A great cloud of witnesses

Why was I crying, I wondered? Why were the tears streaming down my cheeks on May 8, as I participated in a powerful worship service celebrating and commemorating forty years of ecumenical work for social justice in Canada?

WWA-40th-HeaderThe worship service culminated a day of events hosted by KAIROS, an ecumenical coalition formed in 2001 from ten inter-church coalitions birthed in the 1970s. Those coalitions had emerged to address a wide range of issues – from corporate social responsibility, to economic justice, to refugee rights, to disarmament, to Apartheid– and to do so in partnership with peoples struggling under the weight of war, oppression and injustice. The economic realities of the late 1990s meant that so many coalitions could no longer be sustained; hence, the creation of KAIROS.

During the course of a full day, we heard from some of the people who had been central to the work of these coalitions. They shared stories of discouragement and triumph.

Marjorie Ross spoke of efforts to help end Apartheid in South Africa. She told of the seeming hopelessness of the situation, and then the sudden and unexpected breakthrough ending the Apartheid regime. “Keep on working,” she urged, “even when all seems hopeless.”

John Dillon recalled the struggle which supported Dene efforts to prevent a Mackenzie Valley pipeline from being built. He reminded us that forty years ago, Indigenous people called on Canadians to practice a “conserver” rather than a “consumer” ethics. The pipeline was not built, but the call for an ethic of conservation is as necessary as ever.

We heard others describe efforts to sponsor refugees fleeing the Pinochet regime in Chile, to un-mask the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and to resist Canadian participation in war against Iraq.

Jennifer Henry and Joe Mihevc share reflections on forty years of ecumenical witness for social justice.

Jennifer Henry and Joe Mihevc share reflections on forty years of ecumenical witness for social justice.  Photo credit Erin Green, CCC.

Sue Wilson reminded the group that the heritage of hope and action bequeathed to KAIROS by the predecessor coalitions is mostly about relationships – relationships that transform us and make us attentive to God’s work in the world. She reminded present-day justice-seekers that KAIROS’ heritage marries prophetic and political energy with a contemplative heart.

Perhaps most poignant of all were the words of Mohawk leader Marlene Brant-Castellano, longtime professor of Native Studies at Trent University. “I believe in resurrection,” she declared, describing  the struggle of Indigenous people to rise from the devastation of colonialism.

She reminded us that that coalitions appear, disappear, and reappear with new names, but they emerge from the same heart – a heart of ancient wisdom, and an ethical core of care for the other. A resurrection future for Indigenous people – as for all people – lies in the building of communities founded on that ethical value of care.

The worship service later that evening wove together a traditional Anishinaabe welcome, scripture, music, prayer, reflection, stories, a procession of banners, and a roll call, naming those saints who have already passed on.  It was a rich tapestry of memory and hope.

I know why I was crying at the evening worship service. I was crying because my own heart was filled with gratitude for the great cloud of witnesses which inspired — and continues to inspire — faithful action for justice. Thank-you to those who carried the torch of social justice, dignity, and freedom for so many years, Thank-you to those who take it up now. Thank-you, thank-you.

Esther Epp-Tiessen is public engagement coordinator for MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office.

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