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.

The grateful listener writes it down

Yes, I’ve started a blog. But why?
I was born in Saint John N.B. to a Lebanese father and an Irish mother, in a tight-knit community where such marriages were not unusual. I grew up with great Lebanese feasts, Irish stews and boiled dinners, danced Dabke, (traditional Lebanese dance), listened to the high pitched ululation of the women when we partied, and then sang “When Irish Eyes are smiling.” I am deeply proud of my community and heritage.

LP Cover -Port SAID

For the past 40 years I have worked among various people whose lives are to a great measure marked by poverty and exclusion. I would like to think that in many meaningful ways I have been able to make positive contributions to their lives.

What I know for sure is that my life has been unmeasurably enriched by the very people I felt so compelled -even called – to journey with. From Coldbrook in Nova Scotia, to Saint John and Chicago and these past 30 plus years at Yonge Street Mission, I am the beneficiary of good and precious gifts that God’s people so freely bestowed on me.

During my term as the Mission’s CEO, through 25 years of teaching at Tyndale and in countless Sunday Sermons, conferences, consults and intimate conversations I have been expected to be the expert. Instead I found myself simply sharing understanding and insight learned from shelterless and homeless youth, Mission community members and more than one Melchizedek who has passed through my life.

I learned what I know from people who, in the midst of extreme need and even brokenness, find the capacity for love and grace, people who are as generous with the abundant wisdom they have acquired as they are with the little they possess. I can never find the language to express my gratitude to them and to God for the countless good gifts they have bestowed upon me.


The book of James boldly declares that “Every good and perfect gift” comes from God. Thus Tobits. In Hebrew it is ṭôbīyāh meaning God (is) my good. My name is a variation of the name; Tobias. In the Hebrew it is Toviyah and means the goodness of God.
The Book of Tobit is part of the Catholic and Orthodox biblical canon.

Tobias and the Angel at the River Tigris – pen drawing by Rembrandt c. 1650/52

It was one of the “undisputed” books that was included in what would become the Christian Bible and until the Protestant Reformation it was for all Christians “the Word of God.” Indeed it was included in the first edition of the 1611 King James Bible.

Whether it should be treated as scripture or not; I am not scholar enough to know. But I like the play on my name. I love the affirmation that God is my good and that God gives good gifts —  the written Scriptures, and the people of God who we describe as the poor, who inspire and enlighten me.

It is worth noting that I am a minister, a care-giver. Thus this will be the reflection, meditation of one whose life has been spent with people. While I teach, I am not an academic and when I address issues of Compassion and Justice, I speak simply as a practitioner who is still learning his craft.

My hope is that the good gifts I have received will come together in this blog and be helpful to others who journey with the poor, have committed themselves to justice and who seek to discover the abundant life that is promised to all by the Mighty God the very Creator of heaven and earth.

– Rick Tobias

“Banat Iskandaria” (Girls of Alexandria) from the LP Port Said: Music of the Middle East by Mohammed El Bakkar and His Oriental Ensemble (1957). This LP rarely left the stereo in my childhood home and it still stirs my Lebanese roots. – RT

Doing their Part: The Rev. Dr. Robert C. (Bob) BerryBob Berry

For all intents and purposes, my journey of faith began in Nov of 1969. On my almost half-century journey, I remain grateful for the many amazing people who have come into my life; most often as a good gift from a good God.

Perhaps the first such person was Bob Berry. Bob became my first pastor before I showed any interest in even having a pastor. Bob was the minister at Forest Hills Baptist Church at a time when drugs and parties consumed my life.  He says that although working with youth in the ’60s had unique challenges, it was adventuresome and gave him great joy. His illustrious life and ministry is legendary among Canadian Baptists.

Bob befriended me, kept me out of jail, guided me into adulthood and has remained a friend and mentor to me for five decades.  How different my life might have been had he not befriended me! Today Bob is in his 80s and is concerned that too many elders want to escape responsibility and drift into retirement. He continues to nurture and support many younger leaders in Atlantic Canada and beyond. I still covet our time together.

Without Bob’s influence my life journey might never have started. So this first announced blog post is dedicated to my good friend, pastor and mentor, The Rev. Dr. Robert C. (Bob) Berry.

Thanks Bob.

– RT

Jesus – Shelterless, not homeless

shelterless not homeless
There was no room in the Inn. Jesus was born into what had to be a vermin-infested den for animals. We can paint whatever images of shelterlessness we want and they will be true of Jesus birth. And only friends who have been truly shelterless, not for a day or week, but for a season can understand the harshness of the reality for Jesus without shelter.

Yet Jesus was not born homeless. His mom and earthly dad stood by him. His immediate heavenly family, God in heaven and the Holy Spirit, made sure extended family were there to welcome him. Angels announced his birth and lit the skies. Did the angels who sang “Gloria” hover over the stable? I wonder, did Jesus the Baby feel his family’s love as he lay in that hovel.

I think the distinction is important. Shelterlessness is bad but to be outside the love and support of family, even our earthly somewhat dysfunctional families, is worse. Maybe it is THE worst. For all who have family, even the “messed-up” variety, let us be grateful this Christmas. We have been given an amazing gift.

Jesus’ birth was not about homelessness. His death, however – now that was all about homelessness. He cried out “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Even as his mother and friends stood by and watched, Jesus died alone and outside the comfort of his heavenly family. In the worst moment of his earthly existence, Jesus is truly homeless. He is on his own. How appropriate.

At Christmas, I have shelter. May I remember, in tangible ways all who are houseless. At Christmas, I have home. May I remember, in tangible ways, all who are “family-less” – that is to say, all who do not belong and are without home. We can sing with the angels, rejoice with wise men and still stand beside the shelterless and homeless of the earth

– Rick Tobias

The first Christmas card

first christmas card

The idea of sending Christmas Cards came from Sir Henry Cole in 1843. The first card cost about 1 shilling, a tidy sum of money in those days. Together with his friend, artist John Horsley, they designed and sold about 1,000 cards, in part to encourage people to use Britain’s new Postal Service.

Interestingly the two side panels show people feeding and clothing “the poor,” while the center panel shows a family at Christmas dinner. Celebration and compassion were always meant to be hyphenated to each other. This is a tradition that dates back to ancient Israel where the people believed that God expected, even commanded, that widows, orphans, aliens and “the poor” were included in and provided for during all national feasts.

In these last few days before Christmas please remember and support Yonge Street Mission and others as they endeavor to include the excluded and care for Torontonians who know want. May our abundance of Blessings spill out to all during these Holy Days.

– Rick Tobias