From Mary Poppins to “Good Soil” — making the world a better place

This week’s guest writer is Anna-Marie Janzen, Public Engagement Adviser for Good Soil, a special campaign officially launched by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank today, March 25, 2015, and supported by MCC. Originally from BC and now living in Winnipeg, Anna-Marie is a passionate social justice advocate who sometimes pines for the West Coast.

I had my political awakening when, as a child, I watched Mary Poppins and was introduced to my fore-mothers, the suffragettes. I have been fascinated with political process ever since. I clearly recall my disappointment in 2005 when some of my friends could vote in the BC provincial election, but I could not, as I was not yet 18. I was so excited to vote in subsequent elections that the Elections Canada volunteers always asked if it was my first time to vote.

Women's votes in CanadaParticipating in the democratic process is not something I have ever taken lightly. While I recognize that our political system is not perfect, I nonetheless consider it a privilege to participate. That I, as a woman, have a voice in the running of my country is a recent privilege, not enjoyed by all people in this world. It hasn’t even been 100 years since Canadian women (and then only European-Canadian women) could vote and were considered “persons” of this country. Canada’s indigenous peoples only got the vote in the 1960s. Therefore, I believe that it is my responsibility to use my voice to better my country and the world, in the names of my suffragette mothers and all those who have been denied this privilege.

Beyond casting a ballot, there are two important ways I like to participate. First, by encouraging my peers to also care about political processes (a very difficult task, trust me). And second, by communicating with elected representatives directly. Throughout my voting life, I have tried to be diligent in communicating with my Member of Parliament, the Prime Minister, and other applicable ministers on issues I care deeply about and areas I feel our government can improve. This has ranged from the crime omnibus bill to climate change mitigation, from the arms trade to increasing our international aid budget.

70 percent of people who do not get enough to eat are farmers.

70 percent of people who do not get enough to eat are farmers.

It is not surprising, then, that I find myself in a job working on exactly these points. I am currently the Public Engagement Adviser for Canadian Foodgrains Bank’s new advocacy campaign, Good Soil, which officially launches today, March 25, 2015. My task is to mobilize Canadians to exercise their political voice. Specifically, I am asking Canadians to communicate with their elected officials on increasing Canada’s aid support for small-scale farmers in developing countries.

Engaging our elected representatives is not only a privilege for us to honour as citizens, it is also a calling we have as Christians. Jesus spent his public ministry advocating for impoverished and marginalized people. He challenged the ruling forces, and called us to love our neighbours. What better way is there to show our love for our neighbours than by doing what we can to ensure that they get the opportunities to live their lives to the fullest extent, free of hunger, poverty and oppression? We can do this, in part, by influencing the policies and priorities set by our own government.

70 percent of people who do not get enough to eat are farmers.

70 percent of people who do not get enough to eat are farmers.

One of the key ways to help improve the lives of people who regularly experience hunger is by increasing Canada’s official development assistance for agricultural in the developing world.  When focused on small-scale farmers, investments in agriculture can have a huge impact. Such investments can reduce poverty and hunger, improve health and nutrition, empower women, benefit the environment, and build inclusive economies.

We have elected representatives making decisions for our country, and our voices matter to them. They cannot represent us if we do not express our values and opinions. As Canadian citizens, we have the ability to influence how Canada supports the world’s small-scale farmers. We can use our voices to let our government know that this is what we want for our country and our world.

Ours may not be a perfect political system, but it’s a system we can use to make our world a better place.

Please join the Good Soil campaign! Visit www.foodgrainsbank.ca/goodsoil for more information and tools to add your voice on this issue.

 

A spirituality of advocacy

Perhaps it is because we are in the season of Lent… Or perhaps it is because I was recently trying to explain how the work of our Ottawa Office differs from self-interested lobbying… Or perhaps it is the findings of a 2014 research project that challenged us as staff of the Ottawa Office to be more explicit about how our work is grounded in our faith…

Whatever the reasons, my thoughts have turned to articulating the spirituality that shapes the way we speak to government about issues of concern to MCC. What are the components of a spirituality of advocacy? How do we seek to faithfully express and embody this spirituality? I offer the following as preliminary thoughts.

Hannah and her 8 children are Syrian refugees who came to Jordan in January 2014. One of her children is disabled, unable to walk, speak or eat by himself. They are living day to day in an apartment in one of the poorest areas of Amman with no furniture, no income and no family support. Together with MCC partner Caritas Jordan, we were able to bring blankets and relief buckets prepared in Canada. (MCC Photo/Gordon Epp-Fransen) (Beneficiaries are from Syria which is an MCC Country of Sensitivity. Last names of beneficiaries are withheld for security reasons.)

Hannah and her 8 children are Syrian refugees who fled to Jordan in January 2014.  (MCC Photo/Gordon Epp-Fransen)

Solidarity.  MCC’s advocacy work arises out of program work – more specifically, from the call of partners that we work with in Canada and around the world. We seek to respond to the longing of real people for justice, for peace and for human dignity, and to call for government actions and policies which will fulfill those longings.  We are inspired by the biblical call to “speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9).  But more than speaking for, we seek to speak with those who demand justice.  In other words, we try to be about solidarity. In the words of Samantha Baker Evens, “We are not ‘a voice for the voiceless’; we lend our privilege as a megaphone.”

Integrity.   We know that words and deeds go together; deeds in fact give integrity to words (James 1:14-17). Thus, MCC has learned that the words we speak and write to government have weight when they are grounded in the practices of MCC’s supporting congregations and communities as they do God’s work in the world. We can urge our government to welcome refugees because the communities that support us are willing and ready to sponsor refugees. We can call on the government to implement restorative justice approaches within the Corrections system because ordinary MCC supporters are involved in programs like prison visitation, victim assistance, or Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA).  We depend on the practical service and witness of our supporting communities to give our work integrity.

Respect. In our advocacy work, we try to be respectful of all people in the political system – to treat them as we would wish to be treated (Matthew 7:12) — whether we agree with them or not. We try not to be drawn into partisan debates, though we admit this can be very difficult. Sometimes our commitment to truth-telling makes us want to loudly denounce particular people or policies (and perhaps there is a time for that). We remind ourselves that no one political party has a monopoly on the truth and that each person in “the system” is a child of God, worthy of our respect and consideration.

Humility.  We seek to be humble in our witness to government, remembering Paul’s words to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).  Although we try to listen carefully to our partners, do our research, and get our facts right, we recognize there are times when we don’t have all the information. Sometimes we simply don’t have ready alternatives to suggest. In October 2014 MCC sent a letter to the federal government urging it to reconsider its involvement in a military campaign against the group which calls itself ISIS. Our letter acknowledged that some of our partners in Syria and Iraq actually appreciated those airstrikes.  For MCC, as a pacifist organization, it was a difficult thing to do.  A commitment to humility meant we needed to do it.

drummingLament. Sometimes, when we as MCC workers listen well and are really honest with ourselves, we glimpse the insight that we – as individuals, as an organization, as a church – are part of the problem, rather than the solution.  Even though we as staff may consider ourselves advocates for social justice, at times our partners remind us otherwise.  Our Indigenous partners, for example, remind us of the ways that Mennonites have participated in and benefited from the colonial history of Turtle Island, and the ways that MCC continues to perpetuate unequal relationships with Indigenous people. In the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission they demand to know whether MCC is prepared for true reconciliation. At times, in the spirit of Psalm 51, we can only confess, weep and lament in response.

Hope.  Our advocacy is inspired by a big hope – an eschatological hope. There are many disappointments in advocacy work.  As much as we hope for the success of a change in policy, or an amendment to a bill, or some helpful new regulations, the results often fall short of our goals. And yet, if we depended on this kind of “success” to carry on, we probably would abandon the task. Indeed, a longtime civil servant once said to one of us, “The people who hang on a long time in government are either alcoholics or Christians.” As people of faith, we are assured that the arc of the universe bends towards justice. We remember the promise that God’s reign of justice and peace will surely come (Isaiah 2:1-5, Luke 4:18-19). And so we carry on, believing that God blesses our meager efforts and makes them bear fruit in ways we may not see.

 By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the Ottawa Office. 

 

 

 

 

A new door opening

Each February, MCC’s Ottawa Office hosts a seminar for university students from across Canada. This year’s theme was “Citizen. Disciple. Advocate. Christian faith and political responsibility.”  The seminar included discussions with Members of Parliament and representatives of non-government organizations, a tour of the Parliament buildings, and a public witness walk, among other things. The reflection below is written by Kyle Tydeman, a student at Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford, BC, who attended the seminar.

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Twenty-seven students from New Brunswick to BC, as well as several international volunteers, attended the 2015 Ottawa Student Seminar.

It is difficult to describe my experience of the Ottawa Student Seminar. The best word to begin with would probably be the word challenging. Being among a Christian sub-culture of many like-minded people, I expected my previously held beliefs and practices to be affirmed and reinforced. Instead, they were incredibly challenged.

Going into the seminar, my peers and I had maintained glib political perspectives. We saw government and political figures as nothing more than a bunch of bantering individuals, greedily seeking taxpayers’ money. Attending the seminar and encountering people involved in the political process — people who held high hopes for change — forced me to recognize the faces of those relentlessly fighting for the benefit of the oppressed, minority, or forgotten groups. This experience radically shifted any negative preconceptions of mine and replaced them with a hopeful outlook on the world we live in.

MP Harold Albrecht addresses students.

MP Harold Albrecht addresses students.

Although I cannot say I have determined a response to all—or even some—of the world’s problems, I can confidently say I feel empowered to change because of the resources I received during the conference.Thus, the second word is encouraged. Aside from the cliche associations with such a word, the optimism demonstrated by Members of Parliament and representatives of various non-government organizations engaged in advocacy has greatly influenced my perspective on political involvement.

Throughout our discussion times, we heard that political advocacy can be described as “relentless incrementalism”— a statement supported by individuals who are committed and determined. For me, seeing political figures and advocates passionately affirm the need to lobby our leadership to produce change in our world was very encouraging.

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Intense discussion!

In addition, several practical principles, relating to the full scope of citizenship, discipleship and advocacy, became clear to me. The first and foremost point is to get involved locally—without this step, little change is possible. Secondly, when considering what kind of organizations or issues to be a part of, it is important to focus on one specific problem and stick with it, rather than taking on the bulk of the world’s issues. Third, It is important to remember that failure will happen, and that it can be a motivator as well as a form of evaluation.

Finally, through my experience at the Ottawa Student Seminar I met and developed relationships with other people who share my faith, goals and interest in social justice issues. It has been said that it is not what you know, but who you know—and in this context, networking is critical.

With these new relationships, knowledge and motivation, I can say that my desire for the well being of people has received new inspiration. A door is opening and a new way is emerging for me to help my community progress and develop. It is called advocacy.

Two people and a plant: What a begonia taught me about racism and pacifism

I’m from Winnipeg, which has a racism problem. It does. And, as much as I like to think that I’m some sort of exception to this racism, I’m not. Whether consciously or subconsciously, I have played a part in perpetuating that racism, and I’m not proud of it.

Since a Maclean’s article put this issue in the spotlight, I’ve taken some time to reflect on what role I play in this complex and messy problem, which has existed in Winnipeg since well before I was born, and sadly, will be an issue for the foreseeable future.

I moved to Winnipeg’s West End in 2010, which is known as a poorer area and has had a history of gang violence. As I moved from my family’s home in a cozy suburb in the north east of Winnipeg, I was well aware of the racism that exists in the city. However, I thought that somehow, as an “enlightened” individual, I was immune to perpetuating racism. I learned very soon that I was wrong.

Cory's begonia

Cory’s begonia

As a house warming gift, my beloved grandmother bought me a pot of begonias. Although I may not have the greenest thumb, I took good care of those begonias, putting them on the balcony so that they get enough sun, watering them regularly, and showcasing them on tours when family members came to see my new place.

One sunny afternoon, as I was out on the balcony watering my begonias, I saw a large aboriginal man walk by, stop in front of the house and look up at me. Immediately I put up my guard and froze. I immediately assumed that something negative was about to follow. Instead, he asked, “What kind of plant is that?”  Taken aback, I then responded in a very porky-piggish kind of way.

“A… bega…bego…bega…begonia.” I uttered. Like a fool.

“I like plants,” he said. “You keep watering that thing.” He then wished me well and continued on his way.

After this pleasant interaction I felt a mixture of emotions. While up-lifted by this positive, neighborly moment, I felt a profound sense of shame at how I had put up my guard and judged a fellow human being for looking a certain way. The instant he asked me about that begonia I realized that the “wall” that I had built up around myself came crumbling down, and I with it. For that moment in time I became vulnerable, which was beautiful. In that split second, we shared our humanity in a way that we would not have been able to otherwise.

From then on it was just two people and a plant.

The police are frequent visitors on Furby Street. Photo credit ctvnews.ca.

The police are frequent visitors on Furby Street. Photo credit ctvnews.ca.

It’s probably fair to say that most Winnipeggers, if not Canadians, have encountered someone on the street and reacted similarly. Sadly, not everyone was lucky enough to have a begonia there to make the encounter a positive one. These small moments of connection can be mutually transformative if we allow them to be. However, all too often, as we navigate through the public sphere we act guarded.

To me, pacifism can act as a begonia by reminding us to put down our guard, because at the very core of pacifism is the virtue of vulnerability. And it’s this virtue that strips us down to nothing more than our common humanity.

For me, when it comes to interpersonal relationships, pacifism requires a conscious effort to consistently keep one’s guard down while respecting the vulnerability of others, which is uncomfortable, but rewarding. Adopting this as a daily practice, I believe, is one important step in starting to address many of the problems that plague our urban spaces. Whether it be racism, mental-illness, poverty or fear, which are invariably intertwined, these problems often stem from a society building up barriers around itself.  If we collectively make ourselves vulnerable—in both big and little ways–those barriers between us may come crumbling down, because when we’re vulnerable we open ourselves to hear the voices of people who we would otherwise ignore and see more than just the “other”.

If we are going to tackle these problems, we need to change the way we interact on a daily basis, which is why Winnipeg … no … Canada needs a begonia. To me, that begonia is pacifism, because pacifism is so much more than a belief. It’s a daily practice.

By Cory Funk, Advocacy Research Intern for the Ottawa Office.