I almost didn’t see him. I was on a mission to bring home some souvenirs and my field of vision was saturated with color—the cheery red, blue, green and yellows of the handpainted wood crafts—jewelry boxes, dollhouse furniture, and crosses filling every nook and cranny and wall of the small kiosk. And then out of the corner of my eye, I noticed him. A young boy about 10 years old sitting at a small table to one side, an artist’s paintbrush in one hand and a carved plain wood letter of the alphabet in the other waiting for the young artist to transform it from naked wood to a playful folk art piece.

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It was Day 5 of our trip to El Salvador last October and our hosts had arranged for a day trip to the town of La Palma for some sightseeing and souvenir shopping. As our van wound its way through the narrow streets of this village nestled in the pine-forested mountains near the Honduran border our eyes feasted on the murals painted in the distinctive La Palma style. Scenes from the everyday life of the campesinos (farmers)—brightly coloured birds, rabbits, flowers, and village scenes covered every spare wall, park bench and bus stop in the village.

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La Palma is known for its characteristic decorative art style used on the exterior of buildings, on handicrafts, and souvenirs.

Decorated concrete park benches in the central park square of La Palma.

Decorated concrete park benches in the town square of La Palma.

It was El Salvador’s iconic artist Fernando Llort who taught the people of La Palma to draw and paint following his technique and designs. His desire to share his God-given talents and skills with others blossomed into an artisanal movement creating handicrafts using his motifs and led to the creation of a cooperative called La Semilla de Dios, or “God’s Seed”. Today there are dozens of cooperatives and workshops in La Palma where campesinos learn about art, gain marketable skills and find sources of income other than field work to provide for their families.DSC_8124_ICC_Change.JPG

I presumed that the young boy’s family probably belonged to one of these cooperatives. I wanted to learn more but I did not have time to engage him in conversation as our hosts were anxious for us to move on to our next destination. As I was being pulled away I did not even have time to learn his name—I will call him Fernando—but his demeanour and circumstances struck me and I wanted to take his picture to remember him by. I couldn’t help drawing a comparison with the children in North America who spend hours being passively entertained by virtual games, movies, and apps while here was a young boy actively engaged in a serious pursuit—creating art in order to contribute to his family’s very real need for income.

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When Llort moved to La Palma in 1972 he had a dream to lift people out of grinding poverty and through art created by their own hands to gain a self-respect for themselves and discover their dignity as children of God reflecting the divine image. It was this dignity that I saw on young Fernando’s face. When I asked his permission to photograph him, he seemed surprised at first that anyone would take notice of him. But his modesty quickly turned to pleasure as he straightened himself, pride beaming from his face that he and his artwork were being recognized and recorded in this way. He seemed surprised again at the monetary token of my appreciation I offered him for posing for the picture, but it was the least I could do because he had given me much more than just a photographic souvenir to take home with me.

The hope, pride, and dignity shining from his face gave me a window into the hopes and dreams of all of El Salvador’s children—to be seen and heard and have their gifts recognized and affirmed, to be able go to school and have enough to eat, to be able to wander freely exploring the countryside and their neighbourhood without fear of violence…and most of all to live and grow up in peace.

Thank-you,  Fernando for your grace and hospitality. I pray you and your artwork continues to flourish and contribute to the realization of your dreams.

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Photo credit: La Semilla de Dios. All other photos taken by Al Jaugelis

 

Merciful Father, we commend to your loving keeping all who work to bring rescue and relief especially the firefighter, police, paramedics, medical personnel, and volunteers, all who are helping, Give them courage in danger, skill in difficulty, and compassion in service. Sustain them with bodily strength and calmness of mind that they may perform their work to the well-being of those in need so that lives may be saved and communities restored. Amen. (Lutheran Disaster Response)

I’ve made a donation to the Red Cross, but because I am a Christian…I also need to pray. I don’t know if it will help my fellow Canadians in Fort McMurray 1500 km away–I certainly hope it will–but it helps alleviate my sense of helplessness and softens and opens my heart to the plight of my brothers and sisters.

…and so this morning, at the midweek worship service at St. David’s Anglican Church in Tsawwassen we sang this Taize chant in English and prayed for the people of Fort McMurray, “Come and fill their hearts with your peace…for you alone, O Lord are holy.”

 

 

In order to help the gathered congregation pray in a meaningful way so that our prayers could be more than just so many words abstracted from reality I shared the images that have stayed with me as I have followed the news on Twitter. I hoped that by sharing these images the people sitting in the pews would feel a greater sense of connection with the people in Fort McMurray.

I encouraged them this way:

“…I want you to remember the mother who in the thirty minutes she had to pack up and leave grabbed her daughter’s prom dress…hoping that she would still be able to graduate from the local high school…I want you to remember the woman fleeing the city not in car but on horseback holding the reigns of two other horses behind her as she leads and guides them out of the city to safer ground…I want you to hold in your mind three firefighters leaning against the back of their firetruck taking a few moments of respite after battling the flames all day and evening…I want you to remember the man who stayed behind monitoring the water sprinklers he had set up to try to save his house against all hope as fire consumed his neighbourhood and this mother (in the video below) who tried to comfort her three children as they drove out of town with smoke and flames all around them.

Loving God, we are joined with the trials and sufferings of all. Be with those who endure the effects of the disastrous fires raging in Fort McMurray and surrounding communities. Protect those in the path of danger. Open the pathway of evacuation. Help loved ones to find one another in the chaos. Provide assistance to those who need help. Ease the fears of all and make your presence known in the stillness of your peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.  (Adapted from Lutheran Disaster Response, Upstate, NY).

 

 

The magnolia in full bloom in my neighbour’s yard would be perfect for my Twitter Easter header photo. Although I am a ordained pastor–or perhaps because I am–I was glad to cast off the sackcloth and ashes of Lent, a season emphasizing penitence and spiritual disciplines, and could hardly wait to Skitch “Happy Easter” across the glorious blooms, and splash my joy to the world.

And then this–

Merton speaks:

Every moment and every event of every life on earth plants something in [your] soul.

The magnolias still remain as testament–but without my gay pronouncement.

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The BC government shows no signs of re-instating $45/year subsidized bus pass for people with disabilities. Nevertheless, InclusionBC , TAPS  and other advocacy groups are continuing their campaign to let everyone receiving PWD benefits keep the $77/month increase regardless of whether they need a bus pass, and raise the PWD benefit rate to $1200 per month. They are meeting with Michelle Stilwell, Minister for Social Development and Innovation in late March where they will demand that the government not only reverse its decision to claw back the bus pass, but that it also comes up with a serious plan to raise people out of poverty and increase and index the PWD rates to reflect the rising cost of living.

The issue has been brought to the attention of British Columbians not only through mainstream and social media, but has also appeared in local community papers–like this excellent letter in the Delta Optimist published in my “hometown,” followed by my own contribution in the next issue.

Minister's Minute - March 2016.jpg(Btw, the fish in the story are the male of the species.)

In my column I refer to a blogger from the disability community who asks the question:

A. “Do you think that I have a right to exist?”

Using deductive logic…she takes the reader through a series of premises….

if you answered, “yes”, then you believe that:

B. “My right to exist is thus predicated on the possibility of my being able to acquire what I need to exist.”

and then she hits our government between the eyes:

C. “By not providing the funds necessary to safely house and feed and care for oneself, the BC government is, in effect, denying people their right to exist.”

It was her post that hit me between the eyes, too and inspired me to speak out. For if we allow our government’s inhumane decisions to go unchallenged, we ourselves are complicit and diminished.

Here’s mssinenomine’s hard-hitting  post, BC Budget & Disability Benefits: The Raise Up That Was Just Another Let Down

I had never heard of journalist Ben H. Bagdikian until I read his New York Times obituary online this morning.

I was struck by his commitment to the integrity of his profession.

Here are two quotes – a version of which I wonder should apply to us who are pastors–whose calling differs from that of journalist, but who are also called to bear witness to life and truth.

The worst thing that can happen to a journalist is to become a celebrity. The honest job of the journalist is to observe, to listen, to learn. The job of the celebrity is to be observed, to make sure others learn a out his or her, to be the object of attention rather than an observer.

and this admonition to his students:

Never forget that your obligation is to the people. It is not, at heart, to those who pay you, or to your editor, or to your sources, or to your friends, or to the advancement of your career. It is to the public.

Same day as I learned about Bagdikian, I came across this review of the book, That’s Why I ‘m a Journalist

In one of the essays in the book, Paul Workman sums it up:

We are witnesses. That’s what we are. That’s what I’ve always considered by most important role…Witness whatever suffering, whatever happiness takes place on the ground…

 

 

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The $77 per month rate increase in disability assistance announced by the BC government on February 16 sounded like good news at first. But like a photograph that fades out toward the edges, the increase—the first in nine years—began to disappear the closer I got to the edges of the truth. The Times Colonist called it the “now you see it now you don’t” benefit increase.

Here are the facts:

The net increase People with Disabilities will receive will vary according to the cost of transportation supports they already receive from the government.

  • 45,000 British Columbians who do not receive the special transportation subsidy or live in areas not serviced by Translink or BC Transit or choose not to purchase the government subsidized bus pass will see a $77 net increase to their monthly benefit
  • 35,000 British Columbians who live in communities served by Translink or BC Transit currently receive an annual, “almost free” subsidized bus pass if they apply for it and  pay a $45 annual administration fee.  Under the new regime, if they want to continue to receive the bus pass, they will have $52 deducted from their monthly benefit and they will still have to pay the annual $45 fee. The result is that they will only see a small net increase of $25 to their monthly cheque.
  • 20,000 British Columbians who cannot take public transit, currently receive a special transportation subsidy as a lump-sum annual payment of $790.56 in addition to their disability benefit. Beginning in September, this benefit will be paid monthly by adding $66 to their monthly cheque. But because this is already a previous benefit, their net increase will only be a paltry $11 per month

The government summarized these changes in this misleading chart below which was removed from the BC Gov’t website here.

PWD_Rates

This chart is misleading because in the column “CURRENT UNEVEN RATES” the government includes the “Transportation Supports” in the monthly PWD amounts when in fact, monthly disability cheques currently do not include them. Those allowances and bus passes are administered and received as additional separate benefits. Currently the monthly cheque for a single person with disabilities is the same for everyone, $906.42 whether or not you qualify for a bus pass or other transportation subsidy.

No one currently receives a cheque for $958 or $972.

The Chart is confusing and obfuscates the facts.

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The government justifies these changes by saying they are about creating fairness and equity for the 45,000 people who weren’t receiving any transportation supports. But their attempts at equality, through monetizing the transportation supports and distributing $983 worth of benefits equally does not automatically create equal outcomes.

For example: people with disabilities who live in communities where a bus pass purchased directly from BC Transit costs less than $52 will have more money in their pocket for rent and food than their counterparts living in Metro Vancouver and other cities where the costs of living are significantly higher.

Where you Live

Monthly Benefit

Cost of Subsidized Bus Pass

Cost of non- subsidized Bus Pass*

Balance left for groceries and shelter after paying for transportation

Vancouver 

$983

$52

$931

Penticton

$983

$45

$938

Fort St. John

$983

$40

$943

Quesnel

$983

$35

$948

100 Mile House

$983

$28

$955

Hazelton/Smithers

$983

$15

$968

*Figures taken from BC Transit website

The government’s attempt to bring more equality has not erased inequities in the system. It has created greater inequity and injustice. This is especially true when it comes to housing costs.

Where is the justice in the system when a person with disabilities who needs a bus pass and who lives in Vancouver has less money for shelter and groceries than a person living in Smithers where shelter costs are significantly lower? If the government is truly committed to creating a level playing field, as Social Development Minister Michelle Stilwell stated, disability supports should include “a portability that reflects regional variations in the costs of necessities like transportation and utilities”.

Using figures from 2011, the average rent for a bachelor apartment in Vancouver was $839. After paying $52 for a subsidized bus pass that leaves just $40 for food and clothing ($931-$839-$52). The gross injustice is apparent  even if you use the government’s own outdated Cost of Living calculator which pegs the average cost for a small 500 sq. ft apartment in East Vancouver at $645.  After paying rent and buying a subsidized bus pass, a disabled Vancouverite will have only $286 for groceries, grooming, clothing  and basic communication (telephone). According to a 2009 BC Stats survey of household spending the average costs for these after shelter needs was $602 monthly. This means a person with disabilities experiences a gap of over $300 between what they receive and what it costs to live. And yet the best the BC government can do after 9 years of frozen rates–among the lowest in the country–is to give people with disabilities less than $18 per week and then have the gall to clawback two thirds by charging them $12 per week if they need a bus pass.

It’s hard to understand why the outcry over the #buspassclawback took the government by surprise. When people have a sense that they are at an unfair disadvantage relative to others, or that they have not received their “fair share,”  they will challenge the system that is responsible for the injustice. This is especially likely to happen if a person’s or group’s fundamental needs are not being met, or if there are large discrepancies between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

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Photo credit: @couragesings

It is past the time that the BC government heeded the evidence-based recommendation of disability advocacy groups and raised the PWD benefit to $1200–a level that begins to approach the true cost of living in this province and would reduce the gap between what people with disabilities need for basic essentials and what they get.

The last word belongs to InclusionBC

The Minister is correct when he says, “The measure of any society is reflected in the degree to which it is willing to help the most vulnerable and create the kind of supports that will truly make a difference in their lives” (budget speech). By this measure, BC is failing our most vulnerable.

Friends, you can make a difference by signing the petition here to restore the $45/year bus pass and raise the PWD benefit rate.

Alongside the Christmas carols going around in my head is another song,

Draw the circle wide. 

No one stands alone, we’ll stand side by side. 

Draw the circle wide; draw it wider still. 

Let this be our song! 

These words by Gordon Light invite us to broaden our circle of care and concern. If we imagine our relationships as a series of concentric circles, we usually place our concern for our own well-being at the centre. In the next circle are our close family and friends. The next circle might include our work colleagues, sports or service club, or church and neighbourhood. In the outermost circles we might put our city, country and all other human beings. Each of us has reasons to draw the circle of our attention narrower. It is not easy to bring more people into our circle of care because it means that we become vulnerable and risk heartache and disappointment.

The Christian tradition teaches that God—in risk-taking vulnerable love—spread wide the circle of peace and salvation through the coming of Christ into the world. I am glad that you and I are included in God’s embrace.

Fischer Price Nativity scene

Often, it is children who have a better grasp of the meaning of these wonderful mysteries.

There is a story of three-year old child who listened and watched as his parents brought out their nativity scene: Here is Mary, the mother. Here is Joseph, and here is baby Jesus. Here are kings bringing their gifts. Here is the shepherd and the lamb. Here is the donkey and there is the cow. Having completed the scene the parents moved on to other Christmas preparations.

The next day, the parents noticed a striking change in the nativity scene. Their three-year old had set all his favourite figures into the nativity scene. Alongside the shepherds and kings were Minions and dinosaurs, bears and Donald Duck, Luke Skywalker and Thomas the Tank Engine. They were all included by the child. The circle was spread wide, wider.

 

(This post was originally published in “The Minister’s Minute” column in the South Delta Optimist on December 18, 2015)

Refugees Are Human Beings

My local newspaper the Delta Optimist ran a front page story on Prime Minister Harper’s recent campaign stop in Ladner. In light of the refugee crisis in which more than 19 million people have been forced to flee their home countries because of war or persecution, it reported him stating that the Conservatives had already pledged greater refugee assistance.

This is simply an empty election promise.

Here are the facts behind Harper’s pledge.

Every year, the government estimates how many immigrants it plans to take in the year ahead. The quota has been stuck at between 11,000 and 14,000 refugees selected from abroad (not just Syria)  annually for years, including 2015. What Harper promised if elected is to take in 10,000 more refugees from Iraq and Syria over four years. While this number sounds impressive at first sight, as the UN refugee agency’s top representative in Canada Furio De Angelis noted, this number is actually within the annual quota numbers already established before the current crisis erupted.

The Optimist story highlighted how the Conservatives take pride in freeing entrepreneurs from the burden of red tape. The current government should take the same pride in coming to the aid of refugee children and their parents and cut the red tape involved in sponsoring Syrian refugees.

It needs to take decisive action now and commit to a minimum of 10,000 Syrians to be brought to Canada immediately.

Photo credit: Freedom House on Flickr

MCC Ottawa Office Notebook

This week’s guest writer is Eileen Klassen Hamm, program director for MCC Saskatchewan. The photos were taken by Alison Ralph of MCC Canada during KAIROS’ Time for Reconciliation gathering and the closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, May 28 to June 3, 2015.

More than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.

More than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.    	At the start of the walk, organizers arranged for several notable people to speak, encouraging walkers for reconciliation.RS50673_IMG_2515-scrMore than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.RS50971_IMG_3107-scrJustice Murray Sinclair addresses walkers and those gathered at Marion Dewar Plaza in Ottawa. More than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.

More than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.    	At the start of the walk, organizers arranged for several notable people to speak, encouraging walkers for reconciliation.I
I am a woman born blind
socialized into a colonial story
with church collusion
was it my sin
or my parents’
but now my eyes
have been washed
with the mud of survivors’ stories
and I am beginning
to see

II
in front of me
sit rows and rows
of survivors
I receive the words
of the commissioners
filtered
through these now old bodies
which carry within them
child bodies
taken
from circles of love
humiliated
abused
buried in unmarked graves
a massive test
for something so small as words
to ring true
Hundreds of people particpated in a mass blanket exercise on the steps of Parliament Hill, lead by members of Kairos. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.through the bodies of children
listening for
acknowledgement
recognition
dignity
love

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