God's dream is that you and I and all of us will realize that we are family, that we are made for togetherness, for goodness, and for compassion. ~ Archbishop Desmond Tutu
In 2010, my family and I journeyed to South Africa for a time of sabbatical and renewal. We explored a variety of different regions of that beautiful country, meeting many people, hearing different stories, and learning more about the history and traditions.
While in Cape Town, we attended an early morning Eucharist at St. George’s Cathedral where the presider was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. There were a good number of us gathered in a side chapel as we heard the familiar words of the liturgy. Instead of a homily following the gospel, Archbishop Tutu invited each of us to introduce ourselves to the assembled congregation. There were people from all over the world, but one of those introductions has stayed with me since that time. A youth group leader from the United States presented himself and his group. He told how they had come to South Africa on a mission trip to help those in need. They had assisted in building a school, had spent time with the children and been part of the community for two weeks.
Archbishop Tutu paused for a moment and in a gentle and kind voice asked, “Are there no people in need in your own country that you come to help the poor in this country?” Those words touched me then and with the news of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s death on December 26, they have come to the forefront of my mind once again.
Archbishop Tutu was, of course, known the world over as a voice for justice, for truth, for forgiveness, for equality, for fairness. His voice was heard loud and clear during the time of apartheid legislation in South Africa but has been heard ever since as one who stood up against racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and several other examples where all human beings are not welcomed and loved.
Tutu once said,
“Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but, in the end, it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”
If we really want to live out the vision that Archbishop Desmond Tutu had for this world, then it is not enough to simply appreciate his words. He was calling people to action and to take responsibility. To live out what it is that we believe God is calling us to be and do. If we want to truly honour the life and work of Archbishop Tutu, then we need to look carefully at the world around us and question how each one of us live out our calling to respect the dignity of every human being.\
Last May, on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, there was the discovery of 215 unmarked grave sites, of which many appeared to be for children. There was shock and horror at this news, and rightfully so. But it also recalled, for me, the words of the archbishop in the chapel of St. George’s Cathedral, that we need to address our own wrongs here at home.
These 215 grave sites, and similar sites across the country, are the result of the abuse and violence that took place in Residential Schools here in Canada. Residential Schools are a sign of the systematic racism that continues to exist in this country. They represent children torn from their parents’ arms who would never return home. Children who were being taught and told to no longer be Indigenous in terms of language, culture, traditions, song, and prayer.
Just recently, an Angus Reid Institute survey revealed that more than half of Asian Canadians have suffered from discrimination over the past year. From the Government of Canada’s website, which lists several statistics on racism in our country, here are two disturbing facts: Black males living in Toronto are 3 times more likely to be stopped and asked for identification by police. Employers are about 40% more likely to interview a job applicant with an English-sounding name despite identical education, skills, and experience.
What might Archbishop Desmond Tutu say to us here in Canada? What words might he offer about the level of racism and prejudice directed toward Indigenous people, people of colour and those of traditions apart from the majority here in Canada?
Recently I was part of a small cohort of leaders from within our diocese exploring racism in the world of today. Bridging Differences, led by Natasha Aruliah, pushed the group to examine more carefully the way our world is structured, whose voices are heard and how we need to question many assumptions. For this program, clarity was offered on the first day as we considered the framework of how many of us view our society:
“We all live in a world that is not neutral and within systems of oppression that privileges some and marginalizes others. As a result, we have all absorbed considerable misinformation about ourselves and others. Racism, sexism, cissexism, classism, colonialism, heterosexism, ableism and more have damaged us all and have been internalized, impacting our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and are mostly deeply unconscious. Unlearning oppressive attitudes and behaviours is a lifelong journey. Resistance, denial, and pain are part of healing and learning to connect across difference. Individuals and organizations can grow and change with focused attention and commitment to a process that is holistic. Organizations, systems, and structures are built and maintained by people and so personal change is integral to systemic change. Building movements for social and economic justice requires systemic awareness and systemic change and the starting place is us. Working together makes things happen. How we work is as important as the work we do-- developing emotional and cultural literacy are critical skills. Transparency and accountability are needed to challenge and change systems of oppression.”
And so, we began. For six months we read, we discussed, we listened, we observed, we questioned, we came to see with different eyes that the world in which we live is not fair or balanced or just for all people. Intellectually this is perhaps easy to accept, but when we realize that many of us are far too accepting of the status quo, we lose sight of who Jesus Christ is calling us to be.
White privilege, white supremacy, unequal opportunities, skewed incomes, unjust advantages, and many other aspects affect how we live in this world. Some of us are blind to the impact of these effects, but when they are more clearly shown to us, we discover a new interpretation of how we should walk in this world, how we might strive for justice and peace among all people.
In the Huffpost, Maija Kappler wrote an article on May 29, 2020, entitled, Racism In Canada Is Ever-Present, But We Have A Long History Of Denial. In that article she wrote:
“Maybe the question to ask yourself isn’t whether you’re a racist, but how you benefit from a system that subjugates other people. How comfortable or uncomfortable you are when non-white people are in a position of authority over you, and where some of those attitudes come from. What kinds of interactions make you feel threatened, and what kinds of threats, inadvertent or not, other people might feel from you. What we as Canadians should be doing, and white Canadians in particular, is looking long and hard at our own reluctance to examine ourselves. We need to address our unconscious biases, the ideas we buy into that allow freedom to white people at the expense of others.”
Inequity in gaining job interviews, the high rate of police checks for black Canadian males, anti-Asian racism, Residential Schools, and many other examples all point to a level of racism that is still with us, as uncomfortable as this realization might be for many of us. We need to stay with this feeling of being uncomfortable and pay attention to it. What is it teaching us about how we live out our faith in Jesus Christ?
In our diocese we will continue with dismantling racism training, but we must also seek ways in which we can live into dismantling racism in our lives. We will continue to aim to create a broader diversity in the leadership in the diocese and in each parish. We will aim to reflect and be guided by the society in which we live which is filled with people of a great mosaic of backgrounds, traditions, and culture.
The lower western corner of the mainland province of British Columbia where our diocese is located is filled with people of different faith traditions and those of no faith tradition at all. Our Diocese of New Westminster will continue to grow into increasing awareness and understanding of our sisters and brothers all around us including those of all faiths. The diocesan Ecumenical and Multi-faith Unit continues to help us open our eyes to new possibilities of understanding and appreciation. This too is part of the work of dismantling racism and the compassionate living we are called to as we seek and serve Christ in all persons.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said:
“We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God's family.”
If we treasure these words, may they affect how we love our neighbours as ourselves.
IMAGE: The Stephens family with Archbishop Tutu, Capetown, 2010.