This book is a word to the Christian Church in 2020, as we all live through the worldwide pandemic of COVID-19. There is a newly released book from a Vancouver United Church minister which goes to heart of what is central to our ministry in the church, in faithfulness to the gospel, in attending to the reality and of how our lives are intwined with the well-being of the other. COVID-19 effects our daily lives and also reveals with great clarity the inequalities that exist within Canadian society.
This book, although written before the virus spread worldwide is current in that it presses the church to face what we are doing to change the root causes of such inequalities in faithfulness to Christ.
This is a book that looks at three urban ministries in Toronto, Victoria and Vancouver, delving into the subject of what “success” in terms of prophetic ministry.
“Success,” in quotation marks here, indicates that the author recognizes that while it is rightly a goal of any ministry, there are so many questions about what “success” really looks like in terms of a faithful public-prophetic ministry. The subtitle of the book; “Dynamics, Challenges, and Ambiguities of Success in Urban and Community Ministries” alludes to this deeper theological question.
This is a book that may be read by any congregation or ministry group challenging itself about how the church is attending to the gospel call to change systems in our society, in challenging the status quo of economic and social inequality.
The author, Barry Morris, a United Church minister, presently with The Longhouse Council of Native Ministry in East Vancouver (with a background in urban ministry across Canada and the U.S.) knows these questions from the inside out. His ministry of 50 years seeking the authentic practicing of charity which has the opportunity to include justice-making, but often competes with the prophetic call to challenge unjust systems. So often in the church, charity wins out as daily needs are present. Charity as we know is not a bad thing. People need help in the day to day. However, what Barry Morris is seeking to bring forward in this book is how the strength of prophetic ministry is central in and to the gospel call. In Morris’ observation and narration with the three ministries, he asks the tough questions of whether the focus on attending to the root causes of poverty and inequality gets lost in the day to day work, and indeed becomes a substitute for justice withheld .
The question underlying all of this is what sustains such ministry so that there is always a space to return to what is central.
The leadership in each of these ministries understands that prayer grounds them and gives them what they need to ask tough questions and stay engaged in faithful ministry. It also presses them to seek to be courageous and not give up on the depth of the gospel call of justice work and dignity for the folks being supported their ministries.
I would loved to have read the prayers that each of the leaders in these ministries held close to their hearts in seeking to be faithful to God in living the vision of what justice looks like in their locale.
Barry Morris is part of a wider alliance of organizations working together for the common good, the Metro Vancouver Alliance (MVA), with the parent body, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). He recognizes that it is always a struggle in the competing interest of charity and its daily needs for any ministry to keep going at this organized fashion to build power with labour, community, religious and academic institutions engaging in the long-term work of social and economic change. Yet it is essential. Connecting in such a way in broad-based organizing is hard work and takes staffing time and energy and yet bears fruit. The questions are there in the book of how the prophetic is addressed in the daily work of the church. How is this work governed by the discipline to keep the questions alive? This book will allow the reader to reflect on their own ministry, how they work alongside other organizations of goodwill for the common good and how change happens in challenging the status quo, so that power is shared as we see in the Beatitudes where all might share in the blessings of creation.
The prayers that Morris offers sums his own ministry which underpins this book: Micah 6:8; In the words of the prophet; “What is it that are called to... to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” Morris draws daily upon what has come to be known as the “Serenity Prayer” with Reinhold Niebuhr’s original words (and which concludes with the crucial understanding that it is always in the end about grace. Grace underpins everything as each person and the church gathered, seeks to be faithful to the gospel). Morris prays the plural of the prayer in it original wording.
“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change; the courage to change the things we ought to; and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Amen