“Take a risk-and follow something new.”
That challenge from the Rev. Travis Enright to 75 Anglicans and other Christians gathered in Edmonton encapsulated what a unique event called justice camp is all about. Unlike a traditional conference where participants listen passively to experts, justice camp honours the wisdom everyone brings to the event, and challenges them to step outside their comfort zone as they learn about key issues facing society.
Sponsored by the diocese of Edmonton and running until August 21, this year’s gathering focuses on the theme of “land,” where participants learn about issues involving food security, ecology and conservation, and the oil and gas industry, among others.
The camp, which is being held at King’s College, opened with two days of orientation and creative worship, highlighting God’s gift of land and including aboriginal perspectives on creation.
“Everything has spirit in it, because the Creator has blown on it,” native elder Elsie Paul told participants. “Look at what a creator he is! He’s brought us here from different nations.”
Stephen Martin, professor of theology at King’s, outlined the central role that land plays in people’s faith and lives. God’s desire for people to honour the gift of land has become distorted, he said. “Land is not seen as a gift from God, but as a commodity. The land is good, but we have not always been good to the land.”
Later, participants broke into small groups for three days of hands-on learning about issues such as First Nations concerns, homelessness and urban poverty, interfaith relations and other topics. Reflecting the camp’s direct learning approach, a group working on conservation of nature headed for Jasper National Park. Another group travelled to Fort McMurray to get a firsthand look at the impact of oil sands development and to meet people on both sides of this controversial issue.
The Rev. Chris Brouillard-Coyle, rector at The Anglican Parish of St. Paul’s, Essex and Trinity, in Cottam, diocese of Huron, was part of the group that visited Fort MacMurray. “It’s easy to blame big corporations for ecological damage caused by oil/tarsands mining,” she said. “But the story is far more complex, challenging us to recognize that we too make choices that encourage development, we too participate in this cycle of raping the land.”
Amidst the rugged beauty of Jasper National Park, the nature conservation group saw the struggle between preservation of nature and development in Alberta parks. The group visited a skywalk viewpoint run by a private company at the Columbia Icefield, which some Canadians have criticized for being intrusive and disruptive of the natural environment. Participants also saw the impact of climate change-the icefield is much smaller than it was 30 years ago, and continues to shrink.
During a visit to Medicine Lake, Evelyn Day, one of three First Nations members of the group, explained the significance of the lake as a sacred place of healing for First Nations people.
The interfaith relations group attended Sunday worship at St. George’s, Edmonton, which used a liturgy with indigenous elements; worshippers learned about native spiritual traditions from the elders. The group also visited a mosque, as well as a synagogue where a rabbi taught them about Judaism’s understanding of land and the environment.
“Putting everything in the context of land…gives me insights into how we can work together for the environment,” said Elin Goulden, an Anglican social justice staff person from Toronto who also serves as co-ordinator for an Ontario interfaith anti-poverty coalition. “I’m also intrigued by the idea of thoughtfully incorporating indigenous traditions into our Christian practice.”
The camp attracted participants from across Canada, including young people new to social justice issues as well as seasoned justice advocates. Several First Nations Anglicans also took part, including Bishop Lydia Mamakwa, bishop of Mishamikoweesh, the new indigenous diocese in the Anglican Church of Canada.
“I’ve got a real passion for social justice issues,” said Chris Phro, from the parish of St. James, Kentville, diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. “I see our church having a huge role in this area.” He expressed the hope that his experience in the food ethics group could strengthen his local efforts to support the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund’s (PWRDF) campaign for food security. PWRDF is the relief and development arm of the Anglican Church of Canada.
Carmen Esau, a member of St. Faith’s Anglican Church, Edmonton was drawn to justice camp because of his interest in the truth and reconciliation process.
With seven Cuban participants and a resident of Nicaragua, this year’s event had a stronger international flavour than previous ones. Cuban participation reflected the Episcopal Church of Cuba Bishop Griselda del Carpio’s vision of encouraging youth leadership in church, said Patricia de la Paz Sarraff, one of the Cuban campers. The Cuban delegation was also here to receive training for a justice camp being planned for Cuba in 2015.
Sarraff said her group was struck by the diversity of cultures they saw in Edmonton. Canada’s respect for diversity reflects the Anglican principle of unity in diversity, she said. Her group also found Alberta’s lush fields of grain impressive, noting that in Cuba, a lot of farmland lies fallow.
The justice camp wraps up with worship and the sharing of experiences and ideas for follow-up action.
The camp, now in its seventh year, is sponsored by a Canadian diocese as a way to nurture the next generation of social justice activists in the church, to enable them to learn from older justice advocates and to inspire participants of all ages to practise faith-based action for justice.