The Failure of Confirmation Class (And what we need to do to make it Work)

THE FAILURE OF CONFIRMATION CLASS (AND WHAT WE NEED TO DO TO MAKE IT WORK). If you’re a parish priest in the Catholic, Anglican or Lutheran tradition, you’re no doubt quite familiar with the following scenario. Carter and Mckayla— brother and sister— have, within the last few months, turned 13 and 11 years old respectively. Since then, you’ve gotten at least three phone calls from their mother— a stay-at-home-mom and part-time accountant who does women’s roller derby on Saturday nights and shows up sporadically to church. She’s putting gentle but, nonetheless, persistent pressure on you to run a catechism class so that so that her kids can get confirmed as soon as possible. She’s not doing so because she believes that getting confirmed is an indispensable next step to her children’s journey of faith. Rather, she’s doing so because her parents (the grandparents of young Carter and McKayla) are applying pressure on her in a manner that is far less subtle— hounding and nagging her at every weekend barbecue and, in general, making every family reunion miserable.

You know that your Bishop will be touring the region sometime within the next few weeks and is scheduled to hold a confirmation service at a neighbouring parish. So, with this looming deadline in mind, you hastily throw together a crash course in Christianity, stripping the curriculum down to its very bare bones, and— for the next few Thursday nights— inflict it upon a group of five or six, bleary eyed adolescents who would rather be anywhere than in a church basement, listening to you drone on about the definition of a sacrament. In the end, the Bishop shows up and performs some quaint, archaic ritual that most involved barely understand. The boys wear ugly ties and the girls wear dresses that their grandmas have picked out; photographs are taken; the obligatory ham and egg-salad sandwiches are served followed by cake. And, after that night, you never see Carter, McKayla or their parents again. (At least, not in church, anyway). Sadly, this is what confirmation has become.

But imagine if this weren’t the case. Imagine if the rite of confirmation— along with the necessary preparatory classes that precede it— did not mark the end of a young person’s life with Jesus but, rather, a fresh new beginning to it? Imagine if confirmation resulted in— not more empty pews— but a lifelong, life-giving involvement in the ongoing mission of the church community? No doubt, this beautiful ideal is lightyears removed from the all-too typical scenario laid out above. The question is: How do we end up so tragically missing the mark? That’s what I’d like to explore further in this post.

Failure 1: Forced Confessions
In my opinion, our first tragic mistake is this: we make confirmation into something that we force upon our children, literally against their will. The absurdity of this is highlighted when we consider what confirmation actually is— a rite which involves a Christian’s personal confirmation of her baptismal vows. During the ceremony, the candidate is required to state publicly that she believes in the central tenets of the Christian faith as laid out in the Apostle’s Creed and that she will— having carefully counted the cost— follow Jesus as one of his disciples. Needless to say, to force such a confession out of a child borders on cruelty. In one confirmation class that I ran, the parents actually told their atheist daughter that unless she went ahead with the ceremony— publicly professing a faith that she did personally believe— the family would not be going to Disney Land that spring! Of course, that’s a far cry from the tactics employed by Spanish Inquisitors but just think of how much it belittles, not only the rite itself, but the integrity of the child.

Before I begin a series of confirmation classes, I make sure to meet with each of the candidates with their parents present to explain the following: “Yes, your mom and dad can make you do all sorts of things that you don’t like— including going to confirmation classes. However, they cannot make you get confirmed. Getting confirmed involves publicly stating that you (not your parents!) believe in the core teachings of the Christian faith and that you (not your parents!) intent to follow Jesus as his disciple. If this decision is forced upon you, then it is not a true decision.”

Failure 2: Cutting Corners on the Catechism
Secondly— out of a combination of both laziness and expediency— we fail to offer confirmation classes that are rich, thorough and engaging. After all, there are so many pressing demands, not only in the ministry of a parish priest, but in the lives of the average twenty-first-century teen. With all of these competing demands, the temptation is to cut corners on catechism— scaling down a program that ought to be at least six months long to just six weeks. The result is a presentation of the Christian faith that is superficial, patchy and incomplete. With such a shallow grasp of gospel, we then toss the kids out into the most secular civilization the world has ever produced, expecting them somehow to retain some semblance of a Christian identity. In my opinion, that’s comparable to teaching a kid how to do the doggy-paddle in a backyard swimming pool and then throwing him into the North Atlantic expecting him to swim.

Instead, our confirmation classes need to be biblically and theologically rich, emotionally and intellectually engaging and— above all else— relevant to the complex life of a twenty-first century adolescent. It should cover the broad and colourful scope of salvation history— from the creation of the cosmos out of nothing to the healing, redemption and restoration of all things. It should involve a passionate wrestling with the word of God. Don’t just read them the story of Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers. Give them scripts and costumes and have them act it out. Don’t just talk about the Jews as God’s chosen people. Attend sabbath prayers at the local synagogue and have the Rabbi offer a tour. Don’t just tell the story of the Good Samaritan. Take them to the local soup kitchen or homeless shelter and have them live it out. Make the word of God come alive for them. And, most of important of all, do all within your power to bring them into a meaningful, life changing encounter with Christ. Needless to say, all of this can’t be accomplished in just six weeks. The adult teachers of the confirmation class need to invest months into this process.

Furthermore, there is absolutely no reason why the priests themselves must design the curriculum and teach the class. If they aren’t gifted in teaching; if they’re not able to relate to adolescents; if their pastoral responsibilities prevent them from investing the necessary time and energy into the catechism, they need to delegate the ministry to a team of competent laypeople. There are all sorts of adults in our churches who, with a bit of training and permission, could thrive in a ministry such as this. They need to be trusted and given the chance.

Failure Three: Not Building Mentoring Relationships
Our third and, perhaps, greatest failure is this: We have not used confirmation class as a means for building trusting mentoring relationships with the young members of our churches.

Again, this involves a significant investment of time. It takes time out of each confirmation class to chat with the candidates, giving them the freedom and the space to talk about whatever it is that happens to be on their mind. How does Matt feel about getting cut from the hockey team? What does Adam think about the new Avengers movie? How has Kayla been coping since her father got that job out west? When kids feel free to talk to you about their lives— from their trivial interests to their deepest hopes and fears— then they also feel free to talk to you about their true beliefs regarding God and Jesus, heaven and hell. They learn to trust you and trust is what healthy relationships are all about.

These relationships are what ultimately bring young people back to church after the date of the confirmation itself has has come and gone— the sense of fellowship and camaraderie with their peers; the sense of being loved and accepted by their mentors; the sense (however vague and ill-defined) that the Holy Spirit is somehow present in this community, working in the hearts of everyone involved. This is what encourages somebody— youth or adult— to remain engaged in the ongoing life of a church community, following in the footsteps of the Master.

By Terence Chandra

Resurrecting Religion: A Book Review

Resurrecting Religion: A Book Review

When Terence and I first began attending Sanctuary’s Sunday evening service we were young seminary students. In our hoodies and ripped jeans, we were mostly attracted by the relaxed atmosphere and the fact that the band had a washtub bass. At first we didn’t even stay for the sermon. Having already been to our morning churches where we were doing our field placements, we felt justified in leaving Sanctuary during the mid service coffee break that followed communion. We didn’t know what we were missing. When we finally stayed and heard Greg Paul preach, we stopped cutting out early. With his bible in one hand, facing the small horseshoe of people gathered, Greg would make us feel like we could see and feel what was described thousands of years ago and that now reflected on those tightly printed pages.

Though we were a mixed bag of demographics (it would be hard to find a more diverse church group), we felt that Greg’s words spoke to our hearts. And you could tell in the way that the congregation interacted, in how people were welcomed, that the Spirit of God was doing something special. From the band member’s mom who brought cookies, to the middle aged man who sang Barnie songs, from the street involved to the bright eyed students, from the businessman to the self-confessed addict, all had a place of belonging. Now that we live hundred of kilometres from Toronto and we can’t go to Sanctuary anymore (though we try to pop in when we are in town), we feel a sense of connection though reading Greg Paul’s books. The most recent of these (it came out February 2nd) is called “Resurrecting Religion: Finding Our Way Back to the Good News”.

In this latest book, Greg addressed the shameful things that have given religion, and especially the Christian religion, a bad name. And not all of these sins are in the past. Working through the book of James, Greg describes how if our faith is just about ourselves and our own personal relationship with God then we’re probably missing out. Our connection to God is important, vital even, but so is our response to the poor and vulnerable among us. To me, this book is much more than another exposé on how we should live. It shifts our thinking on what it really means to be religious. Through his open bible, Greg shows us how we could live out our faith and be the Church in a way that bursts out with life and freedom – in other words, in the way that Jesus always intended it to be. It may be uncomfortable at times; it may stretch us; it may even hurt but it can also give life a fullness that is hard to find anywhere else.

Sanctuary influenced us in a lot of ways. It wasn’t just the Sunday services. It was the way they do things, the ethos of the place that helped form the way that we do our ministry. Greg’s books are well worth a read because of where these words come from, how they were shaped. I started off by talking about Sanctuary because it was an important place for Terence and I, but it is also an important part of this book (and all the books Greg has written), because it is a community that lives out what it really means to be the Church and what it really means to have faith, or be religious (in the best sense of the word). It isn’t perfect, far from that, but its imperfection is in fact its appeal. There is very little pretending or posturing during a Sanctuary service, none of the shinny, smiling faces described in Greg’s book. The guy who prays about his weight problem is still praying and struggling months down the road. The addict who blesses the communion bread admits that he will probably go out and use after the service. The sighs and groans that are let out during the course of the evening service, plainly describe that all is not OK. And yet there is joy, there is dancing, there is a deep sense that Jesus has come as a light to the world and that in some amazing and gracious way, we are invited to reflect that light.

There’s a lot to absorb here, after all. Resurrecting religion is no small task. What is helpful about Greg’s book is that it is not just about doing Sunday morning differently, or the latest leadership skills pastors should adopt, or starting a new program, or learning to be more welcoming. It is about changing our hearts, so that the way we live reflects the faith we experience. It’s about separating good religion from bad religion, and recognizing that there is such a thing as ‘good’ religion.

A small group of us has gathered to read together and discuss the book. In these times we’ve been able to open up about our own struggles in the church both in the present and in the past. We’ve also had the opportunity to talk about things we don’t often discuss in church groups: the residential schools and how we respond to our checkered past; the challenges we have in trying to belong in church communities, and how we bring dignity to those who come to us for help. We’ve been encouraged to ‘be bold’, to revisit the way we do community suppers and give out groceries, and we’ve been offered a picture of how to respond to the faith we have received. That’s quite a lot for one little book, so thank you Greg and thank you Sanctuary!

By Jasmine Chandra

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 [].

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.



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