With Elaine and Ched in Winnipeg: A Report from Tommy and Lindsay Airey

Tommy Airey is inhabiting our blog space again!  He and Lindsay are amidst a 10 week circumnavigation by Prius of North America, visiting friends and radical Christian communities along the way.  They met up with Elaine and I in Winnipeg, MB during the last week of June, and Tom’s report (an excerpt from their road trip blog) captures some of the highlights of that week. (Above: Harley Eagle talks to our class at CSOP.)
Conversation is a discourse that holds within it the possibility of mutual conversion. (Ched Myers & Elaine Enns, Ambassadors Of Reconciliation, Volume II, 2012)
We are all involved in politics whether we like it or not. Otherwise you are in denial. (Bill Blaikie, retired New Democratic Party political leader)
Mitakuye Oyasin (Lakota Sioux Phrase used to end prayers meaning “everything and everybody is connected”) First time in Canada for both Lindsay and me.  On the warmest day of the summer so far (30 degrees celsius!), we headed to Winnipeg, just an hour north of the Minnesota/Canada border. We met A LOT of fascinating people this week.  When we got to town, we shot over to Canadian Mennonite University, south of the Assiniboine River, where Ched Myers and Elaine Enns were teaching a one-week intensive on Restorative Justice at the Canadian School Of Peacebuilding.  They were teaching the material from the “textbooks” they co-authored on the subject: Ambassadors of Reconciliation, Volumes 1 & 2. 
Ched & Elaine have had a HUGE impact on us, in both word and deed. Here’s how they describe (in AOR, Volume 2) where they are coming from theologically (a starting point that we resonate with greatly):  “We identify as noted with the Anabaptist tradition of Christianity, especially its historic commitments to radical discipleship, to biblical justice and nonviolence, and to noncooperation with all forms of state domination.”
On Tuesday night, we were honored to attend a BBQ at the home of Gerald/Esther Gerbrandt. Gerald was the president of CMU for decades, presiding over the school back in the 90s when Elaine was a student. He held the presence of a warm, scholarly grandfather, quick to joke, but also interested in talking about more controversial subjects (like the Mennonite denomination’s current wrestling match with [homo]sexuality issues). The dinner Esther prepared was top-notch, but her rhubarb dessert dish was absolutely heavenly. 
On Wednesday afternoon, Ched and Elaine invited Bill Blaikie to speak to their class. I had never heard of Blaikie, but he is well-known to virtually all Canadians due to his work in the spotlight as a federal legislator for more than 2 decades. He’s 6’6″ with a grey beard and a quick wit. What is particularly unique about him is his commitment to the prophetic “social gospel” Christian tradition, which of course, bears fruit in progressive policies. Like his mentor Tommy Douglass (the Canadian prime minister who courageously fought for universal health coverage half a century ago), Blaikie is an ordained minister with the United Church of Canada. 
Blaikie learned to develop thick skin, not with secular legislators and constituents, but with fellow Christians, most of whom are obsessed with “below the belt” issues and tend to triumphantly claim a monopoly on “the Christian position” on every issue. But in class, Blaikie proclaimed that “if people take their faith seriously, they will eventually go down the road of the social gospel,” a scenario that played out for him early in life as he studied the message of the Hebrew prophets to repent of personal sins oppressive socio-economic policies of the 1% elites. But, of course, there are far too many Christians living in denial he says, citing the 8th chapter of Mark, of those “who have ears but fail to hear.”
Blaikie viewed his vocation as that of a “double-agent.” Back in 1999, the WTO was holding meetings in Seattle and there were massive anti-globalization protests going on in the streets. Blaikie spent most of his time in the streets, but he held the credentials to go inside the meetings as well. He felt much more comfortable with the activists. Ultimately, he believed that it was more important to be faithful to God’s idea of justice than it was to be successful. But this didn’t mean he courted defeat. It was always pertinent “to be successful enough to be in the room.” This was the tension that Blaikie constantly lived in.
He kept his head and heart straight by reading theology everyday. This was his crucial spiritual practice. “There’s a tendency in Christian circles,” he laments, “to love God with all your heart and soul and then to give your mind to someone else.” He was always on the lookout for those so-called “neo-liberals” who do whatever they possibly can to reduce the power of the government to keep corporate power accountable. He cites (as one small example) the cosmetic pesticides industry, or what he calls “have-a-nice-lawn-industry,” which has consistently embraced a strategy to challenge folks in court in order to settle out of court, intimidating the rest of us while staying under the radar at the same time.
There really hasn’t been an American politician, on the national level, who has combined a passion for socio-economic justice and fervor for Christian faith quite like Blaikie has in Canada. Perhaps the great Civil Rights Movement leader and Georgia Congressman John Lewis is the only American correlation. Lewis, a graduate of American Baptist Seminary in Nashville, was, at 21, the youngest speaker 50 years ago at the March on Washington. 
This week Lindsay and I celebrated from afar the US Supreme Court’s overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act. Here’s what Lewis announced from the floor of the House about the strongly bipartisan-supported DOMA back in 1996 when it was being debated: “This bill is a slap in the face of the Declaration of Independence. It denies gay men and women the right of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Marriage is a basic human right. You cannot tell people they cannot fall in love. I will not turn my back on another American. I will not oppress my fellow human being. I fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation.” So maybe Blaikie is the white Canadian John Lewis. Brilliant.
On Wednesday night, Ched & Elaine invited us to join them for a Thai dinner with the political-theological cartoonist Bob Haverluck, Blaikie and his wife. We then went to “dessert” with several of Ched/Elaine’s friends (old & new), a fantastic line-up of passionate and brilliant Winnipeggers.   Aiden Enns, the founder and editor of Geez Magazine, talked of the vital soul-benefits of going off-line and making time to put our hands in the soil of a backyard garden. He also lamented our society’s insane practice of removing human waste our shit by flushing it into potable water our potential drinking water. He passionately shared about his 3-year experiment with a compost toilet in his home. It doesn’t use water and creates compost for his backyard garden. Not sure how this works in a studio apartment in Irvine, but it opened our eyes (and noses?) to socio-political-spiritual practice that is becoming popular with folks who care about the Land. Holy shit!  We were also joined by Scott Kroeker, a chemistry professor at the University of Manitoba whose life was changed after reading Ched’s Who Will Roll Away The Stone two decades ago, Matt Dueck and Cicily Hildebrand who help run the Canadian School For Peacebuilding and will be heading to Fuller Seminary in a year, and Kenton Lobe, a professor at Canadian Mennonite University and the mastermind behind the University community garden. 
It was great to listen to Ched & Elaine talk about their own theological journey with the garden in their Oak View, CA backyard. Tending the soil has kinesthetically taught them about patience, interdependence, trust and the overwhelming Life force springing up everywhere around us. The capacity for Growth is so often overlooked and underrated. No wonder Jesus used so many stories and analogies from Nature: mustard seeds, yeast, vineyards, soil, living water, lilies and ravens.  And no wonder we open up the Scriptures to find so many eventual followers of the Divine path connecting with the Land in shockingly ordinary ways: Abram & Sarai at the oak tree, Zaccheaus climbing a sycamore tree, a woman at the well and a prodigal feeding pods to the pigs (just to name a few).  Building a backyard garden, all these folks were echoing, is a small part of participating in the Kingdom of God. We shouldn’t expect quick, massive world-changes, but this small-but-crucial spiritual practice powerfully transforms our souls into Something authentic while chipping away at the insanity of our society’s factory farm system ofgrowing manufacturing food.
On Thursday we got the opportunity to hear Mubarak Awad speak at the CMU lunch banquet. A Palestinian and self-proclaimed “Troublemaker,” Awad was booted out of the Holy Land by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1988 for his participation in nonviolent civil disobedience. Awad, as a follower of Jesus, is deeply committed to nonviolent action and enemy love as he “fights” for justice in Palestine. In addition to his many peace and justice activities, he is currently working with an organization called Gaza’s Ark, raising money to build an ark to challenge the illegal and inhumane Israeli blockade of Gaza 
On Friday, we attended Ched & Elaine’s class to see Harley Eagle, a facilitator of restorative justice of Dakota descent. He is married to a white Mennonite woman and they live in Winnipeg with their two home-schooled daughters.  Harley is committed to a “circle process” of dialogue, walking together in a practice of listening to the other. Particularly, Harley is interested in a reconciling process between indigenous (1st Nations) and white settler people. A key to this process is the unresolved trauma that has been erased from the memories of white folk. We simply do not know where we come from, and therefore, unwittingly perpetuate the cycle of violence and domination in all our grasping for control. To start this process of recovery, we whiteys need to flip the script and embrace the Way of our marginalized indigenous brothers and sisters. We have an enormous amount of violence in our histories and we are literally bursting with guilt, shame and a survivalist mentality. We need to finally learn how to walk as guests on this Land and this will begin with our own healing. 
On Friday night we were invited to dine at the home of Elaine’s best friend Cheryl and her on-call doctor/husband Carl. The spread was extraordinary and Carl assured us all that the Canadian Universal Healthcare was working fantastically for patients…and doctors (I’ve heard many Americans claim that doctors in Canada are grossly underpaid).
This week was filled with the little differences that make journeys to a new Land so sweet: Canadian accents, lightening storms, sunsets at 10pm and more Mennonite and Aborginal folks than we’ve ever met. Our heads and hearts have been filled with paradigm-shifting lectures and deep conversations.