Monday, February 11, 2019

Everyone Needs Someone to Believe in Them, Says (and Sings) Fred Penner

Fred Penner, World Vision President Michael Messenger,
Edgar Gonzales. (World Vision photo.)

Everyone needs someone to believe in them—that’s the new message from Winnipeg-based musician and children’s entertainer Fred Penner

Penner’s new single, “Somebody Believes,” was launched this week as part of International Development Week, February 3-9, a time when the relief and development sector celebrates how Canadians help people around the world escape poverty.

Penner, 72, wrote the song three years ago after hearing the story of Edgar Rodriguez, who had been sponsored as a child by World Vision.

“Today he’s a very successful man,” says Penner, who travelled to Zambia with World Vision 16 years ago.

“He became an accountant, married, is raising a family. And he attributes all of that to the World Vision experience.”

During his speech, Rodriguez used the phrase “somebody believed in me,” Penner says.

“I’m always on the lookout for a good phrase or line that could perhaps become a song,” he says. “That just struck a chord with me, literally and figuratively.”

Penner went back to his hotel room and, after an hour, wrote the song.

He played it occasionally at concerts, but “it never really had a life. It felt like it needed to go somewhere because the concept is so very important.”

That “somewhere” was World Vision.

“I thought, because this song came from a World Vision experience, that's where it needs to be rejuvenated,” Penner says.

He contacted World Vision, and the new music video is the result.

Recorded in Winnipeg at the Signpost Music, the song features local musicians such as the Bros. Landreth and Alexa Dirks (also known as Begonia).

The video features images of children helped by sponsorship through World Vision.

For Penner, “it's a pretty powerful and timely perspective” in the world today, where so many people feel powerless and anxious.

“If we don't give that kind of support to each other, and really act upon it, then what's the point of this journey?”

He hopes the song, which is for both children and adults, will inspired people to “pay it forward” to others. 

“Do something, even if you're small,” he says, noting that for the price of a cup of coffee people in Canada can help kids in a county like Zambia pay school fees so they can get an education.

“We have no real understanding of how much we really have, and how we can use our resources to make a difference in people's lives.”

As for Penner himself, the song is his own way to pay it forward.

“It’s a little overwhelming to me to know that I have been blessed with this kind of career, and such an enviable life,” he says.

Music is also an extension of his spirituality, and his Mennonite background.

“The spirituality that I was raised with was very strong,” he says of growing up and going to church in the Winkler area.

“I don’t know what I would have done if I had not had music and had that spirituality to hold me.”

As for how his spirituality impacts his life today, “I have a responsibility for other people in this world,” he says. “I am my brother's keeper.”

Of his music, he says “much of what I’m doing is not coming from me. There is a higher power, I am a vessel. The inspiration comes, and I’m prepared to offer it to the world in as many ways as I possibly can.”

His latest offering is his new song, “Somebody Believes.”

“Edgar was able to rise above poverty and injustice,” he says. “All it took was for someone to care, for someone to believe in him.”

When he ponders his legacy, Penner says he hopes he can look back and say he shared the message “we really can do better at being good people in this world, in understanding each other and accepting each other, and being more tolerant and giving to each other.”

That, and the importance of believing in others and what they can do and be, in Canada and around the world.

“Never underestimate your ability to make a difference in the life of another person,” he says. 

From the Feb. 9, 2019 Winnipeg Free Press.

Monday, February 4, 2019

“I still feel this is my denomination:" A Conversation with Gretta Vosper

In late January I interviewed Gretta Vosper, the self-described “atheist minister” in the United Church of Canada, about the unexpected decision by that church not to hold a hearing about her suitability for ministry.
I wrote about that decision in the Winnipeg Free Press and also for Religion News Service in the U.S.
Since you can never say everything that needs to be said in a short article, below find a transcription of our conversation.
Were you surprised when you were offered the settlement?

Gretta: I was very surprised. We certainly didn't expect any action at that point of time. I was totally convinced that, barring some miraculous intervention, I would end up outside of the church. Every indication suggested that that what was going to happen.

On the first day [of the hearing] there was someone present who had been a mediator on a couple of previous occasions when we had tried to find a settlement. He sought permission to try to do that again prior to starting and a formal hearing panel. They agreed. He spent all day Monday [working at it].

I went home Monday night feeling it was entirely futile and a waste of time and energy. [When we] came back on Tuesday something had shifted. I'm not aware of what [it was]. My lawyer may know, but he hasn't disclosed that to me.

Were you surprised that all the charges were dropped?

Gretta: Yes. It was unexpected. There are a number of things that that the church has the power to do when someone has been through a disciplinary review. If that person is allowed to remain in their position, often there's a supervisor given to that person so there is an ongoing relationship for a period of time.

After [a period of time] there's another assessment of how the situation is going. That supervisor can lift that supervisory requirement. But they [the Toronto Conference] didn't even choose to do that.

John: So there is no monitoring?

Gretta: No. There’s no monitoring. And that surprised me as well. Because if the if the church felt that the positions that I was espousing in my congregation were antithetical to what the church does, then it would seem that they would want to have someone fairly close to me watching. But that was a choice they didn't make.

John: Why do you think the settlement was offered?

Gretta: Part of me thinks that it may have been simply that the church had been betting on my backing down because of the financial burden [the legal bills]. And so when we were there the first two days it was very, very clear we were going to go the full length. 

My husband and I had talked about that. We understood the financial implications.

John: What have you paid in legal expenses?

Gretta: My legal fees have stretched to over $220,000. [Yet my husband and I] felt it was extremely important. So we decided to move forward. The Friends of Gretta Vosper [a fundraising initiative for her legal fees] was going to continue to fundraise.

We felt that even if there was an outcome that was not in our favor, it was important that the church go through that and make it very clear why [we were doing that].

John: Why do you feel so strongly about this?

Gretta: Everything I teach is consistent with the theological training that I received from the United Church [at Queens Theological College on the late 1980s]. I just simply choose to express it in a different way. 

I choose to use everyday language in order to share my beliefs and to engage the congregation, rather than speaking in archaic theological terms and having to follow with a phrase about what I really mean when I use that word.

It shouldn't be surprising if an individual who's trained in the liberal church determines that that language is unhelpful and chooses to use different language. And that's really what we do. 

I was taught the Bible was a human construction, and there is much wisdom in many texts, both ancient and contemporary.

We don't privilege that text [the Bible] anymore [and] suggest it has an authority beyond all other wisdom in the world. That's what I understood my theological training to be teaching me. I would not have been able to articulate that when I was at theological college, or even [for my first] few years in ministry.

But really that's the challenge. If the Bible is not the authoritative word of God for all time, why does it take such a central position in the church?

John: So in terms of the settlement, are there any terms or things you need to abide by or do?

Gretta: No. There are there are some things that were signed under a nondisclosure agreement, which was a challenging thing [for me] to do. Obviously, I'm not able to discuss those with you.

But there's nothing in that that influences what I am able to do, that has any impact on [my ministry]. I am able to function in ministry with all the rights and privileges that clergy have.

John: Why do you think the review was initiated?

Gretta: The review was instituted in 2015 because [the church worried] there was going to be a huge breach in the relationships that clergy have with one another, and that congregations [and individuals] have with the United Church, if I was allowed to stay.

John: What response have you heard to the decision?

Gretta: I'm aware of at least one individual who has challenged her congregation to consider ways to respond with vehemence against the decision. But I know there are . . . many who are relieved. There are many who will not say what their position is for fear of censure from the United Church.

John: It sounds like you see your battle almost as being a battle on behalf of all progressive clergy in the United Church. Is that the case?

Gretta: Yes. That's true. And that certainly was the impetus for carrying on . . . that ruling [against me, from the hearing] could have put all clergy at risk.

I think there has been a subtle steering of the denomination in a conservative direction that has been ongoing probably for the last 10 or 15 years. I think there are some things the United Church has done in the past [that are] at risk as a result of that.

The United Church generally has been a progressive church. So it's not that I'm fighting on behalf of a small group of people in that church. But that, you know, the social impact that the United Church has had around [things like] LGBTQ, a decision made so long ago, that led the church and also challenged communities around churches.

We've pushed policies around a number of things that put us on the cutting and sometimes leading edge of progressive thought in Canada, [things like] the conversation around Palestinians and the impact Israel and its policies has on those people—something some people call a slow genocide. 

The United Church has made statements on that [issue] much to the distress of many of its partners and members. It has not not faltered in that work.

But if it has, unfortunately, privileged and protected a very conservative interpretation of doctrine. Certainly when I was at theological college that was not being taught. 

I was one of the few in my year who actually had been raised with the new curriculum in the 1960s and so had never had a supernatural judging Father God and who had never believed that Jesus had died and risen to save me from m sins. I've never had any of that literal theology.

I was one of the few in my first year at the college who didn't have to have my entire conservative theology deconstructed so that it could be put back together in a in a much more contemporary way that was informed by critical scholarship.

I was fighting on behalf of that voice of the United Church.

John: You are known as the atheist Minister. Is that a moniker you chose for yourself or that has been applied to and how do you respond to it?
Gretta: Yes I did choose that myself. I took that label on and I was happy to do so. I was doing it within a theological milieu and I expected that my colleagues who are all theologically trained would understand what I meant by that. That proved not to be the case.

A lot of the negative commentary that takes place about me [comes] from colleagues who have chosen to interact exclusively with a caricature of who I am and what my beliefs are and who have never had a conversation with me or in fact read any of the things that I have written. 

So they take that label in the most negative way that they possibly could and they express their ire in relation to that.

John: Do you think the Toronto Conference offered the settlement because they just wanted this whole thing to be over? After all, it would have generated more publicity that the Church may have wished to avoid.

Gretta: Yes, I think so. We had booked three weeks for the trial, so it would have been three weeks of daily engagement. Then the decision coming down would have made a big deal too.

John: How do you think others in the church view you through all of this?

Gretta: There is this big, very big perception that I am constantly sending out press releases and trying to get media attention. I have not sent out press releases. I think my lawyer did a couple of times, including one about the settlement. 

But all of the interviews that I have given have pretty much come as yours did, simply a request from someone who wants to know what is going on and share it with the people that they write for.

John: The United Church is not officially saying anything about the settlement to the media, except to acknowledge it happened.

Gretta: It confuses me a little bit that the United Church doesn't realize how important this is. Interest in church and religion is dwindling. [But then] the general media connects and says they want to talk about what it is that's going on. I think the United Church has had an opportunity to really engage media, but they haven’t.

I think the interest in what is happening could have been leveraged by the United Church in a very positive way, had they chosen to do that. This is a moment in the United Church's history when it has much to engage about, and they don't seem to have any sense of that.

John: Why did you stay in the church despite all of this?

Gretta: I still feel this is my denomination. This is my heritage and to refuse to allow me to participate and continue in ministry felt like a betrayal.

I wanted to clarify what it was I was doing. Unfortunately, the disciplinary review completely stifled any conversation about what it is we're doing at West Hill and why we're doing it.

And that's the important piece here. I want people to know what it is that we're doing, why we feel so passionate about it, why we think that it's so important, why we think it's the work that the United Church has to do, and [why it] is perfectly placed to do that work. [By] not doing that work it’s abdicated its responsibility.

I talk about it because I think what we do is crucial. I think it's significantly important and I think that if we had the opportunity to have a conversation with people [in the United Church across] Canada they would find a serious and significant avenue for the work they do to provide for the needs of a fast-growing sector of Canadians who currently have no community that replicates the kind of social well-being and social connections that the United Church [provides].

Sunday, January 27, 2019

For Soon-to-be Former Geez Magazine Editor, Future of the Magazine is in Good Hands

Geez! Is the cheeky alternative Christian magazine of the same name really leaving Winnipeg?

The answer is yes. Geez magazine is moving to Detroit this year, where it will be led by a new team of socially progressive Christians.

Founded in 2005 by Winnipegger Aiden Enns, Geez set out to protest the “unholy alliance between church, state, market and military” while celebrating the “spiritual dimensions of biking, energy efficiency and canning pickles.”

Its audience was the “over-churched, out-churched, un-churched and maybe even the un-churchable.”

For Enns, 57, reasons for the change include wanting to make space for younger leaders with new ideas and visions, and also because he’s tired—it’s not easy publishing a magazine these days.

Since Geez sells no advertising, circulation is the main source of revenue. With only about 900 subscribers, it wasn’t sustainable without fundraising.

Keeping salaries low helped too, but it took a toll through staff turnover as people left for better-paying jobs. It was also tough on Enns himself.

As he looks ahead, Enns doesn’t want to dwell on the challenges—he wants to remember the successes.

“We published some amazing writers,” he says of the people who wrote for Geez.

And the magazine tackled many pressing issues such as gender, decolonization, disability and ableism, privilege, the future of food and simplicity, he says.

One issue on living life offline—Geez  has always resisted going digital—earned Enns an invitation to speak at a conference in New York where he shared the podium with Ralph Nader and well-known environmentalist Bill McKibben.

Another issue that received a lot of attention was titled “30 Sermons You’d Never Hear in Church.” That prompted Geez to create the “Auto-Sermon-Engagerizer-O-Matic,” a fill-in-the-blanks card where churchgoers could rate sermons.

But his main satisfaction comes from letters and e-mails received from many people who were touched by Geez. The most common sentiment was “’I’m so glad I found you, I feel so alone in my faith,’” he says.

“So many people are struggling to find hope,” he says. Geez gave them the courage and inspiration they needed to “take a step in the direction  . . . it gave them hope.”

As for regrets, he’s sorry the magazine never reached its circulation goal; with more money, it could have hired more staff and paid them better. And he wishes Geez had prompted more controversy; its goal was “holy mischief,” after all.

The new publishing team will be led by Detroiter Lydia Wylie-Kellerman, a long-time Geez contributor and co-editor of, a daily online journal of radical Christian faith and social justice activism.

Why does she want to take it on?

“I love Geez,” she says. “It has been a home for me. I never would have imagined in a million years that I would one day be stepping into this position.”

As editor and publisher, she wants to “keep summoning stories” and help people “feel hope in these truly scary times.”

She intends to keep Geez’s commitment to print.

“I want to help create something that can be read around the kitchen table, that can be read as you lean against a tree, something that can be held in your hands, and treasured over time,” she says.

At the same time, she’s open to doing more online. “I want to leave a small amount of wiggle room for the spirit to take us a different way.”

As for the move to the U.S., Wylie-Kellerman is aware it might prompt some Canadians to worry the magazine will be dominated by American issues.

“I believe that Geez’s roots in Canada is a tremendous gift to the work and identity of the magazine,” she says, adding she promises to be “mindful and paying attention to this concern” while making sure Canadians continue to have opportunities to write.

For Enns, the transition produces mixed feelings. He’s glad the magazine has found a new home, but he’s also sorry not to be as involved in the future.

Of his passion for Geez, Enns says “Jesus saw things people didn’t see. I wanted to see the world with those same eyes.

“For me, Geez was a way of looking at situations with an eye to resisting oppression, to seeing things in new ways.”

He expects that vision to continue, only now from south of the border.

Click here to read a Q & A with Lydia Wylie-Kellerman, new editor of Geez.

From the January 26 Winnipeg Free Press. Photo above from the Winnipeg Free Press.

The Transformative Power of Stories: New Editor of Geez Speaks about her Vision for the Magazine

Lucia Wylie-Eggert, Lydia Wylie-Kellerman and
Kateri Boucher of Geez.

In another post, I write about Geez magazine leaving Winnipeg for Detroit, where it will find a home with a new team led by Lydia Wylie-Kellerman. Below find a Q & A with Lydia, including her vision for the new magazine. 

Why do you and your friends want to take over Geez?

Lydia: I love Geez. I’ve been writing regularly for Geez since I first began to feel my own desire to be a writer. It has been a home for me. I never would have imagined in a million years that I would one day be stepping into this position.

For the last five years, I’ve been the co-curator of which posts daily reflections from people around North America who are taking risks for justice, experimenting with creative acts of community and nonviolence, who are breaking open biblical study for liberation, who are planting gardens and raising kids.

It has been a delight. I have come to realize how much I believe in the power of stories and their intergenerational, transformative power. 

I find myself so grateful for the work that is happening all over the world and it is a gift to summon the stories as a way of honoring the work and inspiring the rest of us.

I want to keep summoning stories. I want to create beauty. I want folks to feel hope in these truly scary times. 

I want to gift the world with words powerful enough for us to dismantle “this filthy rotten system,” as Dorothy Day stated, and arise to build something new and wonderful.

What are some new things you want to try?

Lydia: My hope in these days is to maintain the current quality of Geez. I want readers to find the magazine in their mailbox and see that it is the same magazine just with some different folks behind the scenes.

That being said, I won’t deny I lie awake at night filled with ideas and dreams for themes or stories or new columns.

I would love to start a regular column that is called something like “The Elders Front Porch” where movement elders write pieces on how they see the world in these days and offer the nourishment and challenge we all need to move forward. These would be small and subtle changes.

You indicate a commitment to print, but also say you understand "in this generation we cannot hope to save print magazines." Are you open to going digital? Or would you let it close if it proves unsustainable in that format?

Lydia: It is hard to answer that question with any certainty. I have heard Aiden talk about Geez as an offline oasis. Through my work with, I have spent a lot of time cultivating stories in an online format. 

It has its value. But I am not sure I want to give my life helping people be more addicted to screens.

I want to help create something that can be read around the kitchen table, that can be read as you lean against a tree, something that can be held in your hands, and treasured over time. 

So my instinct is to say that we are committed to print and will go down fighting for it, but I leave a small amount of wiggle room for the spirit to take us a different way.

In Canada, we have a general fear of being overwhelmed by the U.S. What can you say to Canadians to assuage their fears that this won't turn into another America-first magazine?

Lydia: I hear this fear in readers these days and in all honesty, I carry that fear with every step of this transition. 

The U.S. empire is a powerful and ugly thing. I’ve spent my life discerning in community how to live so that my body and spirit aren’t swallowed whole by the empire.

I believe that Geez’s roots in Canada is a tremendous gift to the work and identity of the magazine. I cannot pretend that things won’t change. The context from where the magazine goes out matters.

What I can promise is that I am mindful and paying attention to this concern. I will also make sure that the context from which we do the work will be amidst people who are resisting the U.S. empire with their lives.

And in the concrete, we commit to having Canadians on the board, keeping Aiden in the editorial circle, and making sure that a certain percentage of the contributions come from Canadian authors and artists.

Finally, say a bit about who you are and the group behind this new ownership.

Lydia: I am a writer, editor, organizer, and mother. My partner Erinn, and I are raising two boys (5 and 3) on the street where I grew up. My dad lives five houses away, my sister across the street, and a neighborhood filled beloveds.

We spend time planting urban gardens, tending chickens and bees, and throwing block parties. In our neighborhood in southwest Detroit, loving our neighbors also means organizing resistance to the water shut offs that are happening on a massive scale in Detroit, as well as resisting the immigration system that regularly tears families apart on our block.

I am the co-editor of I am also currently working with the Louisville Institute to put together an anthology on parenting with commitments to peace and justice.

My team is pretty amazing. These are three women who I have spent endless hours with gardening, canning, praying, and protesting. I’ve been at the birth of their children and walked with them through hard moments of transition. They are three women who I trust their analysis and hopes for the world.

On top of all of that, Em Jacoby understands a budget better than anyone I know. Lucia Wylie-Eggert create beauty through design. Kateri Boucher loves to talk with people and can effortlessly turn you into a subscriber.

I couldn’t do this without them. I am so grateful.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Margaret Atwood: "I'm Not Anti-Religious"

Atwood speaking at the Parliament of World Religions

I learned three surprising things about Canadian author Margaret Atwood recently.

First, she isn’t anti-religious—despite what some might think because of her book, and popular TV series, The Handmaid’s Tale.

When you consider that Gilead, the fictional republic in The Handmaid’s Tale, is a fundamentalist theocracy where the Bible is used to justify and guide the totalitarian regime’s oppressive policies—especially towards women—it’s easy to conclude Atwood is against religion.

But she says that’s not the case.  

I heard her speak about climate change and the role of women at the November 1-7 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto. 

During a Q & A, one of the first questions she was asked was about her stance on religion.

“I’m not anti-religious,” replied Atwood, who calls herself an agnostic. “I just think religion has often been misused in the service of totalitarianism.”

That doesn’t mean that “religion leads to totalitarianism,” she added. “We’ve had some atheistic totalitarianism.”

“People have sometimes said to me, ‘Oh, this book [The Handmaid’s Tale] is really anti-religion,’” she said.

“And I’ve said, ‘No, that’s not the point.’”

Religion, she said, has been “used as a hammer to whack people on the heads with. But it also has been—and is today—a sustaining set of beliefs and community that get people through those things.”

The second surprising thing I learned about Atwood is she believes religion has a role to play to “get people through” climate change.

During her presentation at the World Parliament of Religions, she said most faith traditions promote the idea of caring for creation.

“Unless people of faith get behind fixing the planet, it’s not going to happen,” she stated.

“We need people [of faith] who are vested in the earth,” she added.

And the third surprising thing I learned is that Atwood supports A Rocha, an international Christian environmental organization that promotes a “biblical call to steward creation.”

As it turns out, Atwood is a big supporter of A Rocha’s Canadian branch. She has participated in fundraising events for them in B.C. and Ontario.

She even lent her name for their website, where a blurb from her says: “If all Christians were like those in A Rocha, ours would be a radically different world.”

At one of those events, she said the organization “parallels the efforts of the fictional God’s Gardeners”—a small community of survivors of biological catastrophe in her book The Year of the Flood—by “seeking to cultivate a convergence of ecology, Scripture, and stewardship.”

Curious about how she became involved with the organization, I called Leah Kostamo, co-founder of A Rocha Canada with her husband, Markku.

It goes back to 2014, Kostamo told me, when she and Markku were booked on the same episode with Atwood on the Christian TV talk show Context With Lorna Dueck.

Titled God’s Gardeners, the show was about the need for Christians to care for the planet. Dueck thought it might be interesting for Atwood to actually meet a couple of “God’s gardeners”—the Kostamos.

Something clicked between them during the show, Kostamo said. It sparked a relationship that continues today with the two staying in e-mail contact about the organization.

“It’s humbling to have her recognize our work,” she says, noting that one of A Rocha’s goals is to build bridges between religious and secular environmentalists.

“Having an ally like Margaret shows we are able to build those bridges,” she adds.

A Rocha has had a presence in Manitoba since the early 2000s. It opened an office in Winnipeg a year ago.

According to A Rocha Manitoba director Scott Gerbrandt, its goal is to help people of faith to “take practical action” to address environmental issues, and “cultivate hope” that change is possible.

Based out of Canadian Mennonite University’s Centre for Ecological and Economic Resilience, one its big projects is the Boreal Ecology Centre in East Braintree, where visitors can learn more about the environment and talk about ways communities can be involved in creation care initiatives.

“The story of Christian faith is the story about the restoration of all creation,” he says. “We want to help people connect their faith with practical actions.”

Who knows? Maybe one day Margaret Atwood could even come to Winnipeg to give their efforts a boost.