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With Justice and Dignity - The Church Local and Global
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By Haydn Jensen

January 19 Conference at North Park Community Church:
"With Justice and Dignity—The Church Local and Global"


The brochure said that during the day-long conference, "we will explore ways in which your Church can enter into the neighbourhood and make a positive difference." On one level this could seem odd. Don't we know this already? As churches we already know we're here to make a positive difference in our community and most pastors and congregations in London do at least try and work in that direction, right? Even small childen can understand the so-called "Golden Rule" of treating others the way you would like to be treated. That pretty much sums up justice and dignity, right? From looking around at the 300 some people attending the "With Justice and Dignity" conference with me, I thought I was in good company—nobody there looked to me like someone who would not treat others with justice and dignity.

Hmmm

Dr. Bob Lupton, the keynote speaker for the conference wrote a book whose title alone points to an uncomfortable reality. The book is called, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). In Dr. Bob's first address, we heard about his 40 years of ministry experience of urban ministry in Atlanta, and how over time he and others with him learned that charity can become toxic and end up eroding a person's integrity and harming their self esteem. We learned that most often this happens when our giving is only one-way, without giving the recipient opportunity to give anything in return. He told us that one-way giving affirms the superiority of giver, binds the recipient, demands gratitude, humuliates the receiver and reduces them to a lower state than before. "Everyone has something to bring to the table." as Bob puts it. As one practical example, he shared how his ministry team learned that instead of providing free Christmas presents for needy families—and humiliating the fathers who felt like failures as providers for their families—the ministry instead organized a low cost gift shop where folks could come and buy gifts for their families at prices they could afford.

That point alone was well-worth hearing. Ron Burdock, one of the main organizers for the conference, told me this: "Our job is to inspire one another to love and to good deeds—deeds that are smart, thoughtful, wise, intelligent. I think we are all struggling to do good work, and it takes a long time to figure it out. I just want to be there myself, and I want to do as that verse says—to inspire other people to love and to good work."

Ron's statement about us all "struggling to do good work" certainly fit in well with many other messages given that day. One workshop was given by Political Science Professor Dr. Joanna Quinn, who heads up UWO's The Africa Institute. She has conducted extensive research on justice and reconciliation in Uganda, where the struggle is against deeply broken political mechanisms. Seeking justice in a place where that political will for it is weak can be tiring work. I asked her what kind of change are you looking for? She told me, "I'm interested in a change that's going to be meaningful for people. I'm interested in how justice feels." She shared that for many justice starts with simply being heard and acknowledged."

The dignity given through listening came through several times in other workshops. Pastor Pernell Goodyear of Hillside Church urged us to become "storied" He urged us, "The evangelical church in Canada has to learn to talk less and listen more. Every person has a story—all connected to God's great story. We need to do the hard work of taking the time to listen." At the workshop given by Gil Clelland and Darryl Reckman, Co-founders of Sanctuary London, we heard about listening as an expression of love—when we listen with love, it becomes" a release of the other—and allowing their mess to become your mess."

Gil and Darryl drove the point home with even more clarity as they reminded us of our common habit of answering "How are you?" with "I'm good" or "I'm fine". They went on to explain that when we spend time with the poor, "they actually have something very valuable to give us; they wear their pain openly and unavoidably—you see it, you smell it. We, the people of God have been really good at hiding our pain," Gil explained. "When you allow the impoverished to be the centre of community you allow the rest of us to rip the mask of 'I'm good' off and admit our own pain and weakness."

Heavy stuff, and difficult to ignore. It was amazing to note how so many different presenters who (I presume) did not compare notes ahead of time, offered such similar ideas about going out and investing time in our communities, listening with love, and treating everyone as equals with something to offer. Ron Burdock was right: we are all struggling to do good work and it does take a long time to figure it out. Thanks to North Park and the presenters at this conference, we are all reminded that it's well worth the struggle...and especially when we can struggle together in community.