Christ has this ability to bridge cultures’

Published April 1, 2006

Parishioners celebrate Palm Sunday at St. Paul’s L’Amoreaux, one of many multicultural parishes in the diocese of Toronto. Those who work in multi-ethnic churches struggle with how to become less a colonial version of the Church of England. [photo by MICHAEL HUDSON]

(First of a two-part series)

It is Monday, 7 p.m., and the lights are still on at the offices of St. Timothy’s Anglican church in Agincourt, a diverse community in Toronto’s east end.

In a corner of the main entrance, a group sits in a semi-circle – the conversational English group that members have dubbed “The English-Speaking Corner.”

“So, what did you do this weekend?” Les Birmingham, a parishioner, asks a group of five, mostly new immigrants from mainland China; another parishioner, Peggy Perkins, joins them.

“Let’s begin with Jackson,” says Mr. Birmingham, facing the person to his left who is in a neatly pressed suit. Jackson Gao says in a soft voice that he is finalizing the closing date for a condominium that he and his wife have bought. The group is delighted; the closing date is an auspicious time, Jan. 29, the Chinese Lunar New Year.

Linda Zhang, the youngest and newest in the group, says she’s ready to begin Grade 10.

“Tell us about the fashion show that you’re staging,” Mr. Birmingham, who has a gentle but engaging voice and a kind face, prods Ms. Zhang. She says, shyly, that the fashion show is for the coming Chinese New Year celebration, which St. Timothy’s and the United church are organizing at a church hall.

Mention of the festivities makes a bubbly young woman named Annie Huang pine for traditional foods prepared during this holiday. Lei Zhou, seated beside Mr. Gao, says she has the perfect recipe for a rice-based dessert Ms. Huang is pining for. “You can cook that?” asks Ms. Huang. “Oh, I can do anything,” said Ms. Zhou and everyone laughs.

It is Johnny Luo’s turn and he says haltingly that he is still busy looking for a job. “It’s hard,” he says. Ms. Perkins asks him what he used to do in China.

“Telecommunications,” he responds.

The conversation shifts to a more serious tone, back to the reality of what brought them to St. Timothy’s: some help to navigate a new culture and environment while struggling with limited English skills.

Mr. Gao was an engineer in China but cannot practice his profession. He and his family survive on some savings and his income from odd jobs; his wife was a successful obstetrician and gynaecologist but since coming to Canada, she has only worked in a factory, explains Mr. Birmingham. “Oh, she has been laid off,” interjects Mr. Gao. She has enrolled in an English as a Second Language (ESL) class with the hope that demolishing the language barrier would bring her closer to practising her profession again someday.

They know the odds, they all say, of being newcomers to Canada; but they’re here to stay and that’s why they go to St. Timothy’s on Monday nights. But they have come not just for the chance to practise English with devoted volunteers like Mr. Birmingham and Ms. Perkins and occasionally with the parish priest, Canon Patrick Yu, who was recently elected suffragan bishop of Toronto, the first of Chinese (and Asian) descent in the Anglican Church of Canada. They come, they say, because they feel welcome. “They say to me, ‘You’re the first people from mainstream society that showed an interest in me,'” says Bishop-elect Yu, who also speaks Cantonese. “They expect the Chinese to be friendly to them because we speak the same language and (have) the same culture. But many were moved that somebody would go out of the way to include them.”

Elsewhere across Canada, this same hospitality is being extended by some Anglican parishes, which have been transformed into multicultural, multi-ethnic churches.

In Victoria, the parish of St. Saviour’s incorporates Spanish hymns into its liturgy, owing to the presence of a parish priest originally from Colombia, and a large Latino immigrant community, which worships alongside 24 other nationalities and the long-time Anglo-Saxon Anglicans.

St. Matthew’s church is another thriving inner-city parish in the diocese of Rupert’s Land which has a mix of aboriginal, Caribbean-Canadian, Anglo-Saxon, and since 2003, Sudanese members. The Sudanese, who came to Canada as refugees from camps in Kenya, worship in their own Dinka language, but also join regular services on occasion. Non-Sudanese parishioners are likewise welcome to participate in Dinka services.

This path to inclusion has not been easy for most. Up until the 1970s, a majority of Anglican churches across Canada were still steeped in a colonial history that included colluding with the state to eliminate the “Indian problem” in the country through forced assimilation and education in state-funded residential schools. Some, to this day, still struggle with the very idea that the Anglican Church of Canada could or should grow out of “being an ethnic church to being a church that fully reflects the full spectrum of Canadian reality,” said Rev. Cathy Campbell, parish priest of St. Matthew’s, Winnipeg. “A friend of mine said his challenge to his parish was how to become a church on the Red River (rather) than on the Thames. How do we become less the colonial version of the Church of England and become fully indigenized in Canada?”

Says Bishop-elect Yu, who came to Canada from Hong Kong at the age of 17 and was the first in his family to embrace Anglicanism: “The first stage, the hardest to break through is when the visible minority is a true minority. The first family in a church is always the pioneer. They would have to be the one that bears all the inter-cultural suspicion sometimes and curiosity all the time.”

But he believes the work of breaking down barriers is mutual. “It also depends on what attitude you bring in” he says. “I do believe that true faith in Christ has this ability to bridge cultures.”

For Rev. Antonio Osorio, who fled Colombia and arrived in Canada in 1999 as a political refugee along with his wife, Andrea, and then-one-year-old daughter Vittoria, becoming parish priest of a white, Anglo-Saxon parish with 29 lifelong members was a baptism of fire.

Not only was he new to Canada, he hardly spoke any English when Barry Jenks, then the diocesan bishop of British Columbia, appointed him to St. Saviour’s with a mandate to reach out to the growing minority community in downtown Victoria.

“In the beginning we had some kind of resistance. I saw this as a natural way … You know how Anglican people are concerned about change; they want to know where (it) is headed,” he says. There were parishioners who asked the bishop if Mr. Osorio, who dresses casually, was truly a priest or whether he needed money to buy “proper clothes.”

“It was very difficult for people to accept that I am not a white Anglican (priest). I have mixed Indian blood,” he recalls.

How did he overcome the hostility? “He just toughed it out. He’s tough as nails, Antonio. (After) what he’s been through in Colombia, no one here is going to scare him off,” laughs his assistant parish priest, Rev. Betty Miller. “He’s also very charming and he has a wonderful heart and he loves people and they know that.”

Mr. Osorio adds, “It was important to remove the block of distrust.” He notes that the very same people who wanted the bishop to order him to wear his clerical collar at all times were the same ones who were “side by side with us, working and building this church.” What matters, he added, “is what you have in your heart; it’s how you treat people, how you lead the community to a place where we can go together as a family.” The visible support he received from his bishop, who visited the parish frequently in his initial months, also helped tremendously.
Today, St. Saviour’s is “a very informal, Anglo-Catholic liberal, open-minded church,” that includes not just whites and Hispanics but African, Filipino, and Japanese immigrants.

Multicultural churches reap both gifts and challenges. For St. Mathew’s incumbent Ms. Campbell, the arrival of the Sudanese – most of them part of the “lost boys of Sudan” who arrived en masse in Canada as an Anglican parish – has been “a tremendous enrichment.” (The “lost boys of Sudan” were young orphaned refugees forced from their villages by war who trekked hundreds of miles through African wilderness before they were rescued and sent to refugee camps.)

Some “have come to the Christian faith as the first in their family; they come with that immediate sense of the power of the living Christ and their lives have been filled with adversity and misery and so they know the power of faith in the face of active opposition and suffering,” she adds.

“The gift is to see the face of God, boy, reflected in the diversity and beauty of humanity,” says Ms. Campbell. “Like a stained glass window it has to be multi-hued and although that sounds poetic, as you know people’s stories and can see the spirit moving in each other’s lives, the sense of what God is about in our world gets richer and richer. Although that’s possible in less diverse environments, it’s radiant, I think, in diverse environments.”

(Next issue: Canada as a mission field?)


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

Keep on reading

Skip to content