So perhaps you have a sense of why you and the church need to be involved in the work of justice, not as an optional part of the gospel, but as an integral expression of it. But then comes the question of how such a commitment gets expressed.
Within the United Church there has been a recognition that different parts of the church are equipped to engage in different expressions of the work of justice. Congregations respond to the neighbourhood, their immediate and local context, with a hands-on approach. Sometimes that’s expressed through charity – feeding the hungry, for instance, with food banks, or meals; or “Out of the Cold” programs; at other times, it’s more in the realm of social service, a hand-up rather than just a hand-out, helping people make real changes.
The newly emerging “missional church” talks about “moving into the neighbourhood,” paying attention to the hurts and injustices, the needs and the hopes of people in the immediate community where the church finds itself – and then discerning where God is asking the church to respond; discovering, in fact, that God is already at work in the community. What might we learn from this approach?
Systemic or national and global issues are more often dealt with by Conferences or General Council, when structural change and social transformation are needed, and when extensive research and analysis are required. When our church organization functions at its best, the work done by Conference and General Council loops back into congregational life, with learning opportunities, programs, and suggestions for action. Right relations with Aboriginal peoples is one example; Israel and Palestine, another.
However, this system is experiencing difficulties.
First, the United Church is no longer a major player in the larger public and political scene, our voice no longer listened to, as it was in former times. Yes, we do have some moral influence, but real power… not so much. So, for instance, is the Moderator talking “for” the church or “to” the church when he/she makes pronouncements? And who, really, is listening – the public? business? government? Or church members only?
Secondly, with the decline in resources, financial, staff, and volunteers, at the Conference and General Council levels, the United Church has a greatly reduced capacity to engage in the work of justice. We can no longer pretend that we can respond to every issue. We can’t do everything… so how do we determine our priorities? Where do we believe that God is calling us to act?
We have responded to this challenge by working ecumenically – KAIROS comes to mind – but still, shrinking resources and government attitudes are limiting the work. We have also developed partnerships with non-church groups, non-profits, and social enterprises, for example, who may not share our faith perspective, but who do hold common convictions about justice and change. In these relationships we need to keep asking what is the unique gift and energy that the church can offer to this work – an inclusive community? Spirituality? Third space? Energy and conviction that it is not just about us?
Various justice activists have been exploring the power of networks, where people across the country who share a particular passion are linked together, with social media providing useful tools to do just that. There is a challenge in deciding to what extent such networks are part of the national church structure, and therefore speak on behalf of the church; and to what extent they are an independent voice, though church-rooted, and thus can act more critically and prophetically. And, connected to this, is the question of how much financial and staff support the national church (or more local bodies) might offer to maintain such networks.
Thirdly, there has been a tendency to “professionalize” some of our outreach ministry, especially in its global dimensions. In part, this is necessary and inevitable – we need trained and experienced resource persons to build connections and partnerships. On the other hand, a number of people at the congregational level want to be more “hands-on”, to have more direct involvement in the work of justice, not just contribute financially. So yes, they want to support Mission & Service, but also, have opportunities to make links and connections, to be “doing” some of the work as well.
Various congregations are doing just that – building ever deepening relationships with specific United Church partners, exchanging letters, visits, providing financial support for particular projects, being physically present as accompaniers, or as fellow workers. Others have developed their own connections, participating in awareness-raising trips, or through other organizations like Habitat for Humanity. How might we ensure that every congregation has a meaningful and engaged involvement with our national and global mission?
A quick glance at the proposals that are coming to General Council reveals our church’s ongoing commitment to the work of justice:
- Reconciliation and Right Relations, with specific references to an Inquiry regarding missing and murdered Aboriginal women (4)
- Israel and Palestine (13)
- LGBTQ apology (1)
- A more representative Parliament (1)
- Peace, nuclear weapons, and the arms trade (5)
- Child well-being (poverty) (1)
- Treatment of prisoners (1)
- Eco-justice and climate change (13)
- Mining justice in the developing world (5)
These proposals are calling for particular actions and long-term commitments. So… what is the work that we are called to focus on? How do we choose our priorities? How do we act effectively, and truly make a difference? How do we ensure that congregational members are engaged in this work? Please hold GC42 and the commissioners in your prayers, as they discern both the why and the how of social justice.
Art by Corey L, Sts. Peter and Paul Parish, Mississauga, ON.