Saturday, June 25, 2016

How Will the Orlando Massacre Affect Relations Between Faith Groups & the LGBTQ Community?

When it comes to recent turning points in history, a few significant ones come to mind for me:  the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; the first humans on the moon; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the invention of the Internet; and 9/11. You may have a similar list.

And now there is Orlando in 2016. The terrible massacre of 49 people because they were gay may prove to be another turning point in history for many when it comes to the situation facing LBGTQ people in North America—including for some people of faith.

The killings have already prompted some unexpected responses from conservative Christian quarters. 

The editors of Christianity Today—the influential American evangelical publication—noted how “deeply grieved” they were and offered prayers “for gays, lesbians, and other sexual minorities who now live with a heightened sense of fear.”

Here in Canada, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada also offered prayers "for those impacted" by the shooting and offered prayers “for our gay and lesbian neighbours." 

But will it really be a turning point for some Christians? I decided to ask my friend, James Toews, pastor of the Neighbourhood Mennonite Brethren Church in Nanaimo, B.C.,

James was a good person to ask since he faced a couple of dividing lines in his own life on this issue. Four years ago a close relative came out as gay, an experience that was, he said, “a big shift. This wasn’t an issue—it was a real person.”

Then two years ago the local LGBTQ community and some evangelical churches got into a nasty fight about whether a Christian group that was anti-gay marriage could use public facilities for a conference.

Alarmed by the bitterness that was dividing the city, Toews reached out to one a leader in the LGBTQ community to try to build bridges—an act that continues in an ongoing friendship between the two. 

“One never knows what proves to be a ‘dividing line,” he said in reply to my question, noting that nobody expected the picture of a dead Syrian refugee child washed up on a beach to sway world opinion, and affect the Canadian election.

Yet the killings “have made people who wanted to stay on the sidelines take some kind of a position, ready or not,” he added.

I asked him: Will it make a long-term difference, or just be a blip?

“In my opinion, the tide on this issue is pretty inexorable,” he said. “There will be holdouts and the fortress will be strengthened in some quarters . . . but I don’t see a swing back any time soon.”

He does hope that the conversation doesn’t get fixed on Orlando, though.

“I try to move on to the deep stuff as fast as possible,” he said of events like Orlando. “It was the same with the refugee issue. Two year-old children die in terrible situations all the time. Otherwise we will keep looking for the next moving event or picture to define the conversation.”

He also hopes that the conversation moves past the common statement heard in some churches to “love the sinner, but hate the sin.”

That, he says, “is a theological statement I’ve come to hate and have concluded that it’s completely wrong . . .  Jesus loved sinner—period. Jesus went ballistic on those who drew lines to keep wounded and broken people from entering the Kingdom . . . it is a hateful and pernicious statement.”

And what about those who blame religion, and Christianity in particular, for creating the context for the killings? Toews doesn’t agree.

“There are a whole lot of factors in play,” he says. “I think the most direct responsibility are U.S. gun laws.”

That said, “churches are responsible for more than enough bad stuff around this LGBTQ issue,” he says. 

“The church does have a responsibility for not being as Jesus-like as they should be when relating to their gay and lesbian neighbours.”

Overall, his hope is that the killings will spark a deep and long-term conversation between people of faith and the LGBTQ community about the issues affecting each group, and that bridges of understanding will be built.

Will the Orlando massacre change the way you think, or the conversation at your place of worship? Or will nothing change? 

What do you think?

Saturday, June 18, 2016

World Refugee Day: "Your Help Makes Us Feel Like Human Beings Again"

The hands of Father Paul.

June 20 is World Refugee Day. To mark that occasion, the Humanitarian Coalition has brought together a number of NGOs in Canada to remind Canadians of the plight of 60 million displaced people in the world today. I used the following story in my June 18 Winnipeg Free Press faith page column. Note: For security reasons, none of the people quoted in this column wanted to be photographed.

The meeting with aid workers from Syria about the dire situation in that country was proceeding as smoothly as it could for such a dire subject—until the translator started crying.

“I’m sorry,” Miralle said, after translating a report about how children in that country are suffering due to the war.

“I have kids of my own.”

In truth, I was feeling a bit teary-eyed myself at the meeting, which took place in March at the Beirut, Lebanon office of the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD).

I was there as part of my work with Canadian Foodgrains Bank, an organization that provides resources to its 15 member agencies so they can help people who don’t have enough to eat around the world.

It was a hard meeting, but it was also rewarding to know that the aid provided by Canadians through was making a difference.

The assistance is “filling the gap,” said Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour, president of FDCD, adding that “some would literally die of hunger without this help.”

The aid workers, a mix of Christians and Muslims from Syria, agreed.

“Your help makes a big impact on people’s lives,” said Mustafa. “If there is no food, they will only think about leaving, go to Europe. For this reason, we want to provide food.”

Many of the people he is assisting “fled without anything, only the clothes they were wearing,” he said. “This assistance is the only food they are getting. There is no other help.”

Before the food arrived, people were only getting help once or twice a year, added Ibrahim. “Now it is every month. If this project stopped, it would be a catastrophe.”

Rahaf works with children. It was her comments that made Miralle cry.

She described the terrible living conditions facing the children she visits—kids with no shoes, socks or winter clothes, unable to go to school, witnessing terrible things like their friends and adults killed, living in fear for their lives.

When she asks parents about the food provided by Canadians, “they say it is a miracle,” she said. “They tell me they can find a solution for their challenges if they have something to eat.”

Then it was Father Paul’s turn. “Thank-you,” he said. “Your help allows life to go on . . . your help makes us feel like human beings again.”

When the food arrives, recipients want to know where it is coming from.

“We tell them it is coming from Christians in Canada,” said Dr. Jarjour.

The assistance is also “strengthening the church” in Syria and promoting “good inter-religious cooperation,” he added—it enables a powerful witness for peace and cooperation that is much-needed in a country torn by sectarian divisions.

After their reports, we asked the aid workers from Syria what keeps them going.

“We are providing a service to those in need in a horrible situation,” said Mustafa. “That keeps me going, even though there are times when I cry because I can’t help everyone who is in need.”

“It makes me feel good when we see needs and we can help,” said Ibrahim. But, he adds, “there are times when I feel helpless.”

For Father Paul, it’s simple: “We are bringing life in the midst of so much death . . . when we give them food, we can see hope in their eyes.”

Added Rahaf: “It’s something I can do for my country. And if, God forbid, I should ever be in such need, I would want people to respond in the same way to me.”

June 20 is World Refugee Day. Across Canada, a number of humanitarian aid groups are participating in a national campaign to draw attention to the 60 million people who are displaced from their homes.

As we think of the many who have fled their homes for safety, we can also think of people like Ibrahim, Mustafa, Rahaf and Father Paul who are doing what they can to help.

And we can pray for them, and for all those who are afraid and homeless today.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Elder Orphans and the Faith Community

Elder orphans—that’s the name being given today to a large and growing number of seniors who have no children close by to care for them as they age.

Some of these people never married. Others married, but had no children. Or they had children, but the kids moved far away.

One of the people doing research in this area is Dr. Maria Carney, chief of geriatric and palliative medicine at Northwell Health in New York.

Through her research, Carney has found that nearly one-quarter of Americans over 65 are currently at risk of becoming elder orphans, and that close to 33 percent of Americans age 45 to 63 are single and positioned to join them.

Something similar could happen in Canada, where about 27 percent of Canadians live alone.

"It seems that, with increasing longevity and the trend toward having fewer children and families being fragmented, that this risk of aging alone is increasing," Carney told CTV's Canada AM last year.

This is clearly a growing challenge. But why raise this issue in a blog about faith?

The reason is simple: One group in Canada which should be well-placed to respond to the needs of seniors is the faith community.

For some faith groups, like Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, this is not as great an issue; adherents of those religions see it as their duty to care for aging parents.

But the same is not necessarily true for Christianity.

That was the point made by Linda Mintle in a post on Beliefnet titled “Are Churches Neglecting the Elderly?”

In the post she recounted how her own aging parents had been left on their own by their church, despite years of the faithful service to the congregation.

“Many churches have become so focused on numbers and youth, that meeting the needs of their senior members are not even on the radar,” she wrote.

Her parents' church has five pastors, but not one of them has pastoral care for seniors in their job description.

“The elderly seem to be forgotten,” she wrote. “And during this time in their lives, when a call or visit would mean so much, the pastors are not taking the time to minister to them.”

It’s not just churches that have made seniors a low priority; a check of courses offered by five major Christian colleges and seminaries in Canada, shows that while they all offer majors in youth ministry, none offer majors in care for seniors.

Earlier this month The Herald, the newspaper serving the northeast part of the city, carried an article about how nine North Kildonan churches have committed themselves to serve their neighbourhoods through a project called The Art of Neighbouring.

I was heartened to learn from a pastor at Jubilee Mennonite Church, one of the congregations involved in the project, that the needs of seniors will be included in the project.

“Seniors will be a focus,” Anna Marie Geddert told me. “We can embrace them, find out who they are and what they need,” she said. “Maybe they need food or groceries, or maybe they are just lonely and need someone to talk to.”

The number of seniors in Canada is growing—people 65 and older are the fastest-growing demographic in the country. At the same time, the number of elder orphans is also increasing.

This means two things: Those who are without children as they age might consider connecting with a faith community. And faith communities looking for ways to make a difference in their neighbourhoods should start taking this issue more seriously.

From the June 11, 2016 Winnipeg Free Press. Image above from Canada AM.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Three Reasons Conservative Christians Will Lose the Transgender Debate

“Three reasons conservative Christians will lose the transgender debate.” That was the title of an article on Religion News Service last month.

The article, by American journalist Jonathan Merritt, comes along at a time when a number of Christian denominations are debating which bathrooms transgender people can use, along with the older issue of same-sex marriage.

In it, Merritt notes that churches have gone this route before. They started preaching against opposing LBGT rights in the 1960s; in the 1980s, some even proclaimed that AIDS was God’s judgment on LGBT people.

But despite all their efforts, gay rights are a fixture of life in Canada, the U.S. and many other countries.

And now the issue is what bathrooms transgender people can use. Once again, some church leaders are preaching sermons against it.

And just like with same-sex marriage, they will lose this fight, too, says Merritt.

“Sadly, their messages are just as disconnected from reality as their response to the LGBT rights movement decades ago,” he writes. “By recycling old tactics, conservative Christians are poised to lose the transgender debate in America.”

And what are those tactics? Merritt lists three.

First, they focus on ideology while ignoring people.

“When Christians talk about transgender issues, they often frame it as a clash of worldviews or ideologies,” he says. But those in favour of it “use real stories of real transgender people with real struggles who experience real oppression.”

This approach “usually wins in public debates because it touches listeners’ hearts,” he writes, adding that talking about “God’s law” doesn’t work when your opponents are talking about loving couples who can’t “provide health insurance for their same-sex spouse or pass along their shared possessions as inheritance.”

Talking about ideology and doctrine makes Christians appear to lack compassion, he says, and makes them look like they are “attacking some of society’s most vulnerable people.”

A second bad tactic is to “proof text from scripture,” Merritt says, along with discounting science.

Appealing to the Bible doesn’t work in an increasingly secular and pluralistic society where the Bible is no longer seen as a source of truth and authority for many people. And using the creation account in Genesis is no substitute for science for the majority of Canadians.

The third bad tactic is to “rely on fear,” he says, noting that people today don’t respond well to those kinds of messages. Plus, he says, they know that the future of western society doesn’t depend on whether or not people of the same sex love each other.

States Merritt: “Conservative Christians spent years claiming that gay marriage would destroy all marriage, unravel Western society, and ultimately lead to people marrying their animals. Well, it is legal now, and I’m happy to report that exactly zero straight marriages have been affected by the legalization of gay marriage.”

It’s not only Merritt who thinks this way; so does a leading spokesperson for conservative Christianity in the U.S.

When it comes to LGBT rights, conservative Christians “are on the losing side of a massive change that’s not going to be reversed, in all likelihood, in our lifetimes,” said Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Of course, there are still many religious people who see their mission to reverse these changes and bring America and Canada “back to God.” But that is also a losing strategy—not only will they fail to reverse these societal changes, they may also be laying the foundation for the end of their church groups.

The fact is that if these leaders want their groups to exist for their children in the future, they will need to find a way to adapt to our changing culture today. Many of their youth have already made the change; how many will stay in a faith that doesn’t accept their gay and transgender friends?

Similarly, when it comes to attracting non-believers, how many will be attracted to groups that exclude people based on sexual orientation?

To be sure, this isn’t an easy time for many faith groups. They are caught in the transition with some members adamantly opposing change, while others just as adamantly press for it. Some Christian denominations are splitting over it.

But if Merritt is right, the fight is already over. It’s just a matter of how to welcome LGBT people—not if it will happen.

Read Merritt's full article here. 

From the June 4 Winnipeg Free Press.