Longing for the embrace

charis-nativity-2016Embrace and inclusion, for me, represent the highest manifestation of our aspiration to be a just society. We can do many things to pursue that aspiration but for me, the acid test of justice actualized is embrace: Do we belong to each other? Are we a people together? Are we inclusive?

The Nativity story is infused with the spirit of inclusiveness. Mary demonstrates it as she welcomes “shepherds” into her primitive delivery room. Shepherds, anonymous, impoverished, and of the lowest possible status were considered culturally unclean and excluded from the community and its religious life. Imagine such a group showing up at your house for Christmas or for the birth of your child.

And while they wouldn’t appear for a year or more, eventually came the Magi, the “wise men” with their gifts both valuable and symbolic. They were, perhaps, even more distant from Mary and Joseph’s world than the Shepherds, rich guys who could afford a speculative vacation, with a newborn King as the end of their vision quest. They were culturally and socially removed from every other person in the Holy Family’s life. Yet there they are, hanging with the carpenter’s family on our Christmas cards.

Then of course there was the Little Drummer Boy. (No there wasn’t! But wouldn’t it be nice if he had been?)

So, the cast includes shepherds and magi, the poor and rich, Jewish, and perhaps Zoroastrian, the unwanted and the cherished. They are drawn together by a birth. And Mary and Joseph have the capacity to welcome all into their space. That is embrace; and speaks to their inclusive spirit.

I like to think that, had the Shepherds and Magi arrived at the same time, Joseph would have offered them the chance to sit together over some bread and curds, and created a safe, welcoming space for both.

Christmas might be the most inclusive time of the year in Toronto. This is my 34th Christmas at the Mission and I am in love with the way that Christmas still brings people together. Our city’s poorest and richest, people from every imaginable nation and culture come to YSM to give and to receive. They come to share and be part of something bigger than their fears, resentments, prejudices and judgements. Collectively, we stand together for a better city and world. We belong, we care and we contribute to the good of all.

And the YSM gathering is strikingly diverse.

People who lean far to the left and others who lean far to the right; the very rich and they very poor; people whose judgemental nature or religious beliefs often lead them to exclude others; people who are either ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ whatever’s being debated; people who openly bleed from the deep wounds on their soul and others who mask wounds and silently suffer alone; groups and cultures who may disdain each other – all stand shoulder-to-shoulder in our food room or toy store, rising above differences to work for a higher good: together they bring their own gold, frankincense and myrrh and for a moment, enter an aspirational realm that seems unattainable from January through November.

This inclusive moment is no less real, even if for the rest of the year we may not readily like or tolerate each other. For a moment, like Mary and her visitors, we connect; we are Christmas people living in the hope of a more compassionate, just and inclusive city. For a moment, just as in your favorite Christmas card, we stand together around a poor born child and commit ourselves to break down so many walls of division and choose, for a moment, to be together for the good of all.

Ain’t it great? Imagine if we could do it year ‘round.

Merry Christmas … Rick

Remember Yonge Street Mission all year

While all of us respond to people’s needs more readily at this time of year, human need is a year-round reality. Yonge Street Mission’s community engages people experiencing “need” 365 days a year. Thank you for remembering the Mission this Christmas. Please remember our work throughout the remainder of the year. Thank you for your friendship, connectedness and generosity.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

This is the official music video for O Come, O Come Emmanuel from Anna Hawkins’ latest album Divine. Filmed in Israel in the desert and streets of Jerusalem. Anna Hawkins is from New Zealand where she has become a local sensation with two CDs to her credit. I just recently found her music and quite like it. Again Merry Christmas and a blessed 2017…. Rick

Inspire Justice – It’s Our Calling

homeless waliking in a mystic place

First published March 29, 2016   Republished April 4, 2016 for technical reasons.

JEREMIAH 22:15+16…..Did not your father (King Josiah) eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. “He pled the cause of the oppressed (aniy) and the dependent (ebyown); Then it was well. Is not that what it means to know Me?” Declares the LORD.

I had the good fortune to attend the Inspire Justice Conference in Halifax last October. What a great name for a conference and what a great job description for each of us. It drew me back to the story of King Josiah who may have been Israel’s foremost reformer King. He was the King who declared his loyalty to “ancient scriptures” (2Ki 23:2), called his people back to their historic worship and feasts, and then called the nation to justice and righteousness.

The text contains much more but I am drawn to the juxtaposition of Josiah’s capacity to enjoy the good things that had come his way, and his commitment to plead the cause of the poor.

Josiah may have been Israel’s greatest reformer and King but he was no John the Baptist, living off raw honey and locusts. Josiah was known to banquet or feast. Today we might say; “Wasn’t your dad a party animal?” The language in the Jer. 22:15 may well suggest he consumed too much. He enjoyed the life that his wealth and position afforded.

I like that about him. I am drawn to a reformer who had the capacity to live large and still care for people living in desperation.

I also like that he seems to have made peace with his privilege and his calling. In my early years at YSM when personal money was truly tight, I could pretend that in the divide between the rich and poor, I stood more with the poor — not truly impoverished, but poor enough, and clearly not nearly affluent. That ended when I realized I could buy a $2 slice of pizza at any time, and would go home to a warm bed, when many people I knew could not. I realized that even in Toronto the difference between being rich or poor was simply “enough.” If you had “enough” you were rich and I had enough. I wasn’t affluent like a king or even a mayor but I did get to banquet with family and friends, my life eventually allowed for luxuries such as a trailer on the east coast and a motorcycle for the sheer joy of riding.

This dance between abundance and justice gets to the heart of questions such as “How much is enough”? and manifests itself in concerns like “How much should I give?” or “How much can I earn?” or “How much may I keep for myself?” Josiah does not comment on those questions: we simply are told that he lived well and invested himself in the well-being of the poor, with no contraction between the two.

bigstock-Asking-for-help--a-homeless-m-28914638 cropped.jpg
“ebyown – the dependent poor”

He pled the cause of the oppressed poor and the dependent poor. The Hebrew word aniy is the most frequently used word in the Hebrew scripture to describe the poor. They are the people who are poor by virtue of being politically or systemically oppressed, as well as individuals who have been personally violated, assaulted or victimized. Israel is oppressed while enslaved in Egypt as is King David’s daughter Tamar who had been raped by her half-brother.

On the other end of the spectrum the Hebrew word ebyown refers to the dependent poor, not unlike the beggar who sat and solicited alms in front of the temple or the welfare recipients of our world. They are people who depend on the charity of others for their survival. There may be many reasons for dependency, including victimization, or illness or one might simply have learned how to be dependent.

Aniy and ebyown bookend a number of types of poverty outlined in the scriptures and when used together might well convey the full range of people living with poverty. That would suggest that King Josiah advocated for “all the poor”.

It would be easy to paint Josiah as living the high life while pleading with others to be charitable and then to assume this is nothing more than the audacious trumpeting of the guilt ridden. However the text informs us that he did justice and lived righteously: before he pled the cause, he worked for justice.

I think he worked to ensure that the laws were fair for the poor and rightly applied to their lives. I think he pled their cause before the courts and I think he advocated for charitable attitudes on the part of the self-sufficient.

In the end “pled” is a legal term: Josiah was the Advocate General for the poor. He championed their life and rights. Interestingly the text ends with a very tough rhetorical question: Is this not what it means to know me declares the Lord. The questions equates pleading the cause of the poor to knowing God. It blatantly asserts that to know God is to champion the cause of the poor. So maybe the question is not about how big I live but rather to what degree am I invested in obtaining justice for the oppressed and dependant..

 – Blessings … Rick Tobias

Josiah was also a religious reformer who called his people back to their God.  Neshama Carlebach and the Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir sing “Return Again,” by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (Neshama’s dad.) God’s constant invitation to us is to return.

Doing Their Part

Doing their part is a way for me to show appreciation for people I’ve met who have been influential over me (and often many others), or who simply are impressively committed, insightful or effective in pursuing compassion and justice.    

Gerald Vandezande  Gerry Vandeznade

When I arrived in Toronto in 1983, Gerald Vandezande was a well-known Christian leader and social advocate. He had launched and championed the Christian Labour Association of Canada and was instrumental in the development and ministry of Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ).

Since 1963 CPJ has been speaking out for public justice across Canada. They have promoted a Christian view of the government, worked to create a moratorium on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, and have spoken to issues from social policy, to recycling, tax reform, child poverty, First Nations’ rights, refugees and the environment.

The Christian justice movement in Canada stands on Gerald’s shoulders. All across this nation, people involved in community development, social advocacy and human rights initiatives – many who have never heard Gerry’s name  – are nonetheless deeply indebted to his foundational justice work that has shaped our lives and ministries.

When I was a younger leader he never missed a chance to praise and encourage me in my work. He supported the initiatives of many young leaders including the Street Level movement to bring young justice workers together for mutual support and training. We knew he was a big deal, but he acted like we were the big deal. He always insisted I should write: finally, here in this blog, I am attempting to comply.

Gerald passed away in 2011 and I still would be hard pressed to find a compassionate or justice oriented leader who is not in his debt. Gerald, thank you for showing us the way to be Christians committed to the rights and well-being of all.

– RT

Read more about CPJ here. http://www.cpj.ca/

The right face of the Peace Tower


The Mark of a Great Leader

Psalm 72 is as close as Canada gets to an official Scripture. It is from Ps. 72 that Sir Leonard Tilley suggested we be called the Dominion of Canada when the Fathers of Confederation met in 1864. In 1921 “from sea to sea” became part of our coat of arms (also from Ps. 72).

But the Psalm should be important to us because it calls on leaders to become champions or advocates for the poor. It says such things as

May he (the King) vindicate the afflicted (oppressed poor) of the people,

May he save the children of the needy (the dependent poor)

Crush the oppressor (people or institutions that prey on, victimize or hurt the poor).

In Canada it would be the Prime Minister who, biblically, the first responsibility to be the champion and defender of low-income Canadians.
Beyond this, the King/Prime Minister is not simply to do this because it is duty or law. The Psalm suggests that “the blood of the poor is precious in his sight.”

“Blood” speaks to the essential life force and in more modern language means that “the life or lives of the poor is precious to the leader”, precious like our own children, like the love of our life, like the people, places and things we value most – and, dare I say, precious like our faith. The poor are to be highly valued by all leaders but especially by the leader of our nation.
As we move to elect national leadership and a Prime Minister we should be asking are the poor precious/valuable in their sight.

-Rick Tobias