Young people struggle with spirituality and injustice

The Martlet | March 20, 2003 | Circulation: 17,000

In the dim candlelight, peoples’ shadows flicker on the walls of the room leading to a dark stairway deep inside the abandoned furniture store. The air I breathe carries a tired, musty smell. Combined with the scarce lighting and echoing voices, it all reminds me of being inside an ancient cathedral.

This is holy space, I think. What we are doing here is sacred. With police outside waiting to shut this down any minute, this place feels like a sanctuary from the harsh outside world. But it’s also harsh in here. I am afraid, and I can sense that fear in others too.

Even with this fear, and the threat that police could storm this abandoned housing squat anytime to evict us all, I feel safe here in a different way. I try to find my way upstairs in the darkness. My feet negotiate a path over cracked cement, ripped tiles and cavernous holes in the floor. Who knows where they drop to? With a sleeping bag over one shoulder, and my other hand outstretched to find walls, I move slowly.

Other people pass by, many of them homeless, going in and out of the housing squat while I venture deeper into a building used long ago to sell furniture. I cannot see their faces, and I feel like I cannot know them well because of my privilege. But we’re all here together. For 15 years, 538 Pandora Avenue has lain empty.

Not tonight, though. For one night, and one night only, Victoria’s homeless have opened this place up for shelter.

I came to support this housing protest and that’s why my five housemates are here too. We’re spending the night deep inside the labyrinth of corridors and rooms, in a small dark room powdered with what looks like asbestos. Camping on the old wood floors, we fell asleep to the sound of wailing downtown sirens and a man in the adjacent room snorting cocaine.

The six of us talked about being part of the squat all week, after the cops shut it down only days after it began. The issue of homelessness in Victoria was unresolved. Sleeping in the depths of the squat was unlike anything I had ever done and without my housemates for support I would have been too afraid. Not just afraid for my safety, but afraid because I know that I am so privileged in this society and felt out of place at this housing squat. At any point, I could have chosen to catch a taxi home, where I could expect a warm bed. That very choice is a luxury few others at the squat had.

This experience has made us all discuss what it means to be church. After more than a month of living together in a community house inspired by a Christian vision, it’s something we often think about. A lot of people think of churches as large buildings housing formal religious practices. But for me, church is not somewhere to go, but something to be. Jesus taught that we ourselves are the church; he said that the temples will collapse but community will always remain.

My house is a church, my friends are a church, my body is a church.

I am church.

*

I feel scared to put this down on paper. To admit my involvement with a religion that for much of my life has repulsed me. To confess that I work for a church that tried to commit genocide against First Nations in its residential schools. To admit to my fellow Women’s Studies students that, yes, part of my spirituality arises from one of the most patriarchal and colonial religions in history.

In my house – what we call the Community House – we live together because we want to build spiritual community and live in a way that is just and simple. We want to be accountable to our values. Many of us are involved in Christian communities in some way, and we have all struggled with the deep contradictions of that involvement. Like the paradoxical feelings of safety and fear deep inside 538 Pandora, being church can be both troubling and comforting.

What I want to know is: what possibility is there for us, as a community, to reclaim the Gospel as a tool to fight oppression and injustice? Who says we need to rely on institutions to fulfill our need for church?

For me, these questions have been central to my journey into Christian spirituality. I rarely share the story of this journey, because my doubts leave me vulnerable, open to criticism for my theology. I am in a world somewhere between my atheist upbringing and my Christian mentors.

Part of me wants to fill this story with disclaimers, to protect myself from attack. No, I’m not like those other Christians! I’m pro-choice. I have reverence for homosexuality and bisexuality and anyone who fucks with gender. I don’t believe in converting everything that moves. Yet another part of me wants to erase this whole thing, to pretend my spirituality is something it’s not. But this is what I am. I want to be proud of it. I want to reclaim it.

To be honest, the more I delve into the Christian tradition, the more I find myself thinking in new ways and looking at the world through more radical eyes. My resolve to fight injustice has been strengthened and deepened, especially by the counter-cultural message of Jesus. Let me first confess that I don’t define myself as a Christian. My views on Big Daddy God might not line up with those of many Christians, but two years ago a chaplain and wonderful friend convinced me to take a summer job as a United Church youth group leader. Today, I work with youth in one of Victoria’s most affluent congregations. Many of these kids live in the sheltered world of Cadboro Bay and Uplands, an elite neighbourhood protected by large stone gates and stifling conservatism. I share my job with my friend Sarah*, a long-time United Church youth minister who also lives with me in our Community House‹inspired by a Christian vision of social justice, caring for the Earth and living in supportive community. I have learned much from the youth I work with, and I hope I can infect them with a desire for social justice and for questioning the society around them.

Defining my spirituality is hard when most people have such loaded barriers in their minds already. What does God mean to me, for instance? Can I be a Buddhist and Christian at the same time? Who do I have to prove myself to anyway? My parents often question me as though I’ve joined a cult. Because I am struggling to redefine for myself what Christianity means, they think I am not being true to my own values. My parents are both committed atheists, which I see as being their equivalent of a religion. Both of them put effort into instilling a firmly anti-religious attitude in me. So despite some curious exploration into Buddhism and Islam in junior high school, I was never raised with religion.

My grandma on my mother’s side of the family quit going to her United Church when my mom was young. Like many valleys in Canada, the rural Ottawa Valley where my family comes from has its share of rednecks and small town politics. When it became clear to my grandmother that church was just a social club where Christian values were more about image than action, she left.

Like my mother, I grew up very critical of the Christian church. I believed that most wars were caused by religion, that churches were paved in gold, and could only see the oppressive elements of the institutions-missionaries, sexism, racism, wealth, homophobia, you name it.

*

I know I’m not alone in my doubts, and that keeps me connected to the possibility of reclaiming the idea of church‹the idea that church isn’t something to accept; it’s something for me to own and redefine for myself. My friend Sarah was raised in the United Church. Even though Sarah has led church youth groups for years, she told me her doubts and questions always remain.

On Thursday morning, after leaving the downtown housing-squat, she walked through the streets of Victoria and saw the city with new eyes. For her, it was a pilgrimage to re-map her city, to find what public spaces were hers to use. Her old geography‹house, school and work‹would be useless to her if she were homeless.

Connecting with several young street people at the Pandora squat had made her think afresh about her city. She brushed her teeth in the mall washrooms. Some of the homeless people panhandling on street corners were now her friends. Knowing that she could survive gave her a sense of safety.

Deeply tired from a late night at the squat, Sarah roamed in search of a space where she could be alone to think. Even when there is a strong sense of community, she thought, we all need solitude. She passed storefronts and cafes where only customers are welcome. She passed parks where the biting morning air and noisy traffic only drowned out her desperation for quiet.

Like many pilgrimages in the world, this one led her to a place of worship. Sarah’s feet came to rest on the cool grey stone steps of Christchurch Cathedral, an Anglican church that rises like a guarded gateway out of the bleak downtown streets. Christchurch is one of the few churches in Victoria that leaves its door unlocked every day of the week.

The Anglican church used to tolerate homeless people camping on the cathedral’s lawn, but after numerous complaints the policy was struck down and the tents dismantled. At least the doors are still left unlocked, Sarah thought, unlike many churches in town.

She entered the cathedral and looked up. The ceiling towered far above like a grey stone sky, and the quiet clunking of her footsteps carried across the emptiness. She walked slowly to the front, towards the altar, and sat in the first row of pews. Questions flooded into her head as she examined her surroundings. On one hand, the church was always a place available to her when she was desperate and didn’t know where to go. The space filled her with a sense of the sacred. But at the same time, the wealth of many churches was far removed from the reality of suffering in the world.

Sarah kneeled quietly onto a cushioned bench near her feet and started to pray. She looked up at the large cross behind the altar, noticing its ornate ripples of gold and the railing keeping people away from the entire area. As priests walked around quietly in red and gold robes, a woman cleaned the railing where worshippers had placed their hands during prayer. Around the altar was a pile of pumpkins, apples and other food, obviously for decoration only. To Sarah, the railing enclosing the altar area seemed like a warning: Do not enter this spot. This is only for special people.

How could she reconcile that the church was both a sanctuary and a symbol of privilege and decadence?

Staring at the gold cross, she became angry at the hierarchy and distance. Her eyes pressed shut with fatigue, but she knew she might get kicked out if she fell asleep on the pew. In the silence between stone pillars and the straight lines of pews, Sarah began sobbing and tears flowed from her eyes. The Jesus she knew cared about the homeless, the poor, and the destitute. Did the cross mean nothing anymore? How would Jesus react to the opulence of this church?
*

While many people have fled the church because of these feelings of contradiction (combined with a popular culture that increasingly detests anything religious), around the world progressive Christians are engaging with their world and struggling for justice. Much of their work is done silently, overshadowed by the rise of Christian fundamentalism.

I am always inspired by the story of Oscar Romero, the Catholic archbishop of El Salvador in the late 1970s. Under the country’s repressive and violent dictatorship, Romero dared to speak out against the U.S.-backed military regime, and stood with the poor in their resistance struggle. During Sunday masses, he would admonish the military officers and businesspeople: “The peasants you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When you hear a man telling you to kill, remember God’s words, THOU SHALT NOT KILL… In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people, I beseech you, I implore you, and I command you to stop the repression.”

Romero also said that if he were killed, he would rise in the Salvadoran people. Indeed, he was murdered by assassins believed to have been trained in the United States, a supposedly Christian state. But his message has always inspired Christians and non-Christians trying to shape a more just world.

When I left Canada two years ago to travel around the globe, I knew about Oscar Romero but still had no real experience of a church community. Eventually, however, I found myself in the torn and divided land of my family’s roots‹Northern Ireland‹where I set out to find a woman who had inspired me at a peace conference the summer before.

Ruth Patterson, a Presbyterian minister, had invited me to visit her own peace project, [ Restoration Ministries ], located in a village just outside Belfast. After a day walking the war-scarred and frightening streets of west Belfast, I arrived at Patterson’s house and asked to stay. I spent four days visiting with her and learning about how she was trying to weave together Catholics and Protestants in their communities.

Like the sanctuary my friend Sarah sought on the streets of Victoria, Patterson offers a place for peace workers who are weary and spent after years of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. Restoration Ministries is not alone, either. At the far northern tip of the island, near the village of Ballycastle, is another community calling itself Corrymeela which offers a different kind of shelter from the storm.

The [ Corrymeela Centre ]rests atop a steep cliff facing the sea, surrounded by pastureland and fresh green hills. The night I arrived, the sea below was a swelling, crashing mess and the buildings were being pounded by a wild storm. It was dark when my taxi dropped me off, and I felt the place surging with the power of the rain and wind. It was cold and hard to walk forward into the gale, but I found my way to the entrance of the largest building. Except for the far-off gentle thudding of rain on the windows, it was quiet and restful inside‹a dramatic shift from the storm.

A young Catholic man from Dublin with bright orange hair and a playful grin showed me around and explained that Corrymeela offers a place where Protestants and Catholics can work towards healing their divisions and building an authentic Christian community. The centre, he said, is run by twelve long-term volunteers, young adults like me who spend a year of their lives leading Corrymeela’s peace programs and living in community. Many of them, it turned out, weren’t even Christian, but they believed in what Corrymeela is about. I understood why.

I set about exploring the community, and braved the powerful winds to walk between Corrymeela’s dozen buildings. Right in the middle of them all, near the cliff’s edge, I discovered a short, round building with plants growing on the sloping, oddly shaped roof. They called this the Croi, Irish for ‘heart,’ because this building is the very heart of Corrymeela.

Inside, the entrance led to a downward sloping ramp that led underground in an arching spiral. After several turns, I emerged into a dome-shaped white room with cushions scattered around a table and a lit candle in the centre. This whole building was the community chapel, symbolically shaped like a heart. In this simple, domed room under the earth, I felt sheltered and cared for. This was where visitors to the centre come together beyond dogma and hatred, to share in simple ritual based on respect and compassion. When I left Corrymeela the next week, I took with me the image of that quiet domed room. I wondered what I could do to be part of such a community.

*

I found an answer to my questions when I returned to Victoria and met people who were yearning for the same experience of radical community. Some of them were from church backgrounds, some not, but we began meeting to talk about starting an intentional, possibly Christian, community house in Victoria.

Sarah initiated the project after a [ World Council of Churches ] conference in Cuba, at which 40 young adults from (often conflicting) churches around the world developed ideas for social change projects that would be ecumenical, that is, bringing together divided churches. Inspired by the vision of a Catholic Worker community she had visited in Toronto, Sarah soon found that many young people felt the need for spiritual community.

Few of us had heard of the Catholic Worker, a movement started by American anarchist Dorothy Day in 1933. But we were excited by her commitment to living an alternative to violence and injustice, and doing it prayerfully and generously. She, too, struggled with the contradictions of being both anarchist and Catholic.

There are now six of us living in our community house‹with backgrounds in the United and Anglican Churches, Buddhism, and Goddess spirituality. What we have in common is a commitment to living nonviolence (some of us call it Gospel nonviolence, to distinguish it from simply being peaceful), challenging oppression, and inspiring ourselves and others to build a just and compassionate society. We’re still envisioning how we’re going to do that, with the support of our Circle of Mentors, a network of adults who have inspired us in our lives.

That circle has Quakers, Catholics, Anglicans and United Church members, all of them committed to peace, social justice and radical compassion. Radical compassion is the power of love as a political force. When Jesus spoke of loving our enemies, not just our friends, he was speaking of radical compassion‹all the while resisting oppression. (And he certainly didn’t preach complacency or acceptance of injustice… One day he rampaged through the temple kicking over the tables of the money-changers who were trying to turn a holy place into a shopping mall).

This community is what nurtures me in my life now. I still struggle with my faith and with my questioning of organized religion. But, like sharing the dark and derelict building with Victoria’s homeless and watching shadows flicker on the dim candlelit walls, this is what makes me feel safe and whole. Like many pilgrimages, my journey into Christian spirituality has led me to a place of worship.

This is holy space.


* Sarah’s name has been changed to protect anonymity

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