How the Canada Summer Jobs Application Form is Affecting a Saint John Non-Profit

HOW THE CANADA SUMMER JOBS APPLICATION FORM IS AFFECTING A SAINT JOHN NON-PROFIT. Its remarkable how something as prosaic and mundane as a government application form— crafted, as I imagine, by staid government bureaucrats toiling away somewhere in an Ottawa office tower— can be fodder for such divisive public debate. But here we are, roughly a month into the “kerfuffle” surrounding the Canadian Summer Jobs application form and— although media coverage has ebbed to a trickle— emotions still run high. The controversial addition to this form would require the organization requesting funding to make the following attestation; namely that, “both the job and the organization’s core mandate respect… reproductive rights and the right to be free from discrimination…” Lest the applicant remain unclear about what precisely constitutes “reproductive rights,” the accompanying guide provides the necessary clarification: “The government recognizes that women’s rights are human rights. This includes sexual and reproductive rights — and the right to access safe and legal abortions.”

Much of the public resistance to the new form centres around one particularly troublesome phrase: “core mandate”— a phrase suggesting that an adherence to pro-choice principles would be a necessary prerequisite for receiving funding. However, as the Liberal Government eventually clarified, the phrase “core mandate,” does not refer to matters of belief but, rather, matters of practice. A church or a para-church organization can, for example, hold pro-life views so long as its primary or “core” set of services does not “seek to remove or actively undermine these existing rights.”
Despite the most recent clarifications, there is much that still irks me about what the Liberal Government is doing with the Canada Summer Jobs application form. However, being the plodding and methodical thinker that I am, I don’t feel that I’m currently in a place where I can fully articulate precisely why I believe much of this to be problematic. What I would like to do is share with you how the Summer Jobs Application controversy has and likely will affect a local, non-profit Christian organization for whom I have a great deal of respect. That organization is the Pregnancy Resource Centre (PRC)— an organization which, although adhering to the belief that human life has intrinsic value from conception to natural death, is in no way engaged in any form political lobbying or activism. It’s my belief that— according to the terms spelled out in the CSJ application form— there is absolutely no reason why they should be denied funding for the hiring of summer students.

The Pregnancy Resource Centre of Saint John works under the umbrella of a national organization called the Canadian Association of Pregnancy Support Services (CAPSS)— an organization which has deliberately disavowed all political activity such as lobbying, distributing flyers, protesting and marching. (Individuals within CAPSS-affiliated centres may have participated in events like the March for Life in Ottawa but only as private citizens with the democratic right to do so. However, CAPSS prohibits its affiliate centres themselves from engaging in any form of political activity). CAPSS also prohibits the display of any graphic images of aborted fetuses when working with clients. Their stated aim is simply to support vulnerable women during the course of their pregnancy, after the birth of the child, after their miscarriage and, indeed (should it happen) even after their abortion.

The vast majority of women and couples seeking support from the PRC (roughly 80% according to their director, Anna Steeves) have already decided to keep their baby or are currently parenting. For these women, the PRC provides the very helpful and non-controversial services such as providing supplies (diapers, baby clothes, personal care items, etc.) and parenting classes. A smaller number of clients (roughly 20%) are unsure about their future and do not know whether or not to carry their babies to full term. These clients— if they choose— can undergo a process known as “options mentoring” whereby they are encouraged, in a clear, systematic manner, to think about (1) their own personal values, (2) their present life circumstances and (3) the interplay between the two. For some women, the end result of this discernment process might be the decision to get an abortion. For others, it might be to carry the baby to full term. (For an example of a couple that has made the latter decision, I would highly encourage you to watch their story here [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QeIzVgnz5y8&t=1s].

This process is by no means tainted by leading questions, subtle manipulations, shaming tactics or guilt. Not only would such an approach be unethical but it would also undermine the long-term mission of the PRC. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned after four years of ministry in a tightly knit, economically impoverished neighbourhood it’s this: building trust with the community you’re serving is absolutely crucial. If the PRC were to employ questionable tactics in their approach to serving women then, believe me, the people of this neighbourhood would talk. They would share their bad experiences with one another and, eventually, the PRC would be smeared with the reputation of being an organization staffed by judgemental and uncaring people (indeed, the very opposite of their actual reputation). Furthermore, the use of heavy handed tactics would prevent the PRC from fulfilling another important dimension of their mandate; namely, offering meaningful post-abortion care to their clients. Why, after all, would a woman who has undergone an abortion return to an organization to address any uncomfortable or complicated feelings if her initial experience with the staff was difficult and unpleasant?

In addition to the dignity and respect that they consistently demonstrate to their clients, the PRC is also very transparent. All of the clients who enter their doors are informed, right at the outset, that they are a Christian organization with the mission of serving people facing pregnancy-related challenges— not a medical facility with trained, medical staff. Clients are further told that the PRC does not make referrals to abortion clinics— a fact that one can quickly learn by simply scanning their public website. And, although the PRC has employed at least two licensed, professional counsellors over the years, they even state that they are not an actual counselling service.

Although I cannot speak for every last organization working under the CAPPS umbrella, everything that I know about the Pregnancy Resource Centre of Saint John leads me to believe that they are staffed by caring women who perform their mission with conscientiousness and integrity. They do excellent work in our community and, for this reason, any federal money sent their way would be put to good use.

Yet last year— when the Pregnancy Resource Centre of Saint John applied for funding to hire a summer student— they were denied. At the time, the reasons for this denial weren’t entirely clear. They had, after all, been relying on grant money to hire students for several summers in a row, without ever experiencing a hitch. Since then, however, the government has made the controversial new additions to the Canada Summer Jobs application form, spelling out— in black and white terms— exactly who is and who isn’t eligible for funding. Having read the documents very clearly (and believe me, I have) I cannot fathom why this year the PRC and organizations like it would be denied a grant to hire a summer student should they apply for grant. If it is true that the recently added attestation does not discriminate against Canadians on the basis of their conscience, then the PRC should be entitled to receive the necessary federal funding to hire a summer student.

 

By Terence Chandra

On Being Called a Racial Slur

I have very high standards when it comes to defining what actually constitutes an act of racism. Mounting a reasoned critique of the fairness and efficacy of affirmative action is, in my opinion, not racism. Objecting to certain elements of the Liberal Party’s refugee policy is, in my opinion, not racism. Likewise, meeting me for the first time, noting that I’m a visible minority and asking me about my country of origin is also not racism. (My standard answer to that question, if you’re interested, is this: “I was born in Fredericton but my parents emigrated from the Caribbean in the late ‘60s. Where is your family from?”). In fact, I’ll go on the record as saying that I find this notion of “micro aggressions” (Google it if you don’t know what I’m talking about) to be, at the very least, petty. However, telling me that my application to a certain job will not be considered simply because I’m brown is clearly a textbook act of racism. And, unsurprisingly, so is the act of using some vulgar racial slur to describe me.

 
I’ve experienced the latter a handful of times throughout the course of my life although, admittedly, never to my face. Rather, I always hear about it second hand. Do you know what so-and-so said about you?” a friend or colleague might say. “He actually said that you’re a ‘f***ing [insert racial slur here]!’ ”

 
I’m not exactly sure why people feel the need to keep me apprised on such things. One of my best friends from high school often made it a point to report back to me on some bigoted remark his uncle occasionally directed my way. On one occasion, I remember repeatedly insisting that I didn’t want to hear it— that I’d much prefer to remain ignorant— but, smiling, he insisted on telling me, implying by his oddly prurient tone that I ought to find his relative’s prejudices somehow amusing. (I did not).

 
For whatever reason, I’ve noted a slight uptick in these experiences recently. At least three times within the last couple of years, various people have reported back to me regarding some vulgar slur that others have been using to describe me. So, in case you were wondering, I’ll tell you what it’s like (for me, anyway) to be on the receiving end of these racial slurs.

 
Imagine, if you will, that you’re walking down the street, heading off on some mundane errand when, unbeknownst to you, a stranger approaches you from behind and, without warning, smacks you in the back of the head. Immediately, you’re stunned and disoriented. What happened? Where did it come from? Was it accidental or deliberate? A playful act of mischief from a friend or the first salvo of an attack from an enemy? This— to an admittedly lesser degree— is my immediate emotional response to finding out that somebody has referred to me by some hateful racial slur. Initially, at least, I’m so shocked by the viciousness and temerity of the insult that I’m left frozen and disoriented— unsure of what to say or do. And, strangely enough, there’s something hopeful to take from this reaction. What it says is this: Overtly racist insults are so rare in our culture that they are indeed shocking when they actually happen. If I were to remain nonplussed by every racial taunt thrown my way then it could be said that our culture is indeed steeped in racism, not unlike the Jim Crow south when the N word was used so casually and contemptuously by whites. Thankfully, things are not so here.

 
Once the shock wears off, however, I’m left with two emotions: outrage and suspicion. I am outraged that another person (a stranger or acquaintance, friend or a parishioner) would smear me with such a dehumanizing epithet. I am outraged that to them I was never truly a neighbour— a living human being formed in the image of God and bearing his divine likeness. Instead, in their mind, I was nothing more than a representative of some alien identity group— in short, a “f***ing [insert racial slur here].” At this point, if I am not diligent enough in prayer— if I am not mindful enough of our Lord’s call to enemy love— I can easily slide into a state of prolonged bitterness and resentment.

 
It’s the second emotion, however, that is the most insidious of all; namely, suspicion. The logic of this emotional reaction goes something like this: If I see one mouse scurrying around in the pantry, chances are there are more of them in my house aside from the one that I’ve actually identified. I’m sure you get the idea but, just in case you don’t, let me connect the dots. Just because I know for certain of one person within my community who harbours some kind of racial prejudice toward me doesn’t mean that he or she is the only one. Indeed, in all likelihood, there are more of them. The question is, where? Take, for example, that middle-aged woman who was rude to me in the checkout line. Was she having a bad day at work or did she resent the fact that I— a brown guy— had the gall to be, not only in her country, but in front of her in grocery queue? That surly old man who works at the parking booth: Does he have an ornery disposition towards everyone or just me? And if just me, is it because of my race? Do you see how this messes with your head? Needless to say, If I were to let myself, I could potentially grow fearful and suspicious of all my white neighbours— even the vast majority of them who find racism just as vile and detestable a thing as I do. This is why racism is such a socially corrosive force— it compels us to hunker down in our identity groups, fearful and suspicious of those who are not, superficially at least, like us.

 
There is, however, something that we can all do about this. Let me put it this way: the next time someone informs that, behind my back, I was referred to by some racial slur, I will say something like this to them: “When you heard such language directed against me, you were in a unique position to defend me as your friend— to ‘re-humanize’ somebody who has clearly been hatefully caricatured in someone else’s mind. Did you take that opportunity or did you remain silent? Furthermore, when you heard somebody use caustic and bigoted language that you know to be socially corrosive, you were in a unique position to call your neighbour to a higher standard of speech— in short, to stand against racism. Did you take that opportunity or did you remain silent?”

 
Perhaps the answer to this question might be, “Sorry, I didn’t say a thing.” Believe it or not, this is understandable. After all, as I’ve already suggested above, being stunned into silence is a perfectly legitimate INITIAL response to words of race hatred that (from my subjective experience, at least) are now relatively rare in twenty-first century, Canadian society. Note, however, that I emphasize the word “initial.” Once the shock has worn off, I would urge you to get in touch with your friend or family member and make clear exactly why you possess moral objections to their clearly prejudicial sentiments. If you do not possess the courage to at least do this then, to be blunt, I would find it difficult to call you a friend.

 
Of course, I’m not saying that you should police your neighbours over every aspect of their use of language, scolding them for saying “coloured person” instead of “person of colour.” What I am saying is this: When a friend or family member uses some ugly, dehumanizing slur in reference to me or anyone else you care about then, please, voice your opposition. Whether it changes the person’s mind or not isn’t really the point. It is, however, tremendous reassurance to people like me who are reminded that, while there are racists in this world, there are many more like you who are, in the words of Martin Luther King, willing to judge people “not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”

 

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Living Amidst the Tombs: Mental Illness among the Homeless of Saint John

Robert* is a thirty-five year-old schizophrenic man whom I first met through my volunteer work at the homeless shelter. With his well groomed, neatly trimmed beard, fashionable glasses and intelligent gaze, he did not fit my stereotype of what a homeless, mentally ill man is supposed to look like. It was only by observing his behaviour that I came realize that Robert wasn’t well at all. Pacing back and forth between the long rows of tables, Robert would mutter to himself, carrying on an internal discourse with the voices in his head. At times, he seemed to be on good terms with these inner voices, chuckling merrily at some secret joke that only he could hear. At other moments, his tone would grow harsh and scolding— so much so that I began to worry that his anger might erupt into some physical act of violence. Thankfully, though, he kept his cool throughout the course of that night.

 
In the weeks that followed, Robert became a staple feature of my ministry in this city. I would see him at the Men’s Shelter and at the Romero House soup kitchen; at our church services and at our free laundry program. He even became a regular at our weekly, Thursday afternoon drop-in program. I vividly remember one time when he came to our drop-in, sat down at one of the tables and picked up a small container of plasticine clay that my son had been playing with several days earlier. Then, using the lump of plasticine, he moulded the effigy of a small man— a man with whom he proceeded to carry on a conversation for up to  half-an-hour. It was only after he began to grow angry with his creation (and, presumably, his creation with him) that I felt the need to intervene by diverting his attention to other things.
Over the course of a few weeks I was gradually able to, in piecemeal fashion, put together a general sketch of Robert’s current status in life. He was not originally from our town. Rather, he came here only recently from another city in the Maritimes— a city where his parents, along with most of his friends and relatives, continue to reside. What drew him here was a girl whom he had met online. However, for several reasons (not the least of which being his mental illness) this relationship didn’t last. Eventually, he found himself alone, unhoused and unemployed— a man with a severe mental illness trying to make his way in a city where he had little or no natural supports. For a time, he was utterly adrift. Then, after disappearing from our radar for several weeks, we finally learned that he had returned to his hometown, presumably to live with his parents and reconnect with his natural support system. From time to time, I remember to pray for him.

 
In the course of our ministry in the inner city, Jasmine and I have met a number of people like Robert— men and women who, due in part to severe mental illness, have ended up living on the outskirts of society. Perhaps you’ve seen them yourself. They amble along sidewalks, loiter on street corners and huddle within bus shelters. Some panhandle; some stare blindly into space. They are, in a purely physical sense, alive. But to the people who pass by— people with schedules to keep, responsibilities to attend to, families to look after— they are little more than ghosts, phantoms that can be either attended to or ignored at will. They don’t live in this city so much as they seem to haunt it.

 
Here, I’m reminded of a certain character from the gospels. This character has no name although he is sometimes referred to as the Gerasene Demoniac — a violently possessed man, shunted to the outskirts of the little seaside village that should have been his home. The picture that the gospel writers paint of him is horrifying: “He lived among the tombs,” Mark writes in his Gospel. “And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain… Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones” (Mark 5:3-5).

 
This is the stuff of nightmares. I envision him as gaunt and thin yet supernaturally strong, his eyes wide with terror and rage, his flesh marred by ugly, self-inflicted gashes. Skulking alone in this lonely place of death, he is a figure that inspires both pity and dread in equal measure. Indeed, for some of us, he may illicit the same response as people like Robert. No, I don’t mean to suggest that the Gerasene demoniac was really mentally ill instead of demon possessed. Nor do I wish to suggest the opposite: that the people of today with severe mental illness are really suffering from some kind of demonic oppression. What I do wish to suggest is this: both the man from this story and our neighbours suffering from severe mental illness do have at least one thing in common. They both illicit great fear and discomfort and, for this reason, are both abandoned— pushed to the margins of society.  Indeed, I know at least a couple of churches and service organizations that banned our friend Robert from being on the premises. Frankly, I don’t blame them given the kind of disturbing behaviour he was capable of exhibiting in public.

 
But, at least with regard to the possessed man from Gergesa, Jesus didn’t leave him to his loneliness and isolation. Instead, he intentionally sought him out— boarding a boat, crossing the Sea of Galilee into gentile country and purposefully approaching him. Although Jesus could have gone anywhere he chose to seek this one lost soul whom everyone else had abandoned in the tombs, in effect, writing him off as already dead.

 
And, no, although I do believe in miracles, I plainly acknowledge that we may not be able to cure them as Jesus did. We may not be able to, with one firm command, silence the legion of voices in their heads, leaving them as Jesus left the man from the tombs— “clothed and in his right mind” (Mark 5:15). But we can, as Jesus did, begin to draw them back into the life of the broader community— inviting them to our church services and programs; connecting them with people and services that could help them and, in short, drawing them into the ordinary world of conversations and laughter, meals and friendship. We can get to know them by name, wave to them when we see them on the street and have supper with them at an Outflow meal. In short, we can treat them as human beings and not as ghosts. We can welcome them as our own rather than abandoning them to the outskirts of community life, left for dead to haunt the tombs.

 

 

* Robert is not the real name of the man I write about in this post and minor changes have been made to his story to obscure his identity.

 

BY TERENCE CHANDRA

The Democracy of the Dead: Reflections on All Saints Day

I know Saint Paul personally.  Or that’s the way it felt roughly fifteen years ago when, for two whole semesters of my theological education, most of my academic reading centred entirely around the Apostle.  That year, whenever I had occasion to preach, I’d invariably base my sermons on excerpts from his epistles.  In preparation for my homilies I’d go through the passages verse-by-verse, studying all the nuances and turns of phrase, often using multiple English translations. And, as I became increasingly versed in his writings, I became increasingly familiar with the man himself— his character and his personality. Even what I thought to be his physical likeness began to coalesce in my imagination.

 
Needless to say, for me Saint Paul was no longer a two-dimensional figure on a stained-glass window; no longer a flat, lifeless image rendered in egg-tempera on an icon board.  Instead, he was a living, breathing man with whom I could, in a manner of speaking, converse and, ultimately, get to know.

 
I remember conveying this experience to a classmate of mine, sharing with him this growing sense that the Apostle Paul truly was my mentor and friend.  He, in turn, shared a story about one of his favourite professors— a Catholic priest and academic who had devoted the better part of his career and the whole of his considerable intellect to the study of a more recent Saint; namely, Saint Thomas Aquinas.  No doubt, this professor had read the Summa Theologica in great detail, studying it in the original Latin, along with the various writings of the saint— his sermons and his correspondence.  When he lectured (so I’m told) he spoke with passion on his subject matter, inspiring within his students something of the same love the for the saint that he himself possessed.
One morning, before wrapping up a lecture, he even told his students that he himself was personally acquainted with Aquinas— an announcement which his students greeted with bored and indifferent stares.
“I don’t think you understand,” he said quietly but more emphatically, his face growing uncharacteristically grave. “I know Thomas Aquinas.  I have spoken to him.  He as spoken to me.”

 
Take this as you will. For now, the only point I wish to make is this: This professor’s ongoing dialogue with Saint Thomas Aquinas along with my ever-growing sense of truly knowing the Apostle Paul gets to the heart of what All Saints Day is all about. For it is on All Saints Day when we remember that the fellowship of believers does not consist merely of the Christians who are presently alive (what the Prayerbook calls “the church militant here on earth”) but the vast, uncountable army of men and women who have followed the way of Christ before us— some canonized saints others, simple, nameless souls whose stories will (on this side of the resurrection, at least) remain entirely obscure. Indeed, I will take this idea yet further. Not only are the saints who have gone before still members of the Body of Christ but they are living members of that body— men and women who speak to us still. I’m not (necessarily) saying that they can speak to us as the Catholic Professor claimed Saint Thomas Aquinas spoke to him— in “real time,” as it were, a living voice whispering in the depths of his soul. But they do speak to us through a variety of, perhaps, more prosaic means: through the stories of their lives told, retold and sometimes embellished. They speak to us in their writings— whether massive theological tomes or brief, intimate epistles to their most trusted companions. They speak to us through their prayers— the prayers which form our liturgy— ancient prayers uttered generation after generation by the lips of pious (and not-so-pious) souls.
The implications of this are grand. For one thing, it means that what we as the church do here and now— in our own time and in our present context— cannot be done without proper consultation with our brothers in sisters in Christ who have gone before us— those who are with us still but whom we see no longer. This is done, in part, by honouring our own tradition— the many layers of tradition which the saints have, from generation to generation before us, established and enriched. For, as G.K. Chesterton once argued, to honour tradition is to give the dead a vote.

 
“Tradition… may be defined as the extension of the franchise,” he states in his book Orthodoxy. “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.”

 
It is on All Saints Day that we are reminded of this truth; namely, that the church universal does not consist merely of us; that is, “the small and arrogant oligarchy” of disciples, still making our way through this earthly life. Rather, it consists also of the vast “cloud of witnesses” that have gone before us— the celestial chorus of apostles, prophets and martyrs whose spirits stand before the very throne of God. Their voices have not been silenced by death. Rather, they live on in their stories, in their writings, in our liturgy and in our traditions. As we make our way through life, we as individual Christians— we, as “the church militant here on earth”— must be mindful of this.

 

By Terence Chandra

Pet Loss, Grieving, and the Church

I’ve never been a pet lover. For one thing, like every other member of my birth family, I have a penchant for neatness and order and couldn’t abide a dog, for example, gnawing away at my loafers or shedding hair all over my furniture. More pertinently, though, is an allergy to pet dander— an allergy severe enough to make living with a dog or cat an experience of unmitigated suffering. In fact, when I was in traditional parish ministry, I would prep myself for visits with pet-owning parishioners by taking enough antihistamines to kill an ordinary man (and even then I got itchy eyes and the sniffles).

 

Be that as it may, I understand the genuine bond that can potentially develop between, say, a man and his beloved Alaskan Husky— a companion who, unlike his human friends, is endlessly forgiving, limitlessly affectionate and a good deal less judgemental. I also understand how the loss this beloved husky— whether by accident, old-age or disease— could be devastating to that owner, yielding a level of grief comparable to the loss of a human friend or family member. In fact, over the course of my ministry, I’ve seen such grief on a number of occasions.

 

Take Maggie, one of my Southend neighbours, for example. For many years, Maggie was “mum” to Kramer— a labrador retriever so named because, in her words, he “busted through the doors the same way Kramer does on Seinfeld.” Kramer came into Maggie’s care when her now adult sons were still children, shortly after her husband had left her.
“The vet said a lady was giving up a black lab and I couldn’t dial the phone fast enough,” Maggie explained in a recent post on Facebook. “I said I’d take him without even meeting him. …I knew the intelligence, the unconditional support, protection and love that a lab could offer his human siblings.”

 

And, true to Maggie’s predictions, Kramer was indeed a source of immense comfort to his “human siblings” (that is, Maggie’s sons). For the entire duration of Kramer’s life he would sleep on the same bed as the oldest son— a warm, furry friend to guard and comfort him during his difficult passage through adolescence. When both boys finally grew up and left the home, Kramer remained, filling an otherwise empty nest with his loyal, canine presence. No wonder, then, that Maggie was devastated when Kramer died. For her, the grief is still very real.

 

“I feel such physical pain,” she continues in her Facebook post. “I feel like the best part of me has left. I cannot stand the silence… I don’t want to ever forget how much I love that dog. I don’t want to be without him and he’s gone.”

 

Over the course of my twelve years as an ordained priest, I can offer several more examples: The grown man from one of my country parishes who sobbed like a little boy after his mentally unstable neighbour, for some inexplicable reason, shot his German shepherd when it wandered too close to his property. Or the middle-aged woman who— after having endured one loss after another— finally lost her cat, a blow which sent her spiralling off into a grief that lasted for weeks. Needless to say, there are a lot of people out there who are in grief over the loss of a pet. Indeed, you yourself might be one of them. And where there is genuine human need, I believe that there is opportunity for church communities like my own to help.

 

Several years ago, a friend of mine reached out to me on Facebook. As it turns out, her dog had died—a companion who had kept her and her family company throughout what were some of the most difficult years of her life. Punctuating her message with several awkward apologies, she hesitatingly asked me if I knew of any priests who performed memorial services for animals. Although, at that time, I hadn’t done a single one I did say that my wife and I would be willing to offer our help if she liked. For whatever reason, she never took me up on that offer. However, in the years that have passed since then, I have had occasion to do a couple of pet memorial services.

 

For the most part, I keep it simple. I sit with the family in their back porch or living room, a framed picture of the animal nearby, perhaps sitting on a coffee table or mantle next to a lit candle. I’ll do a brief reading from the scriptures—perhaps the story of Adam meeting God’s newly created menagerie of beasts, naming them one-by-one and taking responsibility for their care. Or, I’ll do a reading from the New Testament: the Apostle Paul writing in his letter to the Romans about “the groaning of all creation.” Next, I offer a brief reflection on these readings. For the most part, I avoid drawing definitive conclusions about purely speculative issues— the most common and obvious being, “Is my dog in heaven right now?” If a little girls takes some comfort in the fact that Fluffy is in paradise, I’m not going to take that away from her. Then, and most importantly, I’ll give the family a chance to talk—to share their favourite memories of their animal friends. Based on my observations, grief is rarely localized entirely around the lost pet. Rather, this specific grief is linked to a larger, matrix of grief— the loss of a siblings or parents; of homes or pregnancies; of marriages or careers. To bring such loss out into the open—to expose it to the light of day and the hope of resurrection—can bring tremendous healing. Of course, I’ll end the “service” with a prayer of some sort, often inviting the family— especially the children— to take part.

 

This past week, I enjoyed a long chat with my neighbour, Maggie, about how we can reach out to folks in our neighbourhood, struggling with the grief of pet-loss. Could we have an online support group? Could we hold some kind of a get together? We haven’t arrived at any definitive plans yet. In the meantime I want my readers to know that I’m still available to meet with families grieving a lost animal friend and would be more than willing to facilitate some kind of memorial service. However, if you still have living pets in your house, you’re going to have to let me know well in advance. It usually takes about an hour for the allergy medication to kick in.

 

– Terence Chandra

Praying at the Turner-Brewer Memorial in Saint John’s Rainbow Park.

Rainbow park sits near the tip of Saint John’s Southend Peninsula and looks, to someone strolling by, like any inner-city playground. Steel and plastic play structures— their once vibrant colours bleached from two decades worth of wind, rain and sun— rise from levelled plots of sand and gravel. On summer days the smell of chlorine hangs in the air as does the sound of children’s laughter— both the product of the park’s central feature: it’s splash pad. The splash pad is a flat, circular stretch of pavement dominated by a series of decorated pipes through which water is sprayed, sprinkled and dumped. On hot July days, my son will race through it in his bathing suit— the water temperature barely above freezing— then come back to me where I’m picnicking on the grass— collapsing onto the beach towel and wrapping it around his skinny, shivering body. He’ll do it again and again— run, rinse, dry, repeat.

The fact that this park exists in a neighbourhood like this one is certainly a good thing. The circumstances that gave rise to its existence, however, are most emphatically not. For in 1996, just a few blocks from the site where the splash pad presently stands, a two-year old girl named Jacqueline Brewer lived out the final, agonizing days of her short life. If media reports I’ve read are accurate, little Jacquie was confined to her tiny crib for unimaginably long stretches at a time, untouched and ignored— an eternity of loneliness and pain in the nebulous consciousness of so small a child.

To suggest that Jacqueline’s plight was unknown to others, however, would be inaccurate. In truth, a number of people saw the danger that this little girl and her siblings were in; among them, Jacqueline’s aunt who, on a visit from Ontario a few months before the girl’s death, observed the squalid conditions of the tiny, Canterbury St. apartment that constituted her niece’s world. Concerned for the children’s wellbeing, she immediately called social services. Then, not leaving it at that, she made a follow-up visit in person the next day, imploring the agency to take action. Indeed, according to a CBC article http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/lost-children-jackie-profile-1.4018730   a total of 16 such complains had been made to social services regarding the family— complaints that ranged over a time-span of 3 years. Yet, despite all of this— just 8 days before the Christmas of 1996— little Jacqueline died. The official cause of her death was dehydration, a doctor’s report suggesting that she had gone for six whole days without water.

Spurred-on by the tragedy, a group of community volunteers managed to raise enough money for the creation of a park— a park dedicated to the memory of, not only Jacqueline Brewer, but a little boy from the Miramichi (John Ryan Turner) who also died from parental neglect and abuse. Today, the newest feature of the park was added: an arbour and a memorial stone to permanently honour the two children— items that are themselves part of an already existing garden based in the north-western corner of the park. The official instalment of the arbour and memorial stone were of course be a public event— a public event where I was asked to pray.

As you may have gathered from my last blog, prayer is an act with which I am intimately acquainted— a discipline which I have sharpened and honed from years of daily practice. Yet I have to admit, as I readied myself to pray at this public dedication, I felt helpless and thoroughly ill-prepared. Why? Because, at the very heart of this public dedication lies the greatest of horrors— the death of two small children whose short years on earth were replete with suffering and devoid of human affection. As the one giving the prayer, my duty was to speak to the Living God himself on behalf of the community affected by these children’s death— a community of people who (to complicate things still further) include a good number of people who don’t believe in God at all! What could I possibly say that wouldn’t come across as trite, preachy or monstrously naive?

For a while, I contemplated saying nothing— of either declining the invitation to pray or, perhaps, leading my neighbours in a minute of silence. After thinking it over, however, I came to a realization: My tradition does indeed equip me with a way of praying, even in the face of human misery, that utterly scorns all cheap comforts and empty sentimentality. This way of prayer is found in the biblical psalms. Many of these psalms are, of course, joyous hymns of praise but an equal number are anything but: Raw, guttural laments dredged up from the depths of a soul bowed low under the weight of oppressive sorrow and grief; bitter cries of abandonment rising from the hearts of a people who have suffered ruinous loss. Then there are the questions: “How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day?” (Ps. 13:2); “O Lord, why do you reject me? Why do you turn your face from me?” (Ps. 88:14); “How long will the wicked be allowed to gloat?” (Ps. 94:3) “How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a strange land?” (Ps. 137:4). And, of course, the words of our Lord himself, uttered at the peak of his anguish: “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1)

What counts in prayer is honesty. And questions— questions that arise from raw, broken hearts— are far more honest than cold, theological platitudes. “How can a child, surrounded by a world of material abundance, die of dehydration, emaciated and untouched? How could her squalid conditions— seen by so many— go ignored for so long by the only people with the power to intervene? Where were you, O Lord— you who welcomed children into your arms— when these two children were at the height of their anguish?” My duty is not to provide answers. Rather, I must let the questions hang in the sky unanswered like the twisted, gasping, body of the betrayed Messiah, dying on the cross. Then, having given the hard questions their due— having acknowledged the cruel absurdity of these two deaths— I must then cling to the remaining hope as tenaciously as a drowning sailor, his ship smashed by waves, might cling to its scraps in the rolling seas.

For me, as a Christian, that hope is centered in Christ. Admittedly, there are times when it seems like this hope is an extremely fragile thing: Rumours of an empty tomb; strange, conflicting tales about grieving women and angels; whispers of secret, post-mortem reunions in upper rooms. It is hope that hangs from a gossamer thread but it is hope nonetheless. My job, as the one leading this prayer, was to— on behalf of this neighbourhood— take that hope in hand and grip it strong: The hope that death— even the cruel and meaningless death of the innocent— does NOT have the final word; the hope that, even from a tragedy as grave and as dark as this one, new life might come; the hope that, if we work together, children like Jacqueline Brewer and John Ryan Turner will never have to die as they did again.

 

By Terence Chandra

A Brief History of My Prayer Life (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Prayer Book)

Introverts like me take naturally to prayer. We’re comfortable spending long hours in our own heads, working out our problems using our inner selves as sparring partners. What disposition could possibly be more conducive to prayer— an act which is nothing more than a kind of inner-wrestling with a God who— as well as transcending all being— abides in the depths of our psyche as its very fountain and source?

 
It was during a moment of prayer, in the autumn following my graduation from high school, that the shallow faith of my childhood and teenage years finally began to blossom into something deep, mature and lasting. If I recall correctly, I went for a long walk one September evening doing what introverts like me do best: reflecting. And, in fact, I had a lot to reflect upon. For one thing, I was eighteen years old, just graduating high school, and unsure what direction my life might ultimately take. For another I had, just a month earlier, come within a hairs breadth of dying— an experience which, for the first time ever, forced me to seriously contemplate the reality of my own mortality.

 
At first, as I wandered the streets of my neighbourhood, I spoke only to myself of these things, carrying on a kind of internal dialogue. A few minutes later, gradually and quite imperceptibly, I found myself talking to God— speaking to him of my own uncertain future as well as of my own mortality. Although my memory is a bit hazy, there was some point when I intentionally and vocally decided that my life was not my own— that I did not summon myself into being, that I do no sustain that being and that, ultimately, I cannot possibly live that life for myself. Life (mine along with everyone else’s) is a shear gratuity: an unspeakably rich, graciously bestowed gift, flowing from the heart of an infinite benevolence. That night I felt that I was giving that life back to its source. And, upon the moment of this giving-back, I felt it returned to me— only fuller and more complete in the knowledge that it was never truly my own. That night, I realized how valuable prayer could be and (as best as a lazy kid like me could possibly manage) I tried to engage in that practice on a nightly basis.

 

At first, my prayers took the form described in the above paragraph. They were unscripted, un-liturgical rambling conversations with a God whom I— in my teenage hubris— casually and thoughtlessly presumed to call “friend.” There was no set format, no “order of service.” If I felt particularly good about something in my life, I’d give thanks for it. If I did something particularly mean or brainless, I’d ask for forgiveness. If there was something I was in need of I’d simply put in a request. Looking back on it all, there was a humble, unselfconscious and beautifully irreverent character to my prayer life. I think of Abraham, haggling with the Lord over the few righteous souls who just might be living in the doomed city of Sodom, presumptuously reminding God that he, above all, is required to act justly. I also think of Adam— still unaware of his nakedness before the Divine— walking in innocence with the Lord in the evening cool of the garden.

 
The problem with my prayer life back then was its erratic nature. Although I tried to pray each evening, I eventually fell into the habit of only praying whenever I felt like it. And, since I rarely felt like it, I rarely prayed. Eventually, I would go through long stretches— sometimes up to a month or more— where I would drop the discipline of prayer entirely. I never felt guilty about this, as if I were doing something sinful or wrong. However, I was aware of being somehow adrift. Back then, I described it as a feeling of having no solid ground to stand upon, nothing firm upon which to fix my life. Eventually, I’d somehow find the discipline to come back to prayer— doing it consistently for several weeks or even months— only to drop it again after a while. This pattern continued well into my third year of studies in seminary.

 
It was in seminary that I was first introduced to what we Anglicans call “the daily offices,” a set pattern of prayers and canticles from the Book of Common Prayer to be recited twice each day, first in the morning and then in the evening. Both Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer were said daily in our college chapel and all seminarians were required to attend. At first I upheld the requirement simply because I was told I had to. However, by the time second semester rolled around, I gradually learned that people didn’t seem to notice or care whether or not I was present— that, in fact, I could jig chapel with impunity. So I did. The thought of reciting dull prayers in Elizabethan English for half-an-hour simply wasn’t the impetus I needed to get out of the sack at seven in the morning after having spent most of the night studying and writing term papers. So, instead, I continued to pray on my own (albeit erratically) using my own words to grapple with the Infinite.

 
It wasn’t until my internship, when I began to serve in full-time church ministry, that I discovered what a treasure the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer truly are. After being at the job for a few weeks, I quickly realized that I needed a set, daily discipline to lend structure to my day— a discipline to help me mark the time and pace my tasks and activities. Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer served as the perfects bookends to these long, busy, first days of my ministry. At first, I simply adapted the daily offices to my liking— cutting out a canticle and reading here or there to simplify and streamline things. Eventually, however, having developed a true love for the practice, I began to pray the whole thing, from start to finish, twice a day.

 
This, above all things, solved the problem of my erratic commitment to prayer. Praying the daily offices, first in the morning and then in the evening, became second-nature to me— a habit that was steadily reinforced the more I did it. No longer could I use the old excuse: “I won’t pray today because I haven’t got the words.” Now, I had the words: They were provided for me by the Prayer Book itself— printed on the very pages I held in my hands each day.

 
For many, the notion of reading or reciting set, pre-written prayers sounds stifling— perhaps even phoney and inauthentic. Why rattle-off a prayer that somebody else wrote when I could, instead, allow the words to flow spontaneously from my own heart? For one thing, the words provided in the daily office are not merely “somebody else’s words.” They are the God-breathed words of scripture— drawn, as they are, from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Furthermore, they are the words of the church— prayers dating back to as early as the first century A.D.— first written by prophets and martyrs, patriarchs and matriarchs but prayed again-and-again by generations of Christians since then, some canonical saints, others humble servants of Jesus whose simple lives have been ignored by history. By using the words of the Prayerbook, I am not merely “reading prayers” but joining my voice with the vast and mighty chorus of our fellow Christians— some still in the flesh but most now in glory. No, the prayers of the prayer book are not MY words insofar as they have arisen spontaneously from my own head. However, they ARE my words insofar as I am a member of the church— a multi-generational, multi-lingual, transnational body of which I am a living member. These words are mine because they are my heritage.

 
Don’t get me wrong: I am well aware of the dangers inherent in using set prayers and liturgies in a rigid, lifeless and inflexible manner, without making any room at all for the spontaneous and refreshing movement of God’s Spirit. So, in addition to sticking to the words on the script, I leave ample room for expressions of my own— prayers and thanksgivings that well up from from within, prompted by the stirrings of my own heart. And, as I did when I first began praying, I still wrestle with God— leaving ample space in my prayer time for questioning and searching, begging and ranting, twisting and cajoling. The backbone of my prayer routine, however— the thing that provides my prayer life with its steady, punctuated rhythm— is the use of the daily office: the ancient prayers of scriptures and the timeless words of the church. This prayer routine keeps me fixed and grounded. Through it, I have weathered more than a few personal crises.

 
So goes the brief history of my prayer life. What about you? Do you pray or mediate daily or is it tough to find the time? What does your spiritual discipline look like? Please leave your comments bellow!

 

By Terence Chandra