Youth make pilgrimage to Toronto

Jackson Chevarie and Veronica Chenell with their new friend Brian, who they met at Toronto’s Church of the Redeemer. Photo: Julie Boisvert
Jackson Chevarie and Veronica Chenell with their new friend Brian, who they met at Toronto’s Church of the Redeemer. Photo: Julie Boisvert
Published July 10, 2014

Growing up in a village of about 500 people in the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of the Saint Lawrence is, in many ways, a world away from big city life in Toronto. But for 10 young students travelling with a teacher and an Anglican priest, coming to the city in May was meant to be more than a tourist trip: it was an urban pilgrimage.

The Rev. Jeffrey Metcalfe and his wife, Julie Boisvert, a teacher at Grosse-Ile School, created the Social Justice Club with the students to “aid in the formation of critically thinking citizens who are engaged with issues within Canadian society, and who are able to respond to those different than themselves with compassion.” Throughout the year, they met monthly to discuss social and environmental issues. The trip to Toronto was intended to cap their year of study by bringing them face to face with some of the issues they had talked about.

“What was really shocking for me is that there are so many things in the world that we weren’t aware of,” Lucas Chenell, 16, told the Anglican Journal after seeing people ask for spare change during his stay in Toronto. In his own community, he said, poverty is less visible. “There’s a food bank, but I wasn’t really aware of it. We really only hear about it around Christmas time. Here, when you see people on the streets, it is very shocking.”

The students were hosted by Church of the Redeemer, where they camped out on the basement floor. Many of the students said volunteering with the church’s breakfast and lunch program for people who may be homeless or struggling with poverty and housing problems offered some of the most meaningful experiences of their trip. Meeting the guests at Redeemer’s lunch program changed their preconceived notions of who the homeless are and dispelled fears that they might be “scary” people.

“There’s this kind of stereotype about people who are less fortunate, who are living on the streets,” said Krista Clarke, 16, “but as we’ve been working here these past few days, I’ve had some of the best conversations in my life with these people.”

Jackson Chevarie, 15, added that he was surprised by the optimistic attitude of the people he’d met. “Some people told me about their problems and how their life has turned out badly for them, but they managed to say it with a smile and try to look on the brighter side of things.”

Courtney Scott, 14, said she felt shy socializing with Redeemer’s lunch guests at first, but by the third day she felt comfortable. “It was a nice experience getting to know new people.”

Angie Hocking, Redeemer’s outreach co-ordinator, took the students on a walk through the streets of downtown Toronto and suggested they experience firsthand how it is for homeless people-asking for change to use a telephone, brushing their teeth in a public washroom and going to the public library for a place to rest.

Jaymi Burke, 14, followed through with the assignment and asked people for change in a subway station. She found it a tough experience as people tried to avoid making eye contact with her. “I felt uncomfortable because I didn’t want to bother them, but the way they treated me made me feel [worse.] I was in a vulnerable state because I was begging for money…I felt…embarrassed and humiliated.”

The group also had a close-up view of refugee issues in Canada when they met Jozsef Pusuma and his wife, Timea Daroczi, who have been living in sanctuary in a Toronto church since 2011 to avoid being deported back to Hungary, where they were attacked for being Roma human rights activists. The students were particularly moved by the plight of Lulu, the couple’s six-year-old daughter. “It’s really heart-wrenching to see,” said Marissa Matthews, 18. “At that age, most children want to go outside and play in the grass…go for walks on the street, and she’s locked in a church.”

Matthews was also moved by Daroczi’s request that the students write children’s stories to help change negative stereotypes about the Roma people (sometimes called gypsies). “When she was about 14 was the first time she said she understood that she was Roma,” recounted Matthews. “After her father broke it to her, she tried to scrub the colour from her skin and colour her hair.”

Clarke added that now, if she were to hear people speaking in a disparaging way about refugees, “I’d tell them that they don’t realize the actual struggle it is. People aren’t coming here to take our jobs; they are running for their lives.”

The students also visited a Toronto mosque. Though some expressed surprise that there were no chairs or pews in the worship space, Scott observed that she didn’t find “the religion or what we saw and what [their guide] was talking about much different than Christianity. We follow Jesus and they follow Mohamad, but they are all related in some way.”

The group travelled from Toronto to the Woodlands Cultural Centre on the Six Nations First Nation near Brantford, Ont. Burke said the experience was a rollercoaster of emotions. “I was shocked about some stereotypes they told us, because some I actually thought were true! For example, I always thought indigenous people had stuff for free-gas, housing, etc.-but actually, they just don’t pay taxes.” She said she enjoyed learning about the aboriginal origins of Lacrosse and playing the game. “I had so much fun! But when we had the tour of the residential school, I felt awful. To just think that innocent children were put in this place for no reason is devastating.”

Each night, the students closed the day with a “sacred circle,” a time to talk over their experiences and emotions, and a lectio divina meditation. Metcalfe said that as traditional church structures are struggling, “the aim of the Social Justice Club and the trip was to focus on basic, foundational questions such as, ‘What does Jesus actually teach?’ So one of the reasons we’ve been doing lectio divina in the midst of our work of serving the homeless, meeting refugees, is bringing the scriptures alive-by showing people that these aren’t just random texts that we read; these are other people’s stories and experiences. And so in sacred circle, we try to bring all of this together and see the whole thing not as tourism but as a pilgrimage.”

As the students shared their impressions with the Journal, Boisvert told them that she was “blown away” by the way they had responded to all the new situations they’d encountered. “I was really impressed with all of you and your ability to just open up and be so kind to the people we met,” she said.

It seemed these Magdalen Islands kids were going home with some very special souvenirs.

 

 

 

Author

  • Leigh Anne Williams

    Leigh Anne Williams joined the Anglican Journal in 2008 as a part-time staff writer. She also works as the Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly, a New York-based trade magazine for the book publishing. Prior to this, Williams worked as a reporter for the Canadian bureau of TIME Magazine, news editor of Quill & Quire, and a copy editor at The Halifax Herald, The Globe and Mail and The Bay Street Bull.

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