Sunday, August 28, 2016

Mosques Should be “as Canadian as a Hockey Rink" Outgoing Manitoba Islamic Association President says

Idris Elbakri

“As Canadian as a hockey rink.”

That’s the way Idris Elbakri, President of the Manitoba Islamic Association, hopes people in Manitoba will one day view mosques in this province.

Elbakri, 41, is in the last year of his term as President of the Association. Following Ramadan, he posted his hopes and dreams for the Muslim community in Manitoba.

“To many of us the mosques are like a second home, and like our homes, in the mosques we seek to preserve the cultures and practices of our countries of origin,” he wrote.

“While this may give us some emotional comfort, it is counterproductive and it contributes to the alienation of many. The mosque must feel as Canadian as the hockey rink. If our faith is not rooted in its local culture and history, it will not survive past the waves of immigration.”

In an interview, Elbakri, a medical physicist at Cancer Care and father of four, elaborated further on his goals of seeing Manitoba Muslims reach out to others, serve the wider community, be inclusive and show kindness to all.

“I’m looking forward to a day when non-Muslims in need of peace, quiet, reflection and prayer feel just as comfortable going into a mosque as they do going into a church, that it won’t feel foreign or awkward,” he said.

One way local Muslims are doing that is by holding open houses at mosques, inviting people in to visit, learn more about Islam and about Muslims, he added. But more needs to be done, he said.

The challenge is that there are so many newcomers—over 1,000 people from Syria in the last 12 months alone. For these many new Canadians, adjusting to a new country is hard; the mosque is the one place where things feel familiar, just like back home.

As an immigrant himself, Elbakri understands the desire to have something familiar when people go to worship. The problem is that while the mosque feels like home for Muslims, it and the faith it represents can feel very foreign to other Canadians.

If that happens, he said, Islam will always “be an alien implant and we will have failed our most precious mission and role in life, which is to share the beauty of Islam with everyone around us. We need to help a Canadian Muslim culture take root . . . we need to see a Canadian Muslim culture emerge.”

And how will they do that? For Elbakri, it means Manitoba Muslims need to “figure out what our core values are, versus those that are more cultural.”

With as many as 80 different nationalities represented in the community, and with so many newcomers arriving each year, this is a big task.

Two areas where this can happen is in the role of women, and the use of English or French for sermons.

When it comes to women, “there is a lot of cultural baggage,” he said, noting that the Prophet “was always giving women space” and that the Association has two women on its board.

As for the language issue, “what good is it [a sermon] if it can’t be understood by everyone?” he said.

The language of prayer won’t change, though, he stated—prayers will always be in Arabic.

“It [Arabic] is the universal language of prayer for Muslims,” he said. “It means I can go to a mosque in any country and the prayers will be the same. It creates a global sense of unity.”

What about terrorism—how will the community deal with that?

“Most of the Muslim world is peaceful,” he said with a sigh. “It only makes the news when violence happens. That is unfortunate.”

His desire is that the Muslim community won’t be defined by terrorism, or feel it constantly has to respond to terrorist acts.

“When something bad happens, we condemn it, again and again and again,” he said. “I don’t want condemning violence to become a way of life for us, to define us as a community. We don’t want to be solely defined by terrorism.”

Instead, he said, “want to focus on the positive aspects of our community, worship, faith community, by our efforts to serve anyone in need . . . God has blessed our community and we want to address the needs of those who are less fortunate.”

From the Aug. 27, 2016 Free Press. Photo by John Woods, Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Is There a Wospel in Your Gospel? Celebrating the Seusscharist

Is there a wospel in your gospel? A lurch in your church? Or a fulpit in your pulpit?

If you answered yes, then maybe you have been part of a Seusscharist.

What is a Seusscharist? It’s a celebration of the Eucharist using language inspired by Dr. Seuss, otherwise known as Theodore Geisel. The purpose is to make the Eucharist more friendly to children and families.

The idea for the Seusscharist was developed by the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. It seems the first one was held at Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh in 2010. I attended a Seusscharist at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Waterloo, Ont. earlier this summer.

A typical Seusscharist includes lines like these, from the opening:

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open wide.
All of our want-wanting in you we confide,
and from you our secrets we just cannot hide.
Clean the thinks of our thumpers,
And we shall be happy jump-jumpers.

It also has lines like this, from the prayers of the people:

The people of Christ are here and there.
So for the church that we all share,
We pray for people everywhere.

During confession, people say:

God, we have wronged you,
and we need to say boo-ho.
for the things we did and didn’t do.
We are not content, we want to repent
One hundred percent.
Oh so sorry we say,
won’t you forgive us this day
so we can walk in your way.

After which the leader gives these words of absolution:

All Powerful God have mercy on yous,
And forget the sins of we Whos.
Keep you from all strife,
And lead you into new life.

And so on, through the receiving of bread and wine and to the end of the service.

Not having any children with me, I can’t say how the service I attended felt to younger ones. But the kids who were there seemed to enjoy the experience, and the adults did, too—there were more than a few chuckles and smiles as the words of the liturgy were read in Seuss-speak.

In a YouTube video, the Rev. Canon Ralph Blackman said it was “exciting to do something a little different,” although it was also a “little daunting for a priest” to dress up as the Cat in the Hat—with two child attendants dressed up as Thing 1 and Thing 2—and bring “silliness to worship.”

“We take the Eucharist seriously,” he noted, but felt the Seusscharist would “speak across generations and to the child that is in all of us.”

Jonathan Massimi, Coordinator of Family Ministries at St. George’s, agreed. For him the goal was to “create an experience for children and to give them the language to make sense of that experience.”

To be fair, not everyone feels so positive about the Seusscharist—some felt positively, well, Grinchy.

A search online finds comments such as: “A shocking lack of respect and reverence for one of the holiest things the Church does;" “a trivialization of the sacred to the silly;” a “sacrilege;” and “horrible, absolutely horrible.”

Dr. Seuss isn’t the only inspiration for alternative services. One of the more popular a few years ago was a U2charist, featuring the music of the Irish super-group U2, as well as liturgy inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen and a Johnny Cash vespers.

In Toronto, the Anglican Church of the Redeemer holds a monthly rock Eucharist featuring music from singers and songwriters such as Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Neil Young, and Aretha Franklin and David Bowie.

In an interview with the Toronto Star, Assistant Director of Music Mike Daley explained that “what you often find when you look at the lyrics [of these artists] is that these writers are working through their own relationship with spirituality, and it’s often quite revealing.”

As for Geisel, we don’t know what he would think of a Seusscharist; he died in in 1991. We know he was a lifelong Lutheran, but his official website says nothing about his views on religion—or how he might feel about sneeds saying creeds or flims singing hymns.

From the August 20 Winnipeg Free Press.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Christians in Vancouver Disagree Over Inviting U.S. Evangelist Franklin Graham to Speak

Christians in Vancouver are in open disagreement over a decision to invite controversial U.S. evangelist Franklin Graham to speak in that city.

In a letter to organizers of a three-day festival featuring Graham in March, next year, five local evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders call Graham—who is known for criticizing homosexuals and Muslims—“incendiary and intolerant.”

“Rev. Graham is a polarizing figure,” the letter states. “His ungracious and bigoted remarks have the potential to generate serious negative impact on the Christian witness in Vancouver.”

The controversy reminds me of what happened in 2006 when Graham came to Winnipeg for a similar festival. Back then, it was local Mennonites who opposed him, for some of the same reasons—as I wrote in the Free Press ten years ago.

Franklin Graham is coming to Winnipeg this fall. That makes many people happy. But it also has caused some concerns.

City officials are happy, since the three-day festival is expected to attract 50,000 people and pump $1 million to $3 million into the local economy.

Many local Christians are happy, since the event promises to bring “unity and spiritual renewal” to Winnipeg churches, according festival director Dan Klug.

Christians from a variety of denominations have signed on to serve on various committees. Altogether, festival organizers hope 200 to 300 churches will endorse the festival.

But some Mennonites wonder if they should support the event, citing Graham’s very public support for the U.S. war on terror and remarks he made shortly after 9/11 when he called Islam “a very evil and a very wicked religion.”

At its Feb. 24-25 convention, Mennonite Church Manitoba delegates passed a resolution expressing support for the festival but calling on conference leaders to seek a meeting with festival organizers to express their concerns.

“We support churches working together, but we don’t want to be seen to be supporting Franklin Graham’s militaristic stand,” said Menno Wiebe, a lay minister at Sargent Avenue Mennonite Church.

The subject of the festival did not come up at the annual convention of the Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Manitoba, also held in February. But leaders of that group are deciding whether to join Mennonite Church Manitoba in seeking a meeting to share concerns with festival organizers.

Meanwhile, Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba has also weighed in on the issue. In a letter sent to both conferences, executive director Peter Rempel wonders what may happen to Mennonite church members, and to aid and mission workers overseas, if Manitoba Mennonites support the festival.

“I’m thinking about the safety of our workers and Mennonites in other countries,” he said in an interview, citing the riots that occurred in a number of Muslim-majority countries after cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed were published in Denmark.

Rempel also wonders if Manitoba Mennonites who support the event should have consulted with Mennonites in other countries about supporting the event.

After all, he points out, “they would the first in line to be expected to explain to people in their context an endorsement of a Franklin Graham event by Mennonite church groups. It is possible that they will experience reactions to such an endorsement sooner and more directly that the Mennonite community in Manitoba.”

Festival director Dan Klug says he is open to meeting with representatives from the Mennonite conferences, adding that he “appreciates and respects Mennonites and their convictions.” Graham, he says, is not coming to Winnipeg to “talk about current political issues or the war on terrorism, but simply to proclaim the gospel of Christ.”

And that’s the crux of the issue for some people in Winnipeg: What does the gospel of Christ include?

“By raising these questions, we are not anti-evangelism,” Wiebe says. “We just need to clearly signal our Mennonite peace stand.”

Adds Rempel: “I agree with the importance of proclaiming the gospel, and of our peace witness . . . we can uphold both.”

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Mennonite Church Canada Resolution on Israel-Palestine Work of Winnipeg Couple

The behind-the-scenes work of a Winnipeg couple paid off last month when delegates to the Mennonite Church assembly in Saskatoon supported a resolution to promote “a just peace between Palestinians and Israelis.”

“We really didn’t know what would happen,” says Byron Rempel-Burkholder, 59, who created the resolution with support from his wife, Melita, 61.

“We were surprised by the positive response.”

The couple, who are members of Home Street Mennonite Church, had been concerned about the plight of people in Palestine for many years. But it was a short term assignment in Bethlehem from January to April this year that compelled them to act.

“It is hard to live in the West Bank without feeling outraged seeing the wall, and the humiliations the Palestinians endure at checkpoints,” says Byron.

“For us the issue is justice. The occupation can’t be justified on the basis of human rights.”

While there, the two served at Bethlehem Bible College, where Melita helped with grant writing and Byron did communications and driving—it is easier for a foreigner to get through checkpoints to pick up mail, do deliveries and airport runs, he explains.

During their time in Palestine they heard stories of how difficult the occupation and the separation wall makes life for Palestinians.

This included one family who had been separated from their olive orchard when the wall was built.

Their home was on one side, in Palestinian territory, and their olive trees were on the Israeli-controlled side of the wall. To harvest their crop, they have to apply for permits to cross the wall.

“They applied for permits to go pick their crop, but only their grandfather received permission to cross,” says Melita. “As a result, they lost the whole harvest.”

These stories, plus pleas from Palestinian Christians to share about their plight when they returned to Canada, prompted them to want to find ways to act.

One way they decided to try to do something was by asking their denomination to support a resolution calling on that church to support efforts to create peace in the region.

A similar resolution had been debated at the last Mennonite Church Canada assembly, in 2014, but had been tabled. When Byron asked leadership in the church if it was coming back to the floor this year, he was told no—nobody had proposed it.

“So we did,” he says.

The resolution, which the couple worked on with other members of their denomination, was moved by Byron at the assembly.

It calls on the over 30,000 members in 225 congregations to commit themselves to find they ways they are “impeding or facilitating, ignoring or promoting, the quest for a just peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

The resolution affirms “the efforts of Israelis and Palestinians who are committed to non-violent ways of overcoming the injustice in their region” and asks churches and members to “avoid investing in or supporting companies that do business with Israeli settlements and the Israel Defense Forces, and companies that are profiting from the occupation of the Palestinian territories.”

It goes on to encourage the Canadian government to “support measures that put pressure on Israel (including through economic sanctions) to end the occupation and work for a just peace, in accordance with international law.”

Finally, it also recognizes and laments “the suffering of Israeli citizens” and commits the church to work with both Canadian Jewish and Palestinian communities to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

The resolution passed with one just one dissenting vote.

“Our goal is not to be anti-Israel,” says Melita of their efforts to get the resolution to the floor of the assembly. “We aren’t against the state of Israel, or its existence.”

Instead, the couple says the resolution should be viewed as pro-Israel in that it seeks to hold that nation up to the standards of both international law, and to the words of the prophets of the Old Testament.

“This resolution is about supporting Palestinians in a nonviolent quest for self-determination, justice and a peaceful coexistence with their Israeli neighbors,” says Byron.

“We feel responsible for what we heard when we were in Bethlehem,” he adds. “The church in Palestine is looking for support. We are trying to be a voice for them.”

Read the entire resolution here. (On page 4.)

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Demographics, Not Doctrine Reason for Church Decline?

Growing up in an evangelical church, there were two things we knew for certain about the decline of mainline Christianity.

The first was that the reason so many United, Anglican, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches were losing members was because they had become too liberal—something that was emphasized regularly from the pulpit at my church.

The second thing was that a similar decline would never happen to us.

It seems we were wrong on both counts.

In his forthcoming book, The End of White Christian America, author Robert P. Jones notes that the decline of the mainline church is less about doctrine and more about “powerful demographic changes”—and that it is happening to evangelicals today, too.

Looking at the numbers, Jones says the proportion of white mainline Protestants and white evangelicals today is 32 percent of Americans, down from 51 percent in 1993.

The reason for this change? More and more Americans are leaving organized religion, Jones says, noting that 20 percent of Americans today consider themselves to be religiously unaffiliated.

Many of the unaffiliated people are young adults, who are less than half as likely as seniors to identify with a church.

This rejection of organized religion by youth, Jones says, is a “major force of change in the religious landscape.”

Looking ahead, “there’s no sign that this pattern will fade anytime soon,” he says. “By 2051, if current trends continue, religiously unaffiliated Americans could comprise as large a percentage of the population as Protestants.”

For a long time, this inability to retain youth was mostly a mainline church problem. And, for long time, evangelicals crowed about it, as I recall from my own upbringing, blaming mainline decline on liberalism.

But then, in 2008, evangelical numbers in the U.S. started to drop, too. Today 18 percent of Americans say they are evangelicals, down from 22 percent in 1988.

Not only has it dropped, Jones says, but this evangelical decline is actually sharper and steeper than what happened to the mainline churches in the U.S. years earlier.

Evangelicals today, he says, “constitute 27 percent of seniors age 65 and older, but only 10 percent of Americans under 30 years of age—a loss of nearly two-thirds from the oldest to the youngest generation of adults.”

By contrast, “white mainline Protestants—who saw a reduction in their numbers two decades before evangelical numbers began to dip—account for 20 percent of seniors but 10 percent of younger Americans.

“This still represents a 50 percent decline in market share across generations, but it is less steep than the evangelical decline.”

A comparison of the current affiliation patterns of the oldest and youngest American, he says “reveals that white evangelicals have actually lost more ground than white mainline Protestants across current generations.”

For Jones, “these numbers point to one undeniable conclusion: white Protestant Christians—both mainline and evangelical—are aging and quickly losing ground as a proportion of the population.”

Of course, there are still a lot of evangelicals in the U.S., and a lot of mainline Christians, too. It would be foolish to suggest that organized Christianity is not still a powerful force in that country, or that the church will soon disappear.

But something profound is taking place today in the U.S., and in Canada as well.

Looking at the Canadian religious situation, in 2013 the Pew Research Center noted that the percentage of Canadians who identify as Catholic had dropped from 47 percent to 39 percent since 1963, while the share that identified as Protestant fell even more steeply, from 41 percent to 27 percent.

As well, the number of by Canadians who are religiously unaffiliated is growing—up to 24 percent by 2010.

As in the U.S., it is younger Canadians who are less likely to be religious than older generations; 29 percent of people born between 1987 and 1995 had no religious affiliation as of 2011, 17 percentage points higher than Canada’s oldest living generation (born 1946 or earlier), and nine points higher than Canadians born between 1947 and 1966.

In other words, when it comes to future of the church, the old evangelical certainty of my youth isn’t as certain anymore. We are all in this together—liberal, conservative and everything in between.