? That’s not even the gospel on the most basic level.”

Everybody is suffering in Syria, and we must respond to those most in need. Sometimes that’s Christians and sometimes it’s Muslims and sometimes it’s Jews, but if there are any choices to be made it’s where the greatest need is.

Many people I’ve lived with [at Romero House] have been Muslims, and I know their suffering and I know their needs.

Issues connected to another kind of profiling – racial profiling – have triggered protests in the U.S. recently.  President Obama says that “better is good” in American race relations – things are better now than 50 years ago. Do you think that’s true?
Not living there, it’s difficult for me to estimate whether things are better or worse. I realize it’s a very deep, complicated thing. On one level it looks like things are better, but on another level [events have] revealed the depths of the racism that exist there.

Are we free from racism in Canada?
Oh no.

But would you say progress has been made in Canada, as Obama emphasizes it has in the U.S.?
We’ve issued official apologies for the ways we’ve treated Aboriginal people, Japanese Canadians during the war and Jewish refugees desperately trying to come here – so that’s progress. And in our legislation there’s been progress, but at the same time I see that many of our immigration policies are profoundly racist. Much has been gained, but there are still problems. For example, the Sri Lankans who came on the Sun Sea and Ocean Lady [in 2010] were treated almost automatically as terrorists, which is profoundly disturbing to me.

Do you think Canadians too quickly cry “terrorist”?
Yes I do. It’s become almost hysterical. And unfortunately some politicians have catered to this. I do believe there are real terrorists in the world. I don’t believe our present security services are really capable of identifying them, or dealing with them, and so they tend to focus on innocent people. Real terrorists exist, but to categorize whole groups of people as potentially terrorist is a really disturbing trend. Being a terrorist has to do with [choosing to] injure innocent people for political reasons. Simply being a member of a certain religion or race doesn’t make you a potential terrorist.

You can be a leader by catering to the fears of people and promising to protect them, or you can be a leader by reminding people about their capacity for goodness and decency and tolerance.

How has our time been “diminished by terror,” as you say in one of your books?
It’s completely distorting who we are as people, because if you define yourself by what you’re against or who you’re against, very often you become like what you’re fighting against.

Our task as a country and as human beings is to define ourselves [instead] by what we’re for, what we value, what’s important and significant to us.

What does it mean, and why does it matter, to “do theology locally”?
When we think globally, we can become very abstract and general. Wendell Berry says we have to always be rooted and located somewhere, or else we drift off into meaningless lives.

For Canadians, that’s a particular challenge because we’ve been very shaped by our experience of always being a colony of some empire – French, British, American. The characteristic of people who live in a colony is that we find it very hard to take “here” seriously. We’re always thinking in terms of “some place else.”

As Northrop Frye said, “Where is here?” Until you are able to name where you are with all of its challenges and all of its burdens, you can’t really live there.

Every sermon I’ve heard on the parable of the Good Samaritan has been a call to behave less like the Pharisee and more like the Samaritan. But you turn that upside down by seeing the church today as more like the wounded man – cast down by the side of the road. If the church is in that position, what factors will influence its future?
Because of sex abuse scandals and the general insipid quality of some of our churches, the church itself has been wounded and discredited. Every church, even if it’s not big scandals, has been wounded by conflict and difficulty. If we could pause and think of the church that way, it can take on the figure of what Hugo Simberg calls “The Wounded Angel.” One way of interpreting this painting is that when the church allows itself to go among those in need, that’s how the church will become healed itself.

In my experience, it’s the people who are in great need – the elderly, the poor, young people, refugees – who really want the church to become strong again. They need it to be strong again. When we begin to hear those voices summoning us to action and to thought, we will really find out what we’re supposed to do.

Do you see signs of hope for the church in Canada today?
Obviously there are lots of problems, and people moan and groan about fewer numbers and smaller bank accounts. But I do think that there are churches who reach the point of saying, “We have nothing left to lose. Let’s give it all we have.” I know one group of nuns who were [dying out], so they sold everything and gave their money to the Canadian Council for Refugees. I find people are willing to do things they never would have considered before – like offering sanctuary to refugees – because they’re not holding on to some stupid image of what it means to be properly Christian. They’re saying, “We have nothing left to lose. Let’s go where the Spirit leads us.” And that’s a wonderful freedom; I think it’s the beginning of life.

When churches stop calling in consultants and just get on their knees and pray, it’s amazing what starts to happen.

Thank you for putting up with this background noise from my kids! I’ll finish with a question about them, moving from macro issues to a micro one: Do you have any advice on how to raise kids to love Christ with authenticity?
We have a summer camp for families and children – we take 50 refugees up north for a week – and during that week I have two responsibilities: cook and teach the kids how to fish.

Over the years I’ve been kind of astonished at how much kids like the fishing thing. It’s very counter-intuitive; they’ll stand there for hours casting, being patient – and these are kids used to being on the internet, listening to music.

Last summer one girl said “I love fishing,” so I asked her why. “Because it’s my quiet time,” she said. I think we underestimate and forget how much children do need quiet time – their own contemplative life. Do whatever you can to keep open that space – that’s where things flourish and are born.  


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