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This morning, four London civic activists released a media statement about a project they’ve been working on, a survey for all members of London City Council to gauge how they engage with citizens. The members of the group are Eamon O’Flynn (@EamonOFlynn), Susan Toth (@TothSusan), Shawn Adamsson (@late2game) and Anne-Marie Sánchez (@anma_sa).

This is the media release by the group:

Is your voice being heard at city hall? Do you want to know what your councillor does to engage with his or her constituents? A new study seeks to find out exactly what city council is doing to inform and engage its constituents.

A group of Londoners are conducting a survey to determine what methods councillors are using to engage the public. The Citizen Engagement in London Ontario, or CELO, study looks at mailing lists and newsletters, town hall meetings, ward events, and social media.

“Voter turnout rates are dropping across Canada,” says Susan Toth, an individual involved in the CELO study. “Engagement is a major factor in whether people decide to vote. We want to know what council is doing to engage its constituents.”

Toth’s group sent the survey to council members on Sept. 17, and set a deadline of Oct. 1. The survey is 25 questions and takes about 10 minutes to complete. Council members who do not finish the questionnaire will have to endure being branded “incomplete” on the survey’s website.

“We’ve done our best to be transparent and objective,” says Toth. “The goal isn’t to pass judgment. The goal is to identify which tools are being used.”

The group intends to offer training to any members of council who want to learn more about the variety of communication tools available to them.

The website for the project is here, featuring the members of Council who currently have and haven’t completed the survey.

As of this post, the members of Council that have completed the survey are: Joe Swan (Ward 3), Joni Baechler (Ward 5), Nancy Branscombe (Ward 6), Matt Brown (Ward 7), Paul Hubert (Ward 8) and Harold Usher (Ward 12).

The members that haven’t completed are: Mayor Joe Fontana, Bud Polhill (Ward 1), Bill Armstrong (Ward 2), Stephen Orser (Ward 4), Dale Henderson (Ward 9), Paul Van Meerbergen (Ward 10), Denise Brown (Ward 11), Judy Bryant (Ward 13) and Sandy White (Ward 14).

I hope that all members of Council will complete this survey, and connect with the team members to work to further connect with their constituents. With voter turnout decreasing all across the country, and only about 40% of all eligible Londoners voting in the last city election, any attempts to engage with citizens and encourage them to participate in the civic process is very exciting.

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I’ve been searching for sources that point to the Christian perspective of how they are perceived by broader society, partially to answer the question “does the church realize how out of touch it is?”. I ended up turning to my bookshelf, to a book I studied as a relatively new Christian in 2007.

The book is “unChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity”, by authors David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. In it, they report and analyze research performed by The Barna Group on American 16-29 year olds to gauge their feelings about Christianity. Their findings were overwhelmingly negative, ranging from hypocritical, too concerned with converting people, too political, sheltered, judgmental, and anti-homosexual. Their research was performed in the USA, but the work is extrapolated to the church in Canada, with many Christian groups here continuing to study it and preach/meditate on the connotations it has for all North American churches.

As a new-ish Christian I was gratified to see this type of research being performed, especially as I had distanced myself from Christianity for so long partially because of how it is perceived, as well as my own perceptions based on my experiences with Christians growing up.

However, though I was glad at the research being performed, the book raised some questions about how much the church as represented by the authors really wants to change. Opening it again as a more mature Christian, I found their conclusions much more difficult to stomach.

Both the results published and the conclusion the authors took from them are telling. Of all the stereotypes, anti-homosexual came up the most often. As the authors note:

In our research, the perception that Christians are “against” gays and lesbians – not only objecting to their lifestyles but also harboring irrational fear and unmerited scorn toward them – has reached critical mass. The gay issue has become the “big one”, the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity’s reputation. It is also the dimension that most clearly demonstrates the unChristian faith to young people today, surfacing a spate of negative perceptions: judgmental, bigoted, sheltered, right-wingers, hypocritical, insincere, and uncaring. Outsiders say our hostility towards gays – not just opposition to homosexual politics and behaviors but disdain for gay individuals – has become virtually synonymous with Christian faith.

What I find most telling is the wording they choose to frame their argument. Lifestyle. Unmerited. Critical Mass. Using these words, homosexuality is a lifestyle choice. There is such thing as merited scorn. Critical mass seems to denote a PR crisis, not a spiritual crisis. The list goes on. They continue:

Of course homosexuality is an electric topic. Most people have strong feelings about it. And the issue is incredibly complex, affecting families and children and influencing media and culture. Gay activists have been aggressive in their attempt to change Americans’ perceptions, and values on this topic. We cannot underestimate how a morally relativistic generation, along with sophisticated media and political strategies, have created a tinder box for Christians’ reputations in this regard.

I believe that our sexuality is not a choice because of reports by mainstream psychological associations stating that it isn’t. I believe that sexuality isn’t a sin because of intelligent analysis of the Bible by scholars arguing persuasively it isn’t. These arguments don’t take these into account, instead arguing that I and anyone that thinks like me has been hoodwinked by what some call the (I wish I was kidding) “gaygenda”.

The “conspiracy” really isn’t to transform our countries into anything other a place where people who love as I love have the freedom to marry the partner of their choice and enjoy the same legal freedoms I do. I am troubled by the continued assertions by conservative Christians that there is something sinister at work instead of a basic struggle for freedom and equality, and the suggestion I support equality for LGBT people because I am part of a “morally relativistic” generation. Also consider:

It is one thing to be against homosexuality, to affirm that the Bible rejects the practice of same-sex lifestyles, but it is another to be against homosexuals, to let your disagreement with their behavior spill out in your feelings and words toward them as people. It is unChristian to lose your sense that everyone’s fallen nature affects all aspects of his or her life, including sexuality, and to forget God’s command to love people in order to point them to Jesus.

This sounds a lot more like “love the sinner, hate the sin” (not biblical) than “Do not judge, or you too shall be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you (Matthew 7:1-2, NIV).

There is a great deal of debate over whether homosexuality is a sin; while I believe Christians are called to support our LGBT brothers and sisters, many will disagree. However, the psychological consensus is that our sexuality is not a choice, and not caused by any kind of mental disorder.

Homosexuals are the same as everyone else. I continue to struggle with this issue as I come to truly appreciate how different my understanding of the Bible on this issue is to many others’, yet grapple with my understanding that our sexuality isn’t a choice. I truly believe God wouldn’t create people in a way he would condemn. Homosexuality isn’t an aberration, yet so many Christians continue to mistreat people based on something that cannot help. Where is Christ in such actions? Where does the interpretation of scripture end and bigotry begin? Ultimately, what do we do when so many Christians behave in such unChristian ways? How do we respond in a Christ-like way?

Obviously, there is a great deal of work to do to change perceptions in the church about homosexuality. How do we start a conversation with fellow Christians on this important issue? That will be the focus of my next post in the series.

There are many problems plaguing Ontario’s public school system. The economy remains fairly stagnant and the provincial government is struggling to find solutions and cut costs, while battling with a minority government situation. For years the London community of Lorne Ave. Public School has been threatened with the closing of their school as resources become tighter and the school has struggled with under-population.

This spring, the provincial legislature battled through passing Bill C-13, the Accepting Schools Act, to tackle bullying, specifically the chronic problem of the bullying of LGBT students (as described here). The major obstacle for the passing of the bill was the Progressive Conservatives and the Catholic School Board opposing it, with the board saying that they would be forced to accept “behavior” that is against their religious teachings.

Things have only become more complicated since then. Over the summer the provincial government struggled to create a new contract with the different teacher unions as their previous contracts were set to expire. The McGuinty government accused the unions of dragging their heels over the summer, creating speculation about whether the school year would start on time. Eventually the government called an emergency session of the legislature, with the threat that they would legislate a new deal if the unions wouldn’t agree to the terms they were willing to offer.

The provincial government has just passed the controversial Bill C-115, The Putting Students First Act. As this article states, “It imposes a wage freeze, the end of sick-day banks and a two-year strike ban, over the objections of unions representing most of the province’s teachers and school staff.” Understandably, the unions are furious, saying that their democratic right to collective bargaining is being taken out of their hands, and are vowing to protest this action.

In retaliation, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) is urging teachers to reconsider staying after school for extra-curricular activities such as sports and clubs, drawing criticism that though their complaint is with government, they’re only punishing students with this action. As well, “ETFO also wants its members to take part in ‘McGuinty Mondays’ in which teachers and educational professionals refuse to take part in school or system-level meetings.”

All of these issues combine into a very volatile situation for the government, educators and students. The government struggles to cut the massive provincial deficit, including by cutting back teacher wages and benefits, yet they seem to be avoiding a difficult but important step to cutting the cost of our education system as well as ensuring it becomes fair for all Ontarians.

To me, there is a very real solution to these issues available: amalgamate the Catholic and public school boards into a single, united secular school board. It would combine all of the schools already owned by the province, make much more efficient use of all of the school resources including buildings, staff and teachers, and produce a truly fair public system.

So far, the Green Party of Ontario (GPO) is the only political party willing to amalgamate the Catholic and public school boards. Though I am traditionally a Liberal supporter I am completely ready to say this, and to say I wish other parties would take the GPO’s lead. GPO leader Mike Schreiner’s views seem very similar to my own; he sees it as an issue of fairness and fiscal responsibility. In his words:

It’s an issue of fairness. In today’s world, it’s unfair to fund one religion school system at the exclusion of all others. The second is fiscal responsibility. When we have a record provincial deficit and we’re talking about cuts to education and attacking teachers, to not look at ending wasteful duplication –  I think it’s irresponsible to not look at those savings.

Right now, we have a public school system that contravenes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, both by discriminating student entry and staff hiring by religion, and discriminating by sexuality. As well, in 1999 the United Nations Human Rights Committee condemned Canada and the province of Ontario for violating equality provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In this 2005 report, the Committee restated its concerns and observed that Canada continued to fail to “adopt steps in order to eliminate discrimination on the basis of religion in the funding of schools in Ontario.” Mr. Schreiner again:

I can’t think of any other place in society where we would allow two-thirds of our teachers to be denied employment opportunity. The Catholic board denies employment to non-catholic teachers and I don’t think you see that discrimination in hiring anywhere in Ontario especially by something that is funded by public tax dollars.

That doesn’t mean I believe we should completely eliminate religious teaching in our public schools. Far from it, I actually believe we should have more, as elective classes, and taught objectively instead of through a particular religious lens. As Mr. Schreiner says:

That doesn’t mean you can’t have religious education in the public system, you just can’t do it in a way that prioritizes one religion and excludes others.

This process would be a tremendous battle for our province, but it is absolutely the right thing to do. I hope that all parties will one day see this reality, and push to create a single, unified, fair and efficient school system.

I grew up in the small town of Wiarton, Ontario. Like many other towns, it has a small population (2,291) yet contains at least 10 distinct churches. Growing up, I had many people (classmates and adults alike) lecture me about not going to church. However church had no attraction for me, especially as those I spoke to didn’t seem interested in inviting me to join the church as the body of Christ, but only to tell me why their church was superior to everyone else’s, and to make sure that I started going to the “right one”.

Any person with this attitude gives me a great deal of concern, for the damage they do to the global church body by believing that their way is the only way. It damages relationships, and it stunts potential spiritual growth. I began to avoid the company of people who would try to lead me to join their church, no matter how well-meaning their invitations may be. It was only until college that I met a chaplain that was a leader at Fanshawe, and through many conversations and cups of coffee that I explored my spirituality, and ultimately became a believer in Christ.

As I continue on my journey, I have become more and more concerned about the damage the church does when it chooses to condemn. Living in Wiarton, I encountered many forms of prejudice, but perhaps especially homophobia, and most especially from those that I consider to be the most devout church-goers. This always surprised and appalled me, because the impression I had from my limited understanding of the Bible was that Christ had died on the cross for all people and all sin, and that all were welcome to partake in and share the Good News. In my child’s mind, these two realities shouldn’t have anything to do with each other.

It wasn’t based on real-world understandings of homosexuals. Several of my classmates have come out since graduating from school and moving from Wiarton. Unfortunately the atmosphere there was far too oppressive for anyone to be willing to be open about their sexuality while still there. It seemed no one that I knew had encountered a “real” homosexual, they only knew that the Bible told them (and often, their priest/pastor preached) that it was a sin.

All too often, the Bible is used to denounce behavior we disagree with by lifting convenient passages and quoting them out of context (a topic I covered in a previous blog post). All too often, passages of the Bible that call all that follow Jesus to stand up for the oppressed are omitted or ignored so that those that practice it may continue to feel their prejudice and judgement is Biblically supported. Jesus teaches us:

“Do not judge, or you too shall be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all a time there is a plank in your own eye. You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5 NIV)

As well, there are the Beatitudes of Jesus, that present Christian ideals of love and humility, mercy and compassion. They are:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those that are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. (Matthew 5:3-10 NIV)   

I firmly believe that Jesus would have us stand up for our LGBT brothers and sisters, instead of being part of the force that stands against them. Before the Pride London parade, I happened to meet Karen Low from Sabbath Place, and heard her pre-parade sermon delivered in Queen’s Park. She was kind enough to share her sermon notes with me, I’d like to share a portion of it here.

In a few moments we will take to the street to take our place amongst our community, wearing the colours of the rainbow and claiming our identities. On this day we will march, banners flying, declaring our pride in who we were created to be. We will dance in sheer exuberance and irresistible joy as a living vision of justice and equity; all will be welcome, all will be included, all will be safe. We will be every size, colour, gender and type, each with the right of self-expression, each with the right to love and live and be free. We will look around and see the beauty of creation on every face and in every heart. We will feel uncontainable wonder at the truth within us and around us…

And as we gratefully look into this circle of the spirit, we also turn our attention outward to see the millions who live lives of quiet desperation, to feel the suffering of those who exist without freedom, to hear the cries of those who struggle against the bars of injustice, praying and striving for the realization of that day when love becomes a palpable force in all lives and where all people know of their essential unity.

Here at home as well as all around the world, the LGBT community continues to be oppressed, partially by Christians, despite the fact that sexuality isn’t a choice someone makes for themselves. As we contemplate Karen’s message, we must remember Jesus’ message of peace, love, acceptance and understanding. I believe that Christ would have us stand with our LGBT brethren, not against them.