Jesus: The Misunderstood Jew

Jesus: The Misunderstood Jew was a three-day event that began at First Narayever synagogue and ended at College Street United Church. It was a journey into understanding moving between Christian and Jewish communities of faith in Toronto, June 3 – 5, 2016.

The inspiration was Amy-Jill Levine, University Professor of the New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Levine, who is Jewish, has authored the well-known book The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. This book was the basis for the conference.

On Friday night, 159 attendees met for a Sabbath dinner at First Narayever hosted by Professor Levine. The Sabbath dinner was the big highlight for many. Getting a guided tour through the rituals and blessings of that meal was a unique and very special experience for Christians.

Professor Levine also lectured through a full day on questions surrounding Jesus. She spoke talked about how Christians and Jews have misunderstood Jesus, and how we have misunderstood each other.

On Sunday, Jewish participants came to a College Street United service and were delighted by the openness of the participants to the Jewish context and meaning of the parables. Again, Professor Levine lectured. Our Jewish colleagues remarked on the hospitality and welcome of the church crowd.

Not only were people able to understand each other more fully, several connections were made, bridges of trust between religious organizations in our community. Friendships were begun and learnings were shared.

The conference was a delightful mix of people from all socio-economic and a variety of religious backgrounds; from people with financial means, people with a long-time commitment to a faith community, to people from the street corner who live on the edge. Some people travelled from Newfoundland and Winnipeg and some who joined have no fixed address but live in shelters downtown. With funding support from the United Church Foundation, the organizers were able to fully cover costs for 26 people.

Also, a community of 19 people participated on-line through the United-in-Learning team. Gathering sometimes in groups or individually, the on-line crowd participated in the conference by feeding in their questions and comments. It was a true blessing to have them participate.

The Rev. Chris Levan says,

“The generosity of individual sponsors and the grant from the United Church Foundation were the main reasons we were able to open the doors so wide and welcome in so many who otherwise would not have been able to attend. We are so grateful for that support.”

Spirit & Soul

By The Rev. Karen E. Toole

Churchill Park United Church in Winnipeg sponsored a truly visionary event this past May. From my perspective it was not just one more step along the road of gender and orientation understanding. It was a giant leap. The event had been advertised through all the appropriate channels of the United Church, as well as in the media. I expected a filled church. The title of the event could not have been more informative and direct. It was clearly and creatively named, “Spirit and Soul – not determined by Anatomy, coming to know and affirm the transgender community through personal stories.” In a city the size of Winnipeg registration was approximately fifty. Perhaps the problem was with the word ‘affirm’? The number of registrants was a disappointment but nothing else about the day was disillusioning. For me, with over forty years in ministry, it was one of the most informative, enlightening and inspiring days I have spent within the workshop world of the church.

Deep Sharing, Deep Learning
This event first took root as our church journeyed through the affirming process. We shared stories of family members and friends who passed through our lives hiding their “Spirit and Soul”. This learning experience brought us all closer in our church family. We are a congregation that likes to take on learning challenges. After a discussion with the former moderator The Very Rev. Gary Paterson and his partner The Rev. Tim Stevenson, we all decided that we did not know much about the transgender community. With our quest for learning, we chose to focus on coming to a greater understanding of transgenderism. We contacted all of the Affirming United Churches in the Winnipeg Presbytery and received a wonderful response. As we met we all shared our stories. Various members contributed names of presenters that we eventually invited to speak at the event. It was truly a group effort.

What happened that day at that workshop was exactly what was described in the title. We began with a simple, inclusive worship. We moved on LGBTQ-101, focusing on terminology, pronouns, the difference between orientation and gender, and finding safety. For those gathered in the small table groups, we learned about the reality of how we are all of us “gender-bred persons”; our sex is assigned, but our orientations, our identities, our feelings are not.

For me, the honest level of this presentation was more than a breath of fresh air; it was a forceful wind of hope-filled change. We connected body, mind and soul as sex, orientation and heart. In other words we saw other human beings not through the lens of where do they fit, but here is a sacred creation seeking to love and be loved.

Three storytellers then spoke. Three transgendered persons took the courageous risk of sharing their intimate struggle with a crowd of strangers. These three people who had already been shamed and shunned, broken and beaten told honest, funny, hopeful stories of why love matters.

What We Heard

The speakers’ honest stories surpassed every inspiring sermon I have ever listened to on the topic of divine creation and holy expression of that creation. And why was that? It had everything to do with their incarnational reality, their authenticity, their open honest, vulnerability and their love stories!

The first speaker was focused on transgendered parenting, yet so much more. He spoke of how we all have an opportunity to find the courage to authentically be who we know ourselves to be. He honestly spoke of giving birth to their children, and how he and his male partner are often asked where their mother is. Over and over again he has been forced to come out and face the shock and judgement, and yet he told other stories of support, acceptance and care. At one point he spoke of the need for breast milk, and how he could contribute, because it was, as he put it, “human milk for human babies.” And the wonderful thing was that his milk was just as valuable as any other breast milk given. While he spoke the two children of these two young men played happily in our midst.

Another speaker spoke of her transgendered refugee experience. She came with the support of her United Church congregation, and was gently interviewed by one of her friends from that faith community. Hers was a story of running for her life because she had become a monster in her family’s eyes. She had not only mental scars but physical scars to remind her constantly of how our fear can become hate, how taking the risk of choosing to be herself can lead to choosing death.

In the middle of these two speakers was a woman who lost everything, no severance, no financial stability because they were due to the man she no longer was. She spent 35 years in what she had described as non-authentic way of life. The journey she now faces is strengthened every day by the reality that it is has gone from that inner phobia and outer fear to authenticity and respect for herself.

Our Continued Learning

I have walked with the United Church as we gradually in the late 60’s and 70’s began to affirm that we do indeed have physical bodies, with physical needs, and strong physical feelings. At that time we began to talk about being physically “In God’s Image…Male and Female”. And then we took all the unrest about this incredible discovery of our physicality as creations of body, mind, emotion and soul, and we wrote an affirmation of human sexuality titled, “Gift, Dilemma and Promise”. It was one of the first ever statements on human sexuality created by a Christian denomination. Those who read believed we meant it, and the doors were open finally for homosexual persons to emerge into the light of acceptance.

Understanding transgenderism is the natural next step. Events like this one at Churchill Park United might, should, and could be happening in churches across our nation. Maybe they are, and I am just out of touch. I hope so. I hope to God they are!

Questions will confront and confound and they should. Science and medicine have come a long way. Where does our understanding of God fit in all of this reality of change? Values, ethics, morals are a part of this, but this is not a debate to be had about us and them. This is all of us, our friends and family and neighbours.

It was a brave workshop, a brave day. It can happen again and again in all our churches and communities and if it does, I predict that attendance will grow.

We would like to acknowledge the funding provided by Winnipeg Presbytery (The United Church of Canada) Church Development Inc. (CDI) and The United Church of Canada Foundation Seeds of Hope Grant Program.

Don’t Miss Skylight 2016!!

Get your summer renewal at the the Skylight Festival, July 29-31.

Music, justice, faith, and spirituality organizers invite you to the Paris, Ontario fairgrounds for the second annual Skylight Festival event. Day and weekend passes are available.

Skylight features musical performances, workshops, speaking events, and worship led by dynamic Canadian and international speakers and facilitators. Join diverse participants in sharing, eating together, and co-creating this creative beloved community event.

“I will be modelling what we are hoping will be an expanded worship experience – modelled after the Skylight Festival format. As someone who has been struggling with “what to do with Jesus” in a search of a relevant way to share a vital message that is timeless, I feel almost relieved. I have an expanded path now. Very exciting!”- Skylight attendee 2015

Headliners include: Raheel Raza, award-winning journalist, speaker and activist; John Bell, worship animator from the Iona community; Peterson Toscano, queer Quaker performance artist and scholar; the Rt. Rev. Mark MacDonald, the Anglican Church of Canada’s National Indigenous Anglican Bishop; and Romal Tune, American author of God’s Graffiti: Inspiring Stories for Teens and motivational speaker devoted to Redemptive Storytelling. See www.skylightfestival.ca for a fuller listing, camping / accommodation and registration details.

“As an LGBTQ person, it felt so good to be in an environment that I could completely
be myself in without having to ‘modify’ how I usually am in public. It was freeing! I loved that it
felt like a very open, accepting, non-judgmental environment.”  – Skylight attendee 2015

Skylight is organized by a small ecumenical group of people passionate about arts, faith and justice in partnership with the United Church of Canada’s EDGE

Network for Ministry Development. The United Church Foundation is a supporter.

Organizers were inspired by the Greenbelt Festival in the UK and the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina.

The festival is intentionally inclusive and everyone is welcome. Contact organizers if finances are a concern.

They’re longing to meet you!

Spring has Sprung, Gardens are Growing!

Emmanuel Church in Ottawa is not only eating what the church’s garden yields, but wants to try growing all the produce needed for church events.

Janet Mark Wallace, chair of the church’s social justice committee, says the hope may sound grand or overwhelming, but the steps towards it have been tiny, while the benefits to date for various ministries are already huge.

The church’s garden is part of a larger vision to explore how the United Church of Canada’s Seven Pillars of Food Sovereignty, which draws connections between land, who grows food, and who eats it, can enliven all ministries.

“We hope to become a model of how faith communities can strengthen their ecological and cultural ties to the wider city by recognizing the sacredness of food,” says Wallace.

The church garden has now seasonally yielded radishes, peas, beets, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, onions, carrots, parsley, beans, basil, and potatoes.    Last year, the church installed a shade pergola.   But Wallace notes it all started with “two raised planting beds, two rain barrels, some free compost, and two kids.”

In addition, instead of simply being inspired to plan discrete local food projects like the garden, the church has put money where its mouth is and hired students as Local Food Procurement Coordinators.

For two summers, the students have been responsible for sourcing local food for events, building relationships with local food growers, minimizing waste, and encouraging cross-generational food events.

Wallace says the church found that a batch-cooking day appeals to many ages, and is wonderful for physical and community and health.

The United Church Foundation’s Seeds of Hope program, plus other funding bodies, supported the local food leadership roles.