Trip report: Nelson-Calgary-Saskatoon-Winnipeg

 — Oct. 16, 200516 oct. 2005

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Nelson – Calgary – Saskatoon – Winnipeg, 4-18 October 2005
A trip report by Stuart Brown, Canadian Centre for Ecumenism
A. NELSON 4 – 5 October

1. The principal objective of my first long journey in the service of the Centre was to present the 2004 Ecumenical Merit Award to the Nelson Area Refugee Coalition, a group of seven congregations of different denominations in the city of Nelson, BC, which have been working together since 1991. The Coalition has already settled families from Vietnam, Guatemala, Bosnia, Togo and Colombia in the mountains around Kootenay Lake. I was at the Pierre Trudeau Airport very early for my flight to Calgary, and from there I caught a smaller plane bound for Castlegar.

2. The Lutheran pastor Nolan Gingrich, chair of the Coalition, sent his friend Jim Plamondon to drive me the 45 km to Nelson. That evening, the Coalition met in the basement of Nelson United Church for a buffet dinner. There were about fifty people present: United Church, Lutherans, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists, Mennonites, and the new members from the Doukhobor Church; also present were two of the sponsored families. I made a short speech outlining the history and interests of the Centre, and I presented our plaque to the pastor of the United Church, David Boyd. After distributing a few copies of our magazine (including two in French), I chatted with several of the participants before going home with Jill and Nolan Gingrich.

3. After breakfast on Wednesday 5, Nolan took me to Mary Immaculata Cathedral for a discussion with him, David Boyd, Sister Margaret and Lucille Vulcano: we talked about several things, especially about the challenge of following the ecumenical idea in a context where civil authorities seem hostile to any expression of faith, and the religious leaders seem distracted by their “internal” concerns, even when several denominations find themselves facing the same problems. Nolan took me to an excellent restaurant in Nelson for lunch before returning me to Castlegar Airport for my flight to Calgary.

B. CALGARY 5 – 7 October

4. Anna Tremblay, ecumenical officer for the Roman Catholic diocese of Calgary, was waiting for me at Calgary Airport. She drove me to the Christian Life Centre of the FCJ (Faithful Companions of Jesus), where there was a room reserved for me. That evening, in this very Centre, I had supper with ten other people: some members of the RC diocese’s ecumenical commission and several couples from the local chapter of Interchurch Families. I described the CCE and its work, and we discussed possible futures for ecumenism. I was impressed with the deep commitment to the idea of Christian unity, a wish to show this unity in every way possible and a certain anxiety about the apparent obstacles, especially in the context that the harvest was great and the workers few.

5. Thursday 6, Anna first took me to the Catholic Pastoral Centre to meet some representatives of the “burlap” churches (Baptist, United, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and Presbyterian) and two ecumenical projects: Rachel, for abused women, and Neighbour Link, for the down and out. We were in general agreement over the importance of sustaining these diaconal efforts and the spiritual contacts (Week of Prayer in January, a joint service on the afternoon of Pentecost Sunday, Bible studies).

6. At noon Anna and I were at the Jewish Centre to meet the participants in Jewish-Christian dialogue, which has been going for forty years in Calgary. We exchanged impressions about the evolution of dialogue and the desire to encourage trilateral dialogue with Muslims, as well as bilateral discussions. There were about a dozen people at this meeting.

7. The day’s third meeting was back at the Catholic Pastoral Centre. With Anna, Herbert Beerens of the Baptist Church and Julien Hammond from the RC diocese of Edmonton, I spoke with ten Muslims. I was most impressed by the “ecumenical” character of the delegation, which included Sunnis, Ja’faris, Isma’ilis and Ahmadis. Hatim Zaghloul (chair of the Calgary Muslim Council) and Dr Naweed Syed from the Ja’fari mosque were the principal speakers, but everyone had a few words to say. (One of the Isma’ilis, Almounir Dewji, had read my small book The Nearest in Affection, and he made some very kind comments, especially about my description of the various branches of Islam.) These Muslims have a strong commitment to dialogue, and they hope to develop closer contacts with groups in Edmonton and Vancouver as well as the so-called National Committee of which I am supposed to become co-chair in January 2006.

8. That evening I had the great privilege of dining with the FCJ sisters who live at the Christian Life Centre. I had received e-mails from my colleagues in Montreal, but it was too late to contact the office, so I phoned my wife to pass on my responses.

9. For most of Friday morning, 7 October, I chatted with Herbert Beerens on various ecumenical questions as well as Muslim-Christian relations in Canada, Africa and elsewhere.

10. Friday’s lunch was another ecumenical gathering, with Anna, Julien, Don Nevile (ELCIC) and Steve Hill (director of mission for the Alberta Catholic Health Corporation). We considered the notion that we are passing through an ecumenical winter, but we ended by persuading ourselves that spring was coming, and we recognized that our offices had a duty to cultivate the primroses.

11. In her office, Anna allowed me to send e-mails and to telephone Margaret. Then we did a short evaluation of my visit, which we found to be fairly positive, with good exchanges and a new commitment to dialogue, especially among the Muslims. Saturday morning I ate the bag breakfast the sisters had prepared for me, and Anna drove me to the airport.

C. OKANAGAN 8 – 10 October

12. For the long Thanksgiving weekend, I hid, at my mother’s in Kelowna, and with my younger daughter in Vernon; she brought my mother-in-law from Coldstream and my elder daughter with her two children from Lumby. I did not see my son-in-law, who had to work in a restaurant, but we sensed his presence when we ate the turkey which he had cooked. I had no official engagements.

D. SASKATOON 11 – 15 October

13. On the way from Kelowna to Saskatoon, I had time for lunch in Calgary Airport, but the flights were on time and Dr Jan Bigland-Pritchard, director of the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism welcomed me. She immediately drove to the home of Hugh and Angie Farmer to leave my suitcases, as it was the Farmers’ home that was to be my base for my time in Saskatchewan. (Hugh is a Lutheran pastor, director of chain of seniors’ homes, and Angie is the receptionist at a funeral parlour.) Jan took me to dinner at the Park Town; she asked a lot of questions about the CCE and other actors on the Canadian ecumenical stage.

14. Wednesday 12 I had breakfast with Hugh and Angie. Jan took me to the PCE for the Saskatoon church leaders’ meeting: seven people came to share their news and their concerns, and to discuss with Jan and me about ecumenism at the local, national and global levels. The conversation was broadened at noon, when some forty friends arrived for a panel on ecumenical obstacles and hopes: with me on this panel were Albert Le Gatt (Roman Catholic bishop of Saskatoon), Sandra Beardsall of the United Church (professor at the University of Saskatchewan) and Vern Ratzlaff, a Mennonite pastor.

15. Nick Jesson and his wife Amanda Currie drove me to the University of Saskatchewan campus, where I visited the Diefenbaker Centre while I waited for my appointment with Ursula Wiig, chaplain. We ate at Alexander’s Restaurant with the three respondents to my evening lecture: Revd Betty Lynn Schwab of the United Church, Professor Tom Selover of the Department of Religious Studies and Anthropology and a member of the chaplaincy team at St Thomas More College, whose name I never learned. We then went to the Riel Building so I could give my lecture: “Who are the Sâbirûn?” The talk was essentially about the need and the duty of believers (Christians and others) to persevere with patience and endurance in the quest for good relations with all our neighbours. The questions were stimulating, and at the reception afterwards I got to chat with several folks, notably Dr Jamali from the Faculty of Sciences, Most Revd Tom Morgan (former Anglican Archbishop of Rupert’s Land) and the Revd Tom Faulkner (principal of St Andrew’s, the local theological college of the United Church).

16. At the PCE office on Thursday 13, Jan and I had an interview with Darlene Polachic of the Star-Phoenix, the Saskatoon daily. Nick Jesson joined us for a discussion of our common website, and we agreed to modify the routing of comments and questions posed by visitors to the site. There are at least 12,000 visits a month.

17. Jan chose this moment to list several concerns she had been nursing and which she believed to be generally held in Saskatoon’s ecumenical circles. She seemed to me to have judged us (me personally and the Centre which I was trying to represent, in advance. The nub of her complaint was the adjective “Canadian” in the name of our Centre. I explained to her the history of the name, underlined our mandate with the national churches and recalled the range of circulation of our magazine and the visits we receive from people from all over Canada. I underlined that I came to Saskatoon to explore possibilities of collaboration.

18. Right after this exchange, we joined the hundredth meeting of the PCE Council, where I sketched my vision of a collaboration of all organizations involved in ecumenism, and especially in ecumenical training, across Canada. There were a few interesting questions, especially on the theme of renewal and the recruitment of youth into the ranks of the ecumenical movement. Nobody seemed hostile, and there were even murmurs of agreement. At the dinner after the meeting, I heard a few words of encouragement, and I was persuaded that there were a few spirits ready to take up an experiment to launch a fresh attempt to build a trans-Canada ecumenical network focussed on training. Instead of a Summer Institute with alternating responsibility, someone suggested a single Ecumenical Institute run by a semi-permanent team.

19. Wanuskewin is at the site of a traditional First Nations meeting place, about half an hour’s drive from Saskatoon near a buffalo jump. There is now a comprehensive interpretation centre at this site, complete with art galleries, exhibits, pathways and a restaurant. There I passed most of Friday 14, with Jan and her husband Mark, and I greatly admired the fine taste and the thorough presentation of the displays, the quiet of the pathways and the special moment of watching a magnificent heron walking across a small bridge. That evening, I ate with the Farmers in an excellent Chinese restaurant, and (finally) I got to speak with Margaret on the phone.

20. Saturday 15, after breakfast, Hugh and Angie left to visit their family in Regina; their friend Carol Boden drove me to the airport. There is much ecumenical energy in Saskatoon, but means are limited. I am confident that the collaboration between the two centres, so fruitful in the past, will be able to develop afresh in the service of the ecumenical community in the entire country.

E. WINNIPEG 16 – 18 October

21. My cousin Edwin Tackaberry met me at Winnipeg Airport. He took me home, where his wife Colleen had fixed me a supper. The couple was in the midst of moving house, bit by bit, and half their belongings were in the new place. So this is where I was to sleep, but they came each morning to take me home for breakfast. Sunday 16 we went to the Morrow Gospel Hall, a church of the Mennonite Brethren, for the adult class (which Edwin led) and the service. I had an opportunity to chat with the pastor, Ralph Unger, who accepted a copy of our magazine.

22. Monday morning, 17 October, Edwin drove me to town, and left me near the head office of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada on Portage Avenue. The Revd Paul Johnson, ecumenical officer, led the staff worship service in the chapel, and I gave a short homily on Jesus’ prayer that his people should be one (Jn 17). I encouraged my friends to identify themselves first as Christians and then according to their denomination. (I should note that not all the employees of a Church are required to be members of the Church which employs them, so we must speak in general terms.)

23. The major event of Monday’s program was an excursion to the Mennonite University campus, where the Mennonite Church – Canada also has its office. Dan Nighswander, the departing General Secretary, received us in his office for an update. Then, we carried our meals from the university cafeteria to a classroom in order to talk with about fifteen Mennonite leaders, including Helmut Harder from his church’s team in dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, and Jack Sudermann, who is to become General Secretary when Dan leaves at the end of November. The discussion was both broad and deep, touching principally the themes of witness and open discussion. The participants seemed very happy to receive the copies of the magazine which I gave them. At the end of this happy exercise, we crossed the entire city of Winnipeg so Paul could leave me in front of the monastery of the Benedictine Sisters, where my cousin works as an accountant.

24. Tuesday 18 brought a tighter routing and a more complex program than the day before. Colleen left me in town and I went to the ELCIC office. Paul then drove me to the office of the United Church’s Manitoba and Northwest Ontario Conference. There we met Lynda Trone (Faith, Youth, Communication), Bill Gillis (Finance, Congregational development, Justice, Mission) and John Badertscher (interim Executive Minister). We had a good exchange on ecumenical matters, and they said that they were interested in the initiatives I had outlined (wandering ecumenists, grassroots cooperation etc). They spoke enthusiastically about WISL (Winnipeg Interchurch Stewardship Link), a network for helping congregations to a better understanding of the financial needs of the Churches; there are several congregations involved, from Anglican, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Mennonite and United Churches. The UC folk also told me about a strong Muslim-Christian dialogue group, due especially to the efforts of a Muslim woman named Shahina Siddiqui.

25. We next went to the office of the Anglican diocese of Rupert’s Land to chat with the bishop, Rt Revd Don Phillips. He had not appointed an ecumenical officer because he feared that such a person would be stuck on the margin; the ecumenical officer is therefore the bishop himself, and he is very conscious of the duty to keep up with ecumenical contacts and activities. Bishop Phillips would be very happy to see some action to revive the ecumenical movement on a national scale, especially if this involved activities involving both ecumenical centres and the Canadian Council of Churches.

26. Paul and I had lunch with Most Revd Raymond Schultz, National Bishop of the ELCIC, in his office. We talked a lot about ecumenical and interfaith activities, and Bishop Ray was happy to receive a copy of our magazine. He also promised to examine our financial statements and discuss them with his advisers.

27. In the ELCIC library, I met two Roman Catholic ecumenical officers: Fr Robert Polz from the Archdiocese of Winnipeg and Fr Luis de Melo from the Archdiocese of St Boniface. They both expressed regret about a certain cooling in ecumenical activity as a consequence of the debates over same-sex marriage, but they agreed on the importance of interfaith dialogue and the quest for a Christian consensus in multifaith contexts. They would like to have a Canadian network of ecumenical officers from all the Churches, and suggested that the CCE could take steps to realize this idea.

28. Paul and I next went to the office of the Lutheran Synod of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario. Bishop Richard Smith greeted us. Bishop Smith, who is getting ready to retire, has spent many years in ecumenical adventure, especially in the framework of shared ministries. For him, the two ecumenical priorities are “exactly” the relationship between “essential” ecumenism and multifaith contacts, and the encouragement of grassroots ecumenism, including a softening of the links between scattered ecumenical nuclei and the regional and national ecumenical organizations. He would very much like to see a national conference on a theme considering the methods and the means to a more active ecumenism.

29. Wednesday morning, Edwin drove me to Winnipeg Airport. I caught a plane to Ottawa, where I found another one to take me to Pierre Trudeau Airport. (By taking these two flights, I was able to reach Dorval before the direct flight which had been reserved for me had left Winnipeg. I am most grateful to Paul for his work in organizing this visit and for his service as chauffeur. For the time being, we will hope to have a sign from Bishop Schultz about our finances, and over the long term we dare to believe that we will have many opportunities of working with our ecumenical colleagues in Winnipeg.


Pray therefore to the master of the harvest that he may send workers for his harvest. (Mt 9:38)

30. What impressions can we keep from such a long voyage? First of all, the ecumenical movement is alive and well across western Canada. Everywhere, there are busy groups which share a strong interest in what is happening in other places, in Canada and around the world. It is important to note that in every city I visited, I met people who could speak excellent French, and I realized that I had not taken a sufficient number of copies of the French version of the magazine. Almost everywhere, the immediate priority is the local scene, but everybody would also like to have regional and trans-Canadian contacts. There is work to be done, conferences and workshops should be organized, and there are many friends ready to join a common effort; all that seems to be missing is the money. We must therefore organize our activities, and especially our budget, to be in a position to respond to the opportunity and the challenge which present themselves in the framework of the expansion of ecumenism: “Pray therefore to the master of the harvest that he may send workers for his harvest.” (Mt 9:38)

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