Six degrees of separation…or less

By on November 1, 2009

I THINK IT’S GOOD to get to know the neighbours, don’t you? They could be complete strangers you encounter on a busy street. Or they could be people who live across the hall, across town or on the other side of the world. In the process, you may discover you have very little in common. Fair enough. But there’s a 50-50 chance you may experience something truly wonderful.

Either way, it’s all gravy, whether it’s a good experience or one that’s not so good. It’s the very act of stepping squarely into the realm of possibility that’s important.

LIKE ANGLICANS the world over, Rev. David Opheim lives and breathes outreach. For the past year, this rector at Saint Saviour’s Anglican Church in Victoria has been working with volunteers to serve a hot lunch to those in need every weekday at the Rainbow Kitchen. Last September, when Saint Saviour’s hosted a conference on marginalization, Rev. Opheim decided to launch a new outreach initiative. This time, he wanted to engage disadvantaged youth at a nearby skateboard park

He knew about the suspected link between traumatic brain injury and homelessness and he had a plan: give each of the boys a helmet donated by a local sporting goods store, and use food to focus their attention.

He enlisted the help of the people attending the conference, including Bishop Gregory Kerr-Wilson of the diocese of Qu’Appelle. There were about 50 people in all, most of them middle-aged and wearing comfortable shoes. As they neared the park, they were met by the sight of dozens of teen boys spinning, popping and slamming their skateboards. The noise was ear-shattering and when combined with the air-borne bodies, sent a crystal clear message: Leave us alone, we’re having fun!

It isn’t easy to compete with what’s already engaging a group, notes Rev. Opheim. Still, you have to keep trying. “We have to get out of the offices and the worship spaces and into the trenches,” he says. Planning and persistence paid off, because against all odds, “church happened there that day,” reports Rev. Opheim. Perhaps it was all the pizza (duh); or perhaps it was the skill-testing question required to have some of that pizza. What’s the name of the sponsor that’s bringing you these helmets? (One hungry boy ran to get a look at the sign outside Saint Saviour’s.)

Either way, the connection was made and one grateful mother felt moved to embrace a startled Rev. Opheim. She had been worried about her son’s safety but couldn’t afford a helmet. The risks of skateboarding at the park seemed better than hanging out on the street.

WHO IS marginalized? It’s a simple question that doesn’t have a simple answer. Or does it? It’s easy to see that people in need are marginalized. But how about youth at risk? Are they marginalized? What about First Nations people? Or gay and lesbian people? How about those with physical or mental disabilities? Or new Canadians who don’t speak English? Refugees? The list could go on and on.

What about all those who have ever felt lonely and isolated, like they’re on the outside looking in? Do these people qualify? If so, then pretty much everyone on the planet is acquainted with feeling marginalized. Including you and me.

In his article on page 6, Taking it to the streets, Rev. Matthew Johnson, a street outreach priest on Vancouver’s Eastside, points out that Jesus was marginalized. Today, Jesus has “street cred” with people living with hardship because he experienced the same hunger, rejection, injustice and suffering.

“It is people at the centre who determine who is on the margins,” says Sara Miles, who founded the Food Pantry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. The Food Pantry provides fresh fruit and vegetables and other good food to 800 hungry families every week. The food is placed around the altar and no questions are asked. Many people who receive food are so transformed by the experience that they end up staying to help others.

Rev. Mary Louise Meadow, a retired Anglican priest and a Journal contributor, spoke to Miles when they both attended Rev. Opheim’s conference on marginalization. You can read her report at anglicanjournal.com (Click on From the shadow towards the light in the center column.)

SPEAKING of getting to know the neighbours, I caught up with Mardi Tindal recently, following her election as the 40th moderator of the United Church of Canada (UCC). She is the fifth woman to hold this position. She spoke to me from her home in Brantford Ont. In the background, I could hear the zip of tape as her husband, Doug, carried on with packing up the house. I had had the pleasure of meeting Doug several weeks’ earlier. He used to be director of communications for the Anglican Church of Canada.

To fulfill her three-year term as moderator, Tindal is taking a leave of absence from Five Oaks, the UCC education and retreat centre in Paris, Ont., where she has been director for the past five years. She and Doug were moving to Toronto, where their sons, Chris, 28 and Alex, 25, live.

I asked Tindal about the relationship between the United Church and the Anglican Church. “I think it is a truly blessed one,” she told me. “Every church has its own gift and I delight in the close relationship between us.” And indeed, she was very pleased when Anglican bishops Robert Bennett and Terry Dance, both from the diocese of Huron, sent their congratulations and blessings.

Tindal pointed to the parallel journey our two churches have been on with the residential schools experience. Both have completed settlement agreements, of course, and are looking to the future. “I just hope people don’t underestimate what God gives us for healing,” she said.

Rev. Canon Kenneth Kearon is the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion. He’s a charming, articulate man with a lovely Irish accent and a razor sharp mind. He seemed very approachable when he visited Church House last week. I suspect he thinks he’s just like you and me. While he was having a cuppa in our lobby, I walked right up to him and we started chatting, like we’d known each other for years.

Canon Kearon must have a ga-zillion frequent flyer points because he travels constantly, about 200,000 miles a year, checking in with people all over the Communion to make sure the lines of communication are open and the work is progressing. He described his job but it’s so massive I couldn’t possibly explain it without a Venn diagram. So I’ll just tell you that he connects with more people in a month than you or I would in a year. He had just arrived in Toronto from Malawi and then he was off to Cochrane, Ont. to attend the provincial synod (where Archishop Colin Johnson was elected the new metropolitan, see p. 3). From there he was headed to New York and the United Nations and then off to Germany for some tree planting with the Lutherans.

Sadly, he didn’t have any advice on coping with jetlag or tips on efficient packing, so I asked him about same-gender relationships. It seemed to me that if anyone can offer a bit of perspective (other than the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, Rowan Williams) it might be Canon Kearon.

First of all, he is “quite confident” that the church will find a way forward, even if it takes “a very long time.” The church has a history of coming to terms with controversy, he noted, including recent examples such as divorce, contraception, and the ordination of women as priests and bishops. This time, however, some things need to change so that the work can be done.

“We need to re-think what it means to be a very, very diverse communion,” Canon Kearon told me. “That’s why we need to change some of our structures. That’s why we’re talking about a Covenant and that’s why we’re talking about a Commission on Faith and Order. These are ways in which we will be able to process this properly and responsibly as faithful Christians.”

This doesn’t mean that one side is going to “win” and the other is going to “lose,” he added. “I’m not pre-supposing what that way forward will be. But we need to put in place a way of being in communion that enables us to better recognize the faithfulness of one another, which I think is the big casualty.”

It takes faith to keep reaching out?faith that we are more alike than different, faith that the human connection is also a connection to God. In the process, we discover something about ourselves, that there is no them, only us.

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