Sunday, August 30, 2015

Helping People in the Developing World Have Safe Surgery: "This is my Purpose Now"

Christina with friends and a pressure cooker.

In spring I met Christina Fast, a remarkable young woman from Calgary who has found a passion to help people in the developing world have safe surgery. Her story reminds me of the quote by Mr. Rogers about what to do when the world seems an overwhelming place: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Christina is one of the helpers.

There's a lot of bad news in the world todayconflict, terrorism, refugee flight, not to mention worries about natural disasters and the economy.

Sometimes, things can seem so hopeless.

But now and then you hear something that gives hope. That’s what I felt recently when I talked to a young woman from Calgary who is making surgery safer for patients in some of the world’s poorest countries. .

Christina Fast, 28, is a sterile process technician and teacher at a college in that Alberta city. In 2011 she volunteered to serve with Mercy Ships, an international faith-based charity that provides medical services to some of the world’s poorest people in the developing world.

At first, she thought her job would only be sterilizing equipment on the ship, which was docked in  Sierra Leone . But one day she went ashore to visit a local hospital in Freetown . She was shocked by what she found.

“There were no functioning sterilizers,” she says. “It was probably the worst conditions I could ever imagine. I was in disbelief at what I saw.”

In Canada , medical instruments are routinely sterilized after each use in sophisticated machines called autoclaves. As a result, all patients in this country can expect to leave surgery without picking up an infection—it would take a serious breakdown in procedures for anyone to get sick.

But what Fast saw in the Freetown hospital was things like scalpels, clamps, retractors and other items simply put in a plastic pail of chlorine, rinsed, dried and used on the next patient.

The result? Most people got sick, and many died.

“One doctor I spoke to said that 90 percent of patients developed infections after surgery,” she says.

Shaken, Fast went back to the ship with a new idea—and a new sense of calling and resolve. God’s plan for her, she decided, was not just to sterilize instruments on the ship, but to help African hospitals learn how to do it, too. 

And so a non-profit organization called SPECT—Sterile Processing Education Charitable Trust—was born.

With help from a Grand Challenges grant from the Canadian government, and support from her family and friends, Fast is exploring ways to help hospitals in the developing world cheaply, sustainably and effectively sterilize medical instruments.

At first, she wasn’t sure how to do it. Autoclaves are expensive. And even if a hospital in the developing world could afford one—or was given one free—there’s no one qualified to operate them or fix them if they break.

Plus, since electricity in many places in the developing world can be spotty, even if they had trained technicians a power failure would render them useless.

For a while, she was stumped. But then she and a colleague came up with a simple, low-tech idea: Pressure cookers.

After rounds of experimentation, they discovered that ordinary pressure cookers could produce enough heat and steam for a long enough time to sterilize surgical instruments.

“I didn’t think it would work, but it did,” she says of the simple method, which finds instruments suspended in a wire container above the water.

Not only do they work, they are inexpensive, easy to buy in Africa , have no moving parts and don’t require electricity—they can be used on a gas stove or a wood fire.

Now Fast is on a mission to raise enough money to provide pressure cookers to as many hospitals as she can in Africa, and to provide training for people about how to effectively use them.

She finds fundraising to be a daunting task—much harder than actually doing the work she loves in Africa ..

“I’m not a good salesperson,” she says. “I tell my stories and let them speak for themselves. If it moves others, I invite them to help.”

Despite the challenges, Fast feels she’s where God wants her to be.

“Lives are being saved,” she says. “This is my purpose now.”

So there’s your good news for today—proof that there are some good things happening in the world. And you can bring hope to others, too, by donating to SPECT so that patients in the developing world, just like patients in Canada, can expect to go home from hospital after surgery in better shape than when they arrived.

For more information, visit 

From the Aug. 29, 2015 Winnipeg Free Press. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

New Orleans, Ten Years After Hurricane Katrina

Destroyed homes in the Lower Ninth Ward.

August 29 is the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In 2008, three years after the disaster, I was part of a Mennonite Disaster Service work team from River East MB Church in Winnipeg that went to New Orleans to help repair homes in that city. I wrote the following article about that experience for the Winnipeg Free Press.

Bourbon Street was rocking, the bars and clubs filled with people enjoying one of New Orleans' most popular tourist spots. A cacaphony of jazz, blues, rock and country filled the narrow balcony-lined avenue, giving the area a bright and festive air.

Almost three years after Hurricane Katrina, the city is back in business--as far as tourism is concerned.

Marks on the house indicate it has been
searched, and if bodies were found inside.

But down in the city's lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly neighbourhood, where Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) is rebuilding houses damaged or destroyed by the devastating storm, it was a different story.

The only sounds there were that of hammers and saws as volunteers from Winnipeg's River East Mennonite Brethren church toiled in the heat to frame, drywall, tile and finish houses for residents anxious to return to their homes.

"I know that tourism is the lifeblood of this city," says Robert Green, 53, an accountant who lost his home, mother and a granddaughter to the flood that followed the storm.

"People see places like Bourbon Street and the French Quarter and they think the city is healed. But there's still a lot to do in this city to help the residents."

Inside an abandoned home.

Almost three years after the storm, there's still lots to do in New Orleans.

Green's once-vibrant Ninth Ward community is mostly a collection of empty lots and a few abandoned housesthe whole neighbourhood was swept away by the wall of water that broke through the Industrial Canal levee a few hundred yards behind his house. 

In other sections, house after house is boarded up, the owners still trying to decide whether to move back and rebuild. It's the same for businesses; a drive through the hardest-hit areas reveals empty and abandoned banks, hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, strip malls, department stores and gas stations.

It is hard to comprehend the scope of the disaster. Eighty percent of the city was submerged and destroyed and 9,368 businesses were closed or moved. Over 700,000 people were acutely impacted, with many forced to evacuate for safety to cities across the U.S.

"It wasn't a disaster
it was a catastrophe," says Steve Zimmer, Vice President for Community Mobilization for the United Way of New Orleans.

According to Zimmer, who supervises the hurricane recovery efforts for that agency, no city in the U.S. has ever experienced destruction this severe.

"There is no modern model for what has happened to New Orleans," he says, noting that in a normal disaster, it usually takes two to three years for a community to recover.

"This one will take 11 to 15 years. We've got to blow up the old models and start thinking in new and different ways."

Houses gone, almost as far as you can see.

In a normal disaster, the goal is to get people back to "where they were" before it happened, Zimmer says.

"But that's not possible here, where a whole neighbourhood was destroyed," he says.

"People didn't just lose their homes, they lost their community--the grocery store, their church, the library, the school, bank and the usual services." 

Adding to the challenge of the recovery has been the at-times ineffectual and uncoordinated response from various levels of government. 

"Our government failed us," says Zimmer. "There was colossal failure at the core."

Despite the problems, things are slowly improving. 

Figures vary, with reports indicating that between 67 percent and 87 percent of residents have returned, and people in the city are beginning to move out of trailers and back into houses. School enrolment is increasing, and 6,368 businesses have started back up. 

But down in the parts of the city hardest-hit by the storm, attention is focused on much the smaller details of repair and reconstruction. For residents, the sounds of rebuilding is the sound of hope.

"After I saw what the storm had done to my house, I cried a lot," says Catalina Blosseau, who lives with her disabled husband and daughter in a small trailer.

"I wondered if there was anyone who could help me. I was losing hope."

Blosseau sought help from Helping Hands, the disaster recovery arm of Catholic Charities. After reviewing her case, the agency asked MDS to supply volunteers to rebuild her home. On August 7 she'll move in.

"Now I am so happy," she says of the work of the MDS volunteers. "I got my life back again."

When it comes to helping New Orleans get back on its feet, volunteers are a huge part of the story.

"Without volunteers, we wouldn't be as far along as we are," says Paul Cook, Senior Project Manager for Helping Hands. "We really have been blessed."

"If it weren't for the volunteers, sometimes I think nothing would be getting done at all," adds Zimmer.
MDS volunteers from Winnipeg building a new house.

Nobody knows how many volunteers have come to New Orleans to help; one estimate puts the number at about one million. Of that total, about 16,000 have volunteered with Helping Hands, while 1,160 have done reconstruction work with MDS. 

But progress is frustratingly slow.

"It's a slow and tedious process," says Cook, who spent 25 years in the construction business.

"Even in the best of times it can take four to six months to gut and repair a house. Add in the lack of services and the large demand on trades, and you see why this takes so much longer."

It doesn't help that getting funds and loans from the state is an arduous experience for many.

"There's a lot of red tape," Cook says, adding that it can also take time to process insurance claims, and that the amount provided by insurers often is insufficient to cover the damage.

"We don't have a lot of money to donate to make up the shortfall, but we do what we can," he says.

Adding to the problem is what he calls the "second wave" of people needing help because contractors they hired to repair their homes did shoddy work, failed to complete the work, failed to comply with local building codes--or simply ripped them off. 

"Unfortunately, this kind of thing was not uncommon," he says, noting that his agency recently assigned MDS volunteers to re-gut and re-build a home that had been repaired incorrectly.

But those issues aren't the main concern for the volunteers from Winnipeg
they just wanted to do as much as they could in the week they were in New Orleans to help a few families. And their work is appreciated.

"We like working with MDS," says Cook. "They're very good at everything." 

"MDS has been a wonderful partner," adds Zimmer. "I'm really impressed by the people they bring down here."

For Robert Green, the presence of so many volunteers in his neighbourhood has a more personal effect. 

"So many people from around the world have responded to our need," he says. "It helps me get over the anguish I feel over the loss of my mother and granddaughter. It’s made it possible for me to move on.” 

A hope still being realized.

Today New Orleans is well on its way back from the hurricane, but there’s still a ways to go, especially in the poorer areas of the city. MDS finished its work in the Gulf Coast in 2012; over 17,000 volunteers worked 126,400 days at 194 cleanup sites, rebuilding 122 homes.

Click here to read a thank-you editorial from the New Orleans Times-Picayune to all those who came to the city to volunteer with the recovery effort.

Click here to read a summary about the MDS experience in New Orleans.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

What Can the 2011 Canadian Election Results Tell Us About Religion & Voting in 2015?

What role will religion play in this election?

With two months to go, it’s too soon to say. But an exit poll by Ipsos Reid following the 2011 election might provide some clues.

That poll, which probed the relationship between the religious affiliation of 36,000 Canadians and how they voted, found that Protestants and Jews were more than likely to vote for the Conservatives, people with no religious affiliation were more likely to vote NDP, and that of all the religious groups, only Muslims were more likely to vote Liberal.

Specifically, the poll found that 55 percent of Protestants voted Conservative, as did 52 percent of Jewish voters. 

The NDP attracted 40 percent of Catholics, but this is mainly attributable to its success in Quebec. The Conservatives attracted 30 percent of the Catholic votes, 16 percent voted Liberal.

For Muslims, 46 percent vote Liberal, 38 percent voted for NDP, and only 12 percent voted for Conservative. 

Of those who attend worship services regularly, 50 percent voted Conservative, 24 percent voted NDP, and 18 percent voted Liberal. Overall, the Conservatives received the votes of 42 percent of Canadians who say they have a religious identity.

(See chart below for full details.)

What does this mean for the coming election?

First, the Conservative strategy of reaching out to religiously-inclined voters, including immigrant groups and Jewish voters, seemed to pay off in the last election--and it may pay off in the next one.

Second, the NDP is attracting more people who say they have no religion—which is a big change for a Party that was founded by prairie Baptist preachers and supported for decades by Christians who embraced the Social Gospel.

Third, the loss of religious voters seems to be hurting the Liberals. Catholics and Jews, who have historically voted Liberal, are moving away from that Party. With its third party status right now, the loss of every potential vote is significant.

Will these trends continue? Perhaps. One wonders what effect all the scandals will have on the many Protestants and evangelicals who supported the Conservatives in the last election.

For those who prize integrity, honesty and probity, it could have an effect when it's time to cast a ballot on October 19.

For the NDP, which has actually made small gains among evangelicals, the way Thomas Mulcair attacked Crossroads, the church-based humanitarian organization that was accused of being anti-gay in 2013, could affect the way some of them might vote.

In his criticism of how the Canadian government provided funds for that organization’s foreign aid work, Mulcair called Crossroads "un-Canadian," and "against not only Canadian values, but Canadian law."

For some evangelicals who might be considering the NDP over the Liberals, those comments might still rankle.

And the Liberals did themselves no favours when Justin Trudeau announced that all candidates for that Party must be pro-choice. Anti-abortion groups, many of them supported by churches, are ratcheting up their attacks on the Liberal Party in advance of the election, and calling on their members to park their votes elsewhere.

As Raymond de Souza, a Roman Catholic priest and editor of Convivium Magazine put it following Trudeau's announcement, the message being sent to Catholics is that “you’re not welcome.”

But with Canada becoming an increasingly secular country, does religion even matter that much today when it comes to voting?

For many observers, the answer seems to be yes. Although religion is only one of a number of factors that shape decisions about politics, it is still an important one. In their 2010 study of Canadian voting behaviour, Cameron D. Anderson and Laura B. Stephenson wrote that “outside of religion and class, religion has been found to be one of the strongest vote determinants in Canada.”

At the same time, they acknowledge, “in many ways, the issue of religious voting in Canada remains one of the least understood aspects of Canadian voting behaviour.”

Adds Will McMartin, a long-time political consultant and commentator in they July 15 issue of The Tyee: “Religion today may or may not be as vital to Canadian politics and elections as once it was, but it remains an important consideration nonetheless.”

Religion, he goes on to say, “almost certainly will be an important factor for a sizeable number of Canadians as they ponder how to vote in the looming federal general election. Whether it will be decisive in determining the outcome remains to be seen.”

We'll have an answer in a couple of months.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Religion and Voting: Does it Matter?

As Canada grows increasingly more secular, does religion matter when it comes to voting in federal elections?

First off, it’s important to note that when it comes to voting, religious groups are not monolithic. It’s hard to speak of a Protestant vote, a Catholic vote, a Jewish vote or a Muslim vote.

Second, when talking about the religious vote it can be hard to distinguish it from what has been called the “ethnic vote.”

Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists are all minority religions in Canada, and are also comprised of many people who are recent immigrants to Canada.

But even apart from those two things, for many Canadians religion plays a role in determining how they vote.

One way is by how individuals “bring their worldview to the voting booth,” according to Ron Dart, who teaches political science, philosophy and religion at the University of Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C.

So it’s no surprise, he said, that they “tend to vote for someone who shares their values.”

Then there is the corporate dimension. 

Even though attendance at worship services is down, millions of Canadians still gather every weekend at churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and gurdwaras.

While there, they are apt to be reminded about the election, pray for political leaders, hear sermons about their responsibility as citizens, or be encouraged to consider their values when deciding how to vote.

One way church groups help members with voting is through election kits. Groups that have made kits include the United Church of Canada, the Canadian Council of Churches, Development & Peace (Roman Catholic) and Mennonite Central Committee.

These kits focus on issues such as domestic hunger, poverty, homelessness, Aboriginal issues and other things, along with climate change and international relief and development.

Church groups are the only ones to produce election kits, of course, but unlike other organizations that do so, they have the ability to promote them or use them on a weekly basis with large numbers of people.

Contrast all this with people who say they have no religion. Unlike religious people, they don’t gather in groups on a regular basis. It is harder for their opinion to be shaped collectively, as a result.

Then there is the matter of voting itself.

According to Andrew Grenville, Chief Research Officer at Vision Critical, people who attend worship services regularly are more likely to vote than other Canadians.

“Religious people tend to be more community-minded and more engaged in the community,” he said, adding that these are factors that can also lead people to be more likely to vote.

But will all this make a difference? Eric Mang thinks so. 

Mang, who served as a political aide in the Harris government in Ontario and the Campbell government in B.C., said in 2009: “What should interest political junkies is that, next to regional reasons for voting patterns, religion is the most powerful predictor of voter behaviour in Canada.”

As more and more people say they have no religion, this could change. But for now, it could still make a difference. We'll know in a couple of months. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Religion, Roman Catholics, and the Decline of the Liberal Party

Has religion played a role in the decline of the Liberal Party? That was a question I explored in 2011 prior to that year’s Canadian election. As it turned out, a majority of voters from all religious persuasions voted for other parties, including Catholics, who historically voted Liberal. A majority of Protestants, including evangelicals, voted Conservative, while people of no religion mostly found a home with the NDP. The article below takes a look at how the shifting religious landscape back then led to a Conservative majority; in a future instalment, I’ll explore what might be happening in the current election. Note: This was a feature piece in the Free Press, and is longer than my normal columns and posts.

If the Conservatives get a majority on May 2, they may thank God—and Roman Catholic voters across the country.

“The Catholic vote is a key swing vote in the electorate,” Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, was quoted as saying in the Catholic Register in January.

Kenney, who led his party’s campaign to take capture those voters from the Liberals, described the swing to the Conservatives as “huge” and “unprecedented.”

“The Liberal Party dramatically abandoned its historic Catholic base and for a while seemed to almost go out of its way to insult Catholic voters and their values,” he said, adding that the Liberal Party “has become in many respects militantly secularist and inhospitable to people of faith.”

That’s a bold statement. But is it true? Does this election hinge on the votes of Roman Catholic Church members? And have religious voters fled the Liberal Party?

The answer seems to be yes—not that many noticed. 

While much has been written and said about the Conservative Party’s efforts to reach out to ethnic voters, much less has been reported about how successful that Party has been in reaching out to religious voters, or about how large numbers of churchgoing Canadians have abandoned the Liberal Party over the past ten or so years.

A Dramatic Shift

One person who did notice is Andrew Grenville, Chief Research Officer for Angus Reid Public Opinion.

Grenville, who specializes in researching Canadian religious trends, has noticed a profound change in the way Roman Catholics vote over the past few elections.

Since the 1950s, he says, members of that group have been consistently more likely to vote Liberal, both in and outside of Quebec. 

The 2006 election saw a change in this historic linkage.

At the time, “it was unclear whether this was a real shift, or a one-time punishment of the Liberals following the sponsorship scandal,” he says.

But subsequent research suggests “real change has occurred . . . the shifts we first observed in 2006 have, if anything, become more pronounced, both in Quebec and in the rest of Canada.”

The pollster found that the Roman Catholic vote for the Liberals outside Quebec fell from 54 percent in 2000 to 31 percent in 2008. Inside Quebec, the vote fell from 56 percent in 2004 to 22 percent.

And where did those former Liberal supporters go? Many ended up voting for the Conservatives; in 2008, 49 percent of Catholics outside Quebec who attended church weekly voted Conservative, Grenville says.

But the shift wasn’t unique to Catholics; something similar happened among mainline Protestants outside Quebec.

According to Grenville, support for the Liberals among weekly attenders of that group fell from 28 percent in 2004 to 16 percent in 2008. Many of those votes also went to the Conservatives; 64 percent of church-going Protestants outside Quebec voted for the Conservative Party that year, compared to 51 percent four years earlier.

Others also noticed this shift. In 2009 academics Elisabeth Gidengil of McGill University, Patrick Fournier and André Blais at Université de Montréal, Joanna Everitt at the University of New Brunswick and Neil Nevitte of the University of Toronto explored this issue in The Anatomy of a Liberal Defeat.

In the paper the researchers noted that “Catholic voters, once a pillar of support that helped keep the Liberals a dominant force in Canadian politics, have steadily shifted their allegiances in recent years so that the party can no longer count on their votes.”

They went on to say that “controlling for other social background characteristics reveals that the drop in Liberal support among Catholics is even more dramatic than the loss of visible minority votes.”

In 2006, “Catholics were as likely to vote Conservative as Liberal,” they noted. “In 2008, they clearly actually preferred the Conservatives to the Liberals . . . the Liberals can no longer take the support of Catholics or visible minorities for granted."

What Happened?

What caused this shift? Why did large numbers of people flee the Liberal Party for the Conservatives?

For Grenville, it started with the sponsorship scandal in 2006. “The cheating and corruption really hurt the Liberals,” he says, adding that Liberal Party support for same-sex marriage and abortion widened the gap.

The academics behind Anatomy of a Liberal Defeat suggest something similar, although they say same-sex marriage was not the deciding factor for Roman Catholics in the 2004 and 2006 elections (although abortion played a role in 2006). But that all changed in 2008.

That year, they say, Catholics who oppose same-sex marriage were less likely to vote Liberal.” And, for the first time, “Catholics who believe the Bible is the literal word of God were significantly less likely to vote Liberal."

For Catholic journalist and blogger Debra Gyapong, it wasn’t just the issue of same-sex marriage that cost Liberals support from Roman Catholics, but their “ramming the redefinition of marriage through Parliament.”

She also points to the Liberal Party’s “partisan messaging that painted traditional marriage supporters as un-Canadian and anti-Charter, and that attacked Christian voters in general.”

“Self-inflicted” wounds

John McKay, the Liberal Member of Parliament who represents the Ontario riding of Scarborough-Guildwood, agrees with those sentiments.

McKay acknowledges that support from Catholics and other church-goers for the Liberal Party is “bleeding away.” What’s worse, he adds, the wound was “self-inflicted.”

“You can disagree with someone, but you don’t have to insult them,” he says of the times when the Liberal Party had different views from some religiously-inclined Canadians. “There are times that the Liberal Party has been disagreeable in its disagreements.”

Not only did the Liberal Party take support by religious voters for granted, he acknowledges, it also treated them dismissively over issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. 

Attacking Conservatives as religious zealots who could not be trusted on social issues didn’t help, either.

That includes the infamous pre-election poll question the Liberal Party commissioned in 2004 asking if voters would be more or less likely to vote for the Conservatives if they knew the party had been "taken over by evangelical Christians."

McKay, who attends an Evangelical church in Toronto, was quoted at the time as saying the tactic was "antithetical to everything I believe as a Liberal."

"Either we think that we have an inclusive notion of pluralism in this country where we accept people based upon their religion or we are hypocrites," he said. 

“I just think it has no place in Canadian politics and, in addition to being offensive ideologically, it is just plain stupid politics."

In 2009 Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff asked McKay to start the work of rebuilding bridges between the Party and Canada’s faith communities. 

Since then, he’s been busy visiting various faith group leaders and attending religious events—and also arranging meetings between Ignatieff and the leaders of Canadian faith groups.

When it comes to attracting religious voters, McKay admits that the Conservatives have done a better job. The Liberal Party, he says, “need to be more attuned to the religious community. We have a lot of catching up to do.”

A “fatal flaw” for Liberals and the NDP

Ron Dart isn’t surprised that Conservatives and Liberals are reaching out to religious voters.

“Religion has a profound effect on the way people vote,” says Dart, who teaches political science, philosophy and religious studies at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C.

The “fatal flaw” for the Liberals—and the NDP, he adds—is that members of those two parties “assume we live in a secular society,” or that “religion is dying, a relic of the past.”

They acted, he says, like religion “was going to disappear,” or that it was fine as long as people kept it “to their private life”—an assumption that can hurt them at election time.

Conservatives, on the other hand, “never bought into that. They have explicitly courted these folks.”

McKay agrees.

“We think we live in a secular society—we don’t,” he says. “Lots of Canadians expect their faith will play a role in public discourse. We have to come to grips with that as a society.”

People of faith, he adds, “want to be listened to, and speak freely. They don’t want to be denigrated and devalued with they speak from a faith basis.”

Will Liberal efforts to win back Roman Catholics, and other religious voters, pay off? Grenville isn’t sure.

“Will Catholic voters change back during this election? I’m not sure they will,” he says, citing the “clear pattern” of the previous two elections.

One thing he is certain of, though, is that religion plays a key role in Canadian politics.

“It’s an underground issue, like a river under a city,” he says. “Most people don’t know it’s there.”

Most people might not know about it, but it’s clear that both the Conservative and Liberal parties are well aware of it—and the party that does the best job of reaching out to religious voters may well be the one forming a majority government after May 2.

Also check out my post Religion and the Canadian Election: Will the Liberals Pro-Choice Stance Hurt Them?

What is the Future of the United Church of Canada?

The United Church of Canada is holding its General Council this week under the theme of "behold I make all things new." On the agenda are many issues, but the most important is the future of the 90 year-old denomination—what new things can it do to survive a decline in funding and membership? What does the future hold? That's the question I raised in my Aug. 8 Free Press column.

United Church of Canada members from across Canada are gathered this week in Corner Brook, Newfoundland for the forty-second General Council—a week-long assembly that could potentially re-shape and re-imagine the 90 year-old denomination.

While there, they will discuss and vote on almost 200 proposals. Many are procedural, but others deal with substantial issues like missing and murdered indigenous women, nuclear proliferation, the arms trade, the treatment of prison inmates, fossil fuel divestment, climate change, proportional voting for Members of Parliament, and the Trans Canada Pipeline.

Delegates—called Commissioners—will also elect a new Moderator out of 12 nominees. This time, none of the nominees are from Manitoba .

But the major issue on everyone’s mind will be the future of the United Church .

The need for a new vision and structure for the Church has been brewing for some time, fueled by declining membership (down 26 percent between 2002 and 2012), declining attendance at worship services (down 38 percent), and the closing of churches (565 churches closed or merged).

All this has resulted in a decline in donations—in 2012 the church had an operating deficit of $7.1 million for its general fund. At the Council, Commissioners will be asked to vote on a proposal for the Church to “live within its means,” which will mean cutting $11 million from its $30 million budget.

Before the Council began, I asked two local United Church members what they hoped might happen in the coming week at the Council.

James Christie, who attends Westminster United Church and teaches at the United Centre for Theological Studies at the University of Winnipeg , hopes that the Council will focus on the strength of the denomination.

“We have forgotten that lifeblood of church is in local congregations,” says Christie, who will not be attending this Council.

A proposal to eliminate one level of government in the church is “a hopeful sign,” he says. But he hopes Commissioners will go further by reducing the national office to “a ceremonial function” and emphasize the importance of the regions and congregations.

Christie hopes the Council will “start to break down the inward-looking hidebound denominationalism to which we have drifted over the past 40 years. What does it mean to be a liberal protestant Christians in North America in twenty-first century? What part of God’s mission can the United Church do? Where is God taking us?”

Jeff Cook, pastor of Memorial Transcona Memorial United Church, is going to the Council—although unlike last time, he isn’t a candidate for Moderator.

For him, the big issue is the need to restructure the denomination.

“If we don’t do something, it will decide itself,” he says of the declining donations and falling membership.

For Cook, the big question is what it means to be the church today, and “what kind of staffing levels, and how many levels of church governance,” are needed to accomplish that.

He also sees the need to support local congregations.

“Jesus invited people to the table,” he says, and local congregations “are our table.”

I also spoke to David Wilson, editor and publisher of the United Church Observer.

Wilson, who has read all of the over 1,000 pages in the Council workbook, says that if  the proposals for restructuring are accepted it could “drastically alter the shape of the Church . . . it depends on the willingness of Commissioners to recognize that the United Church of today is very different from the Church in 1925 [when it was created].”

From his vantage point as editor of the national publication, he says “there’s not much unanimity” going into the Council, but there’s one thing there’s no disagreement about: Declining membership and donations means doing things as usual is “unsustainable.”

“We need a new vision for the future,” he says, adding that a big question for him is how the Church can “re-capture the attention and imagination of an increasingly secular society.”

Whether or not the United church can do that is a big question. But, as Cook notes, the future of the United Church isn’t just up to the Commissioners.

“God is the wild card,” in all of this, he says. “It may look like the ship is going down, but we are a resurrection people.