The M Shelf: Jim Hodgson reflects on Covid-19, books, and the position of churches today [Guest post]

By Jim Hodgson

This post was originally published on Rainbow Faith and Freedom, November 2021. Kindly republished with permission of Jim, who is part of the communications sub-group of Rainbow Pilgrims of Faith.

Before the pandemic, I had planned to retire from a sort of career that played out among topics you’re told not to talk about at your aunt’s dinner party: religion, politics and queer sexuality.

You probably don’t know me. Inspired by liberation theology and the ways that Christians worked for peace and social justice, I worked as a journalist in Catholic newspapers, and later as a communicator and educator about media, social movements, global development, and ecumenical and inter-faith collaboration. I lived for two years in the Dominican Republic and six years in Mexico, and travelled in eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America.

For the past 20 years, I worked with The United Church of Canada as its Latin America-Caribbean program coordinator. There, gradually, I helped to open space for North-South dialogue within and among churches for LGBTIQ rights and inclusion, finding allies in the Dignity Network, Rainbow Faith and Freedom and across the global South.

The retirement plan was to move with my partner to his hometown in southern Mexico, and to keep writing. The virus had other plans, and 18 months or so later, we are still in Toronto.

For a couple of years before the pandemic, I had filled my reading time (in airports and planes) with Marlon James, Edwidge Danticat, Jewell Parker Rhodes, Julia Álvarez, Ahmed Danny Ramadan, Catherine Hernandez, Silvia Moreno-García—women, LGBTIQ, and majority-world writers. But with our quasi-quarantine, I found myself looking more often to books I had bought over the years—ones I had forgotten about or never read.

One day in May, I wedged Moreno-García’s excellent Mexican Gothic on to the end of a crowded M shelf. I found myself staring at books that were stashed nearby. Two books by Brian Moore caught my eye. A third book, Boys Like Us, by Brian McGehee also called to me. And there too was The Bishop’s Man, by Linden MacIntyre. I pulled them from the shelf, and in the course of a few days, read the first three.

Moore was an Irish-Canadian writer who is best-known for Black Robe, a novel and film that remain sharply pertinent as Canadian Christians contend with issues of history, truth and reconciliation with First Nations. The two novels on my shelf were The Colour of Blood (1987) and No Other Life (1993). Both wrestle with the role of religion in political spaces, the ground I have walked these past four decades.

The Colour of Blood is set in a country like Poland and published in 1987, two years before the collapse of the Communist governments in eastern Europe. It tells the story of a Roman Catholic cardinal and the choices he must make in the face of a popular revolt against a morally-exhausted regime: think of the Solidarnosc movement in the late 70s.

No Other Life is set in a thinly-disguised Haiti, and is about a Québécois priest who was friend and mentor to a younger, local priest who becomes president. The ending is different from that of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the priest who, drawing inspiration from liberation theology, was twice elected president and twice overthrown. I had made my first visit to Haiti in 1984 while Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier was still in power, and visited again in 1987 while the country convulsed with hope as popular movements confronted the armed forces. In 1990, I returned as an observer of the 1990 election when Aristide surged to power on a wave of popular support. (I met Aristide a few days before the vote and then again a few years later during his first exile.)

No Other Life is like a very earnest Graham Greene, but it lacks Greene’s ironic humour about both the human condition and the brutal ignorance of oppressors. (Moore must have known that comparisons with Greene’s Haiti novel, The Comedians, would be inevitable.) Moore presents the essential conflict of needing to be rid of a violent and repressive system and trying to choose fair or ethical tools to use against systems that value no ethics. The rites and power games of church and state are well-described. Meanwhile, Haiti’s troubles and my solidarity continue.

After those two books, Brian McGehee’s Boys Like Us was refreshment. I was quickly enchanted by his lively writing, and his descriptions of the Church and Wellesley community and the shenanigans of our mutual neighbours. McGehee was originally from Arkansas and brought a healthy dose of Tennessee Williams and southern gothic style to his writing and our village.

The book was published in 1991, which, I learned, was also the year that McGehee died. He was partner of Douglas Wilson, whom I remember from Rites magazine and AIDS Action Now. Doug died the following year. During this COVID pandemic, I have thought frequently of the other great pandemic of my life. AIDS was terrible, ravaging our people—writers, dancers, journalists, activists, artists and our partners.

Finally, I turned to The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre. It was published in August 2009 and won the Giller Prize that year. Creatively and efficiently, he moves a story forward about a priest who becomes disheartened by his role as the bishop’s fixer—the one who managed priests who struggle with addiction or who commit sex crimes—as he faces the consequences of cases that he helped to cover up in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

The novel derives from disclosures in 1989 about abuse by an order of lay brothers at the Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John’s and the eruption of abuse complaints across Canada. Soon, Indigenous people who had attended any of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools were saying, “That happened to us too.”

The Bishop’s Man became personal to me. If, as is said, everyone is connected by just six degrees of separation, in Canada it’s about two degrees—and that’s especially true in church circles. I come from a long line of settlers and was raised on the unceded territory of the Syilx Okanagan people at the west end of this country, but in the late 80s and early 90s, I knew some of the Atlantic region bishops and priests whose actions or negligence inspired McIntyre’s story.

One of them was Raymond Lahey, bishop of St. George’s diocese in western Newfoundland when I knew him (or thought I knew him), and later bishop of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, the diocese that includes Cape Breton where most of McIntyre’s story unfolds.

To be born again, our churches must truly opt for the poor, the marginalized, the dispossessed, the locked-out, los de abajo, les condamné-e-s de la terre.

In the latter part of the time that I worked with the Canadian Council of Churches (1989-94), Lahey served on its governing board. He was also a member of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. He felt like an ally in some of the justice issues that I cared about. At the Synod of the Americas in 1997, he said: “the Gospel demands that the church today must dialogue with those estranged from it. Such group include: women, on their role in Church and society; homosexual persons, on discrimination and sensitivity toward them; youth, on the values they hold; environmentalists, on the use of creation and population issues; the pro-choice movement, on freedom of conscience; New Age movements; those in fractured families and broken marriages; and other similar groups. Dialogue involves risk, and will not be easy.”

In 1999, I met Lahey again in Mexico City when Pope John Paul II made the final synod document public. I was covering the papal visit for Catholic News Service, and met Lahey in a hotel lobby crowded with princes of the church.

He told me he was struck by the document’s “sense of honesty bringing the Gospel into the context of the modern world. I think it reflects faithfully on the state of the church in the length and breadth of America, which is really very similar all even from Canada to Chile. The needs of people in our world today and how to preach the Gospel in terms that people can hear and that can reconcile people to the institution.”

For me, it’s the Catholic social teaching represented in documents like that one, together with the documents of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s and various meetings of Latin American bishops (especially their articulation of a “preferential option for the poor”) that helped me maintain a fragile connection with the Catholic Church.

A decade passed after my last meeting with Lahey and, as Gordon Lightfoot sang, “Heroes often fail.” On Aug. 7, 2009, Lahey announced that the Antigonish diocese had reached a $15 million settlement in a class action lawsuit filed by victims of sexual abuse by diocesan priests dating to 1950. Five weeks later, as he returned from international travel, customs officials at the Ottawa airport found child pornography in his laptop computer. Disgrace and prison followed. A priest of the St. John’s archdiocese later told reporters that he had told his archbishop in early 1989 that he had learned from one of the Mount Cashel survivors that Lahey had been in possession of child porn years earlier. Nothing was done.

In late May this year, I finished reading The Bishop’s Man as news began to arrive in avalanches. On May 28, the report came of the discovery of 215 graves of children on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. I knew two people, leaders respectively in the Syilx and Nlaka’pamux nations who survived their attendance at that school and who guided me in the late 70s into good ways of listening to Indigenous peoples and hearing their stories. They’re both gone now, and this settler boy is grateful for their patient teaching.

I had also been blessed to attend the presentation in Ottawa in 2015 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report and Calls to Action, and so I knew from the stories of survivors that days would come when stories would be believed, truth emerge, and cemeteries uncovered.

At their best, churches can bring people together. Too often now, we see them at their worst […] What now of those church places where I have dedicated so much time?

On June 6, a Muslim family of four was murdered in a hate crime in London, Ont., leaving only one child as a survivor. On June 21, a church that I know on the land of the Penticton Syilx First Nation was burned down, and other churches have burned or been defaced since then. A wild fire destroyed the beautiful town of Lytton, nearby Nlaka’pamux communities, and a vital Chinese-Canadian history museum. On July 7, the president of Haiti was assassinated, an event that seems completely detached from the reality of daily life of most Haitians while revealing the connections between Colombia’s armed forces, paramilitary death squads and mercenaries.

During the pandemic, like many others, I latched onto Netflix as a replacement for movie theatres. In Sense8, the characters wander at times through the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. A line on a wall asks: “Ist der Holocaust ein Irrweg oder eine Spiegelung unseres selbst?” (“Is the Holocaust an aberration or a reflection of ourselves?”).

While, increasingly, I think the latter (residential schools, voter suppression, malicious vaccine nationalism), there is an antidote: social movements—the multiple ways people connect with each other for change—defending voting rights in Georgia or Texas, protecting migrant workers and refugees, strengthening LGBTIQ rights around the world trade unions, cooperatives, the women’s movement.

At their best, churches can bring people together. Too often now, we see them at their worst: bishops who refuse to apologize; evangelists who get rich by gouging the faithful; false prophets who spread hatred and fear.  So: what now of those church places where I have dedicated so much time?

At the July 1968 assembly of the World Council of Churches in Uppsala, Sweden, the African-American writer James Baldwin, the gay son of a Baptist preacher, spoke to the assembly on the theme “White Racism or World Community.” He was there in place of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been assassinated less than three months earlier.

Baldwin introduced himself as one had always been outside the church, even when he had tried to work in it. “I address you as one of God’s creatures whom the Christian church has most betrayed.” Re-telling the long story of racism, he said: “long ago, for a complex of reasons, but among them power, the Christian personality split into two — into dark and light, and is now bewildered and at war with itself…. I wonder if there is left in the Christian civilizations the moral energy, the spiritual daring to atone, to repent, to be born again?”

To be born again, our churches must truly opt for the poor, the marginalized, the dispossessed, the locked-out, los de abajo, les condamné-e-s de la terre. They must abandon colonial privilege and begin at last to understand reality (as theologian Néstor Medina has said in a different context) “from the perspective of its underside.”

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