Several people from the Alberta and Northwest area attended the United Church’s National General Council 43 meeting in Oshawa in July as Commissioners. Below are reflections from six of our Commissioners. We asked if they would reflect on three highlights and/or information or experiences they thought were important to pass onto people in our area. Thank you to these Commissioners for taking the time to write about their experience. More Commissioners will likely be speaking in their presbyteries and communities of faith in the weeks to come.

AUGUST 24 NOTE: WE HAVE ADDED AN ADDITIONAL REFLECTION FROM KATHARINE MOORE, EDMONTON PRESBYTERY. PLEASE SEE BELOW

Katharine Moore, Edmonton Presbytery

This was a week filled with many moments where the “old” met the “new” – and often collided with each other. Having attended General Council on four previous occasions since 2003, GC43 was a fascinating mix of the familiar and the unknown. Three highlights for me:

Commissioners to GC431) The importance of listening and participating in thoughtful conversation. While the new business process allowed less time than previous meetings for working just with our table mates, the composition of that group has a significant influence on the level of satisfaction about the overall value of the meeting. Table group #60 was very inspiring and enlightening, and it was comprised of a designated lay minister from the prairies, two clergy serving in big cities, an ecumenical guest from Africa, a Conference Executive Secretary, a member of the All Native Circle Conference, and myself. Our table group joined with three others for the discussion sessions prior to the voting on various proposals, and the level of preparation for the meeting and commitment to the future of the United Church that the participants demonstrated in these sessions was very impressive. In the end, the church is about people and relationships.

2) The unexpected way the meeting finished following Paul Douglas Walfall’s reflection as an Intercultural Observer. Paul’s frank comments about racism may be better known in our Conference as a result of his time as President, but I believe most people at the final session were shocked to hear heartfelt testimonies from speaker after speaker about their personal experiences of racism and marginalization within the United Church. Moderator Jordan Cantwell managed the entire meeting very skillfully, but I felt the grace she demonstrated during the final plenary session was a gift to everyone. Up to that point, I think many people felt we had accomplished a great deal during the week and had done some excellent work, but it was the somber and sobering ending to the meeting that has placed an ongoing challenge in front of all of us to live into our commitment to truly be an intercultural church.

3) The voting on the seven remits took place on the first afternoon of the meeting, and as we know they were all enacted. After all the study and discussion about the remits over the last three years, and the magnitude and impact of enacting them, this historic piece of business was over quickly. The Sunset Ceremony for Conferences and Presbyteries on 24 July was a meaningful reminder of the importance of the legacy of faithful work done under the old structures, as well as pointing to the significant challenges now awaiting us all as the result of decisions made at the meeting.

It was a humbling and spirit-filled experience to attend GC43 in Oshawa, and I am grateful to Alberta and Northwest Conference for the opportunity to serve as a Commissioner.

Gaie Goin, Red Deer Presbytery

Gaie Goin

Gaie Goin: every United Church Community of Faith was held in prayer at GC43

GC43 was a week of awakening, enlightenment, encouragement and expectation for the future of our United Church.

Highlights for me began with Sunday morning worship with the ceremony welcoming us to traditional territories; the invitation, gift-giving, and the cleansing; wiping the eyes to see better and see one another clearly, cleansing the mouth to speak again in a clear way and cleansing the ears to hear in a good way. This ceremony set the stage for a week of seeing more clearly, speaking more clearly and listening in a good way. Especially meaningful for me were the words shared by Intercultural storyteller Adele Halliday (General Council staff)- “We have moved… we move.. creating better places of belonging, risking faith and daring hope.” Our theme of Risking Faith and Daring Hope was reinforced throughout the service in music and messages and continued to guide our week of prayerful decision-making and relationship building.

The second highlight for me was the gift of building relationships with folks I’d occasionally met in the United Church and with many new friends from across our country and abroad. Table groups, discussion groups and listening sessions, along with meal and coffee time, provided opportunities to get to know each other in meaningful ways and maybe to hear each others’ stories with new insights and calls to respond. As we explore our new regional relationships, it was great to meet friends along Hwy 13 and into northern parts of our region.

The skilled leadership of our moderator Rev. Jordan Cantwell and General Secretary Nora Sanders, along with the new business model, kept our business meetings running smoothly. The music ministry throughout the week reinforced the work we did, and the morning worship set the agenda for each day’s tasks. Leaders at all levels shared their skills with humility and vulnerability- responding to the needs of the court in service and in love, as the Rev. Miriam Spies called the church to do in her opening message.

I am grateful to have had this opportunity and look forward to serving as commissioner as we continue to live into God’s call to risk faith and dare hope.

Dr Kathy Yamashita, ANW Conference President. Kathy attended the first half of the GC43 before needing to return to Lethbridge because her father was dying. Long-time United Church member Yasuo Yamashita died on July 29.

YoonOk Shin & Kathy Yamashita

YoonOk Shin & Kathy Yamashita before getting thoroughly soaked in pouring rain

I had attended another General Council meeting which was more comfortable than GC 43. The previous meeting created commissions that each dealt with a certain number of motions and the plenary group dealt with a small number of motions. Things were predictable. Venues and directions were clear and I never felt lost.

Feeling lost was my experience every day at GC 43.  Each commissioner had the potential need to attend three meetings before a motion could be passed or not. So each commissioner was in separate “Listening”, “Discussion” meetings for each of the groups of motions.  The campus is laid out in a confusing maze of buildings, some of which were not identified on the map that we were given. Even the stewards did not always know where we to go.

I entered the Alvin Dixon Memorial Walk which happened early morning on the Sunday in pouring rain. There was very little information about the exact route which was not marked out. We walkers had to follow the runners who took off with a whoop and disappeared. I am a slow walker and soon could not see where the runners were going. So I gave up and went back to the residence, had a dispirited hot shower and a nap. It felt like the church had left me behind. I don’t think any of the organizers had a clue that I did not finish.

Perhaps this is an analogy of what is happening to the United Church right now. We are going through change. The processes are different. We do not know our way and we are not sure if it will all work.

Sue Brodrick, ANW Conference’s Lay representative to General Council Executive

The first new experience for me was the Sunday morning Sunrise Circle Prayer offered to us by our Indigenous friends. We got on the bus at 6:00 AM and went to a beautiful park. It was overcast but not yet raining. As the Elder started the Prayer Circle first by telling us about himself and then encouraging us to let the spirit take away our burdens, allow ourselves to forgive our ancestors and move forward.

A sacred fire was lit and then our Moderator Rev. Jordan Cantwell presented the Elder a gift of tobacco. He then spoke about the pipe and the meaning behind sharing the pipe. We were all invited to smoke the pipe or at least touch it to feel the spirit from it. We were then each asked to take a bit of tobacco from the box and hold it throughout the prayer time. After that, the rains started to come which were heavy, but well appreciated as it had been so dry in the area up to that day. The prayer circle continued, we heard the story of the eagle feather, it was passed around. During all this the elder was talking about moving forward, understanding our past but letting go and moving on.

I learned also that we were to try to keep all the elders dry. Consequently, some of the umbrellas we had brought were held over the elders, therefore, getting wet ourselves but that felt good; respect is a wonderful thing.

Continuing on the prayer circle a song/chant was offered to us by one of the Elder Women which was quite moving. Then we were each given a fresh strawberry and asked to eat all of it even the green because this is the fruit of the land, Mother Earth. Once we had eaten the fruit we then gave back the tobacco we received earlier to the sacred fire with a moment of silent prayer. The rains continued even harder. We then had a hug circle which started with the Elder hugging each of us, and as we were hugged we joined the circle hugging each other in the circle following the Elder. Since it was raining so hard people were huddled under a small canopy (those that could get under) and therefore the circle wasn’t a true circle but we managed to make it work. Once the circle was completed the leading elder shared a song with us — his drum was so wet that it was “dead” as he called it — but he still did the ritual song. Then he invited us to back to our breakfast saying a prayer as we ate since normally a meal is shared right after the Prayer Circle and that wasn’t feasible at this gathering.

General Secretary Nora Sanders and Moderator Jordan Cantwell: GC43 Business

General Secretary Nora Sanders and Moderator Jordan Cantwell: GC43 Business

Of course, for those of you who know me, the business of GC43 is always very important to me, I love governance and the administrative work that is required to keep the United Church of Canada a spiritual denomination for all of our Communities of Faith. Having been on GC Executive for the past 6 years I had used the new business models at our last two or three executive meetings, and really liked the process. Once the commissioners fully understood the process I think the decision making of the GC43 business went very well. I do wonder how the people of our United Church expect all the items approved to move forward and get done over the next three years. I know the Executive will need to prioritize the work; they just can’t physically get everything done. We all have great thoughts and ideas and need to realize that not everything can possibly happen at the same time. This was obvious when an item from GC42 was brought up that had been approved by GC42 but to date, no work had been done on this. It related to some of the proposals brought to GC43; therefore it could now be one of the priorities for the next triennium.

The third item that had a huge impact on me is hard to choose. The Thursday evening Youth presentation was wonderful, including all persons no matter what their diversity. The discussion on Tuesday morning understanding the feelings of “La Table,” the francophone members of our church, was also a very important time that helps those of us not connected with francophone people to understand. The French were settlers in Canada just as the English speaking persons were. The other item was Friday evening when Rev. Paul Walfall gave a report as the Intercultural Observer at GC43. His report spoke about racism, lack of inclusion of the marginalized that he observed happening during the week. We think we are including all but when you are the white person looking through your lens you don’t really understand what you are or aren’t doing to be inclusive, non-racist, not being aware of the marginalized. I won’t go into this anymore but I encourage you to go on the United Church website for GC43 and watch the happenings from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm on Friday the 27th of July. This is what church is really about; this was a very powerful moment I believe for everyone in attendance.

Rev. YoonOk Shin (DM), Intercultural Ministry Facilitator, Edmonton Presbytery in Alberta and Northwest Conference.

Commissioners to GC43

Adventure, excitement, and waiting for a new experience, yet it seemed like a long way to go, a long list to prepare, and lots to read to get there as a Commissioner for the first time to GC 43 in Oshawa.

We were the United Church.  Some of us knew one another, some didn’t. Some of us had been there before and some were there for the first time.  We heard stories, addressed issues and celebrated many things. We were all holding onto hope for the Church and the world.  We felt blessed to be there, praising God, praying and working for the world and the church in one circle that we called GC 43.

Opening Worship service One of the highlights for me was the special ceremony between the Indigenous people and the rest of us in the opening service for the GC43 on Sunday, July 22. Those of us who are not Indigenous requested permission to enter and make use of the meeting place because we are on their territory and land. It was a respectful exercise that we as the United Church teach and believe.

 Hidden Voices were being heard: Another special experience for me was when we all sat and listened to our racialized brothers and sisters’ stories. It was unexpected yet led by the Spirit of God. They shared their experiences of injustice, not being treated equally, struggling in the Church because of racism.

Invisible minorities opened their vulnerabilities, shared the pains, challenges and struggles in their daily lives in the church and communities. We heard their stories and saw their wounds.

The room had filled with silence.

We have heard the realities of Racism, inequality and discrimination in the church, its worship places, and in the mission and ministry of the United Church. I understand what they are saying because it’s also my own struggle in ministry.   Most of the time, it happens because of a lack of awareness, poor attitudes, and lack of knowledge of other’s gifts. Racism is caused by a perception of Superiority and Inferiority.  Both lead to fear, discrimination, and dislike, and can lead to violence as we have witnessed in the Church and the World.

Many cultures, have long histories, and their own values and meanings but colonization changed that; therefore, we need to relearn and understand the meaning of colonialism for today and how it has influenced, and oppressed, not only their culture and language but also their souls.  They have been wounded for generations and left with pain, fear, confusion, and little confidence in their own abilities.

We can overcome Racism in the church because it is not inherited at birth; it is implanted, taught and learned. All of us were born into a certain culture due to no credit or fault of ours.  We can be re-educated.  Through experience and practice, we can come to understand that every culture has many gifts to offer, that must be appreciated, accepted and respected.

I am so thankful that the Intercultural ministry standing committee’s proposal regarding the importance of this ministry at every structural level of the church was acknowledged and accepted by both the Conference and the GC43.

We can continue to walk with those invisible brothers and sister and also with all who move forward to plant intercultural ministry seeds through an intercultural lens as our priority and goal as we work towards the future our church.

Companion with one of the United Church of Canada’s global partner.  I was privileged to be invited to serve as a host commissioner at this GC to one of the United Churches of Canada’s global partners and ecumenical guests. There were 22 Reps or guests whom our UCC is in partnership with around the world near and far.

I was introduced to Rev. Paul S.Tche who has served the Council on Christian Unity ( CCU), which functions as the office for ecumenical and interfaith affairs of the Christian Church ( Disciples of Christ ) in the US.  I was honoured to introduce him as my guest. I had the wonderful opportunity to learn, hear and understand more about the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) which is now in full communion with the UCC. According to Rev. Paul Tche, one of the biggest differences from our Church is that the congregation has lots of authority when making decisions regarding mission and ministry. We do need some hierarchical leadership in the UCC and we do have some of the same values. But we also, more importantly, need a down – upward leadership as much as an up-down leadership. We need communications and listening from the bottom up as well as from the top down in relation to each level of the church in a diverse world and in our communities.

I am hoping that we keep learning from those who are in full communion with the United Church, those with different gifts, and values to add to the commonality as we move and minister together.

Let us hold the aching world and people among us in our hopes and dreams. Thanks be to God and the United Church through whom we are seeing God’s kingdom on earth where we and our families live.

Rev. Alwin Maben, Coronation Presbytery

Alwin Maben & YoonOk Shin Kang

Alwin Maben & YoonOk Shin Kang

First of all, I want to thank Coronation Presbytery, Alberta and Northwest Conference and also to Coronation Pastoral charge for giving me this opportunity to be a Commissioner to GC43. It indeed was a unique opportunity and an enriching experience. In fact, I liked everything about the GC 43 – the food, accommodation, the venue, the worship, meeting and sharing with colleagues across Canada, the way business was conducted through the process of plenary, listening, discussion and the facilitation group who did a good job to guide in decision making. The Festival of Faith was fun. It was also fun taking part in the Alvin Dixon walk with friends in the pouring rain for a cause. The excursion to Lavender Park and then the Cruise ride with dinner was also fun. Also I was able too taste the world famous Butter Tart and participated in Thursdays in Black, a campaign about wearing Black on Thursdays to raise awareness of gender-based violence, to name a few.

Apart from electing a New Moderator in Right Rev. Richard Bott, many exciting and challenging things, especially, the big decisions about the structural change that comes into effect from January 2019. They are all on the GC website. As for me, it was the pleasure of presenting the proposal made by the Intercultural Ministry Standing Committee, along with Rev. YoonOk Shin Kang and the joy of seeing the same being approved by the General Council. I look forward to it being implemented effectively in the new structure.

Also had the privilege of being a host commissioner to one of our global partner/ecumenical guest Teresa “Terri” Hord Owens, General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada.  It was a joy to see the GC overwhelmingly affirm The Disciples of Christ who are involved in UNESCO’s Canadian Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination as the new full communion partner.

Of course, the kairos moment for me happened unexpectedly towards the final hours of the meeting. The challenging words “Acknowledge, Commit, Transform” (ACT) from Rev. Paul Douglas Walfall as Intercultural Observer not only brought the Council to a stop for a moment but opened the floodgates for the invisible, Indigenous and racialized commissioners and guests take to the microphones for almost two hours to share their personal experiences of racism and marginalization in the church. One must thank the youth delegate Daniel MacDonald and commissioner Penny Nelson for proposing that the General Council ask their racialized siblings for forgiveness and to the Moderator – Jordan Cantwell for handling the situation. The church made the commitment to becoming intercultural in 2006 but the stories shared spoke powerfully to the issues of racism and discrimination existing in the Church that needed to be heard. It is not just who is missing at the Table but as Paul said, “What am I doing at this table?” That was a powerful call to the church for true transformation and I believe that the journey has just begun.

Rev. Britt Aerhart, Yellowhead Presbytery

Former Moderator Jordan Cantwell and New Moderator Richard Bott

Former Moderator Jordan Cantwell and New Moderator Richard Bott

1. Be a Good Ancestor

GC 43 opened at about 6:30 am on the first day with the lighting of the sacred fire, and a tobacco offering by each person present. The Traditional Knowledge Keeper and Elder who spoke, ended the sacred fire lighting with the words, “Be a good Ancestor.” I carried these words with me as a commissioner throughout the week of GC43.
2. A Trial Process
We all approached the process for GC43 differently. It proceeded from Listening Sessions devoted to specific themes, to small group discussion which delved more deeply into proposals, to whole court decision sessions for each proposal. Some of us appreciated the variety of group sizes used in this process, which allowed different people to engage discussion in ways comfortable for them. The need to speak in-depth primarily with the whole court of commissioners was still an expectation for some commissioners. With 100 proposals to take in and a week in which to do it, Moderator Jordan Cantwell chaired the meeting with frequent reminders that commissioners should leave room for people slower in spirit or body to get to the mike. I reminded myself of several good discernment questions: Does this need to be said? Does this need to be said here? Does this need to be said here by me? Does this need to be said here by me now?
3. Trust and Control 
On reflection, having a voice became a silent theme at GC43. Whether that was through proposals for specific groups to have direct representation on the national executive or on the regional executives, or proposals for broader national discussions about theology, the basis of union,  mission, rural ministry, and more. Searching for a sense of control amidst change was also, it seemed to me, another silent theme. In times of change, when we are not in direct control of every outcome, can we trust those people in leadership to discern what needs to be done? Better yet can we risk trusting God to be at work in the things we can’t directly control for ourselves?
4. A Heart-sore Takeaway
GC43 engaged a vision of the UCC as an intercultural church. Throughout the worship, music and proposal presentations we received an impression of what intercultural expressions of being the church look like. I was moved and in awe of the deep intentional effort and the obvious amount of work that went into this aspect of GC43. It was amazing. At the same time, GC43 was challenged in its closing minutes to hear about experiences of racism in the church. In a two and a half hour extension which pushed on into the final evening,  these stories about experiences of racism were hard-hitting. For myself, I have likened the experience to hearing a beloved open up about something painful just as the final boarding call to get on the plane is announced. We concluded GC43 with worship and the installation of the new moderator, who received the ashes from the sacred fire. The fire had left behind charcoal chunks, and not the expected ash of a complete burn. These chunks of burnt wood were offered as a symbol of the unfinished spiritual work of United Church people in learning to be good ancestors. As we all left GC43 I carried with me a sense of restlessness and heartache alongside questions about how we transform hearts and minds at the lived level of community life in the church. That is the work of ministry in and by communities of faith, and it is, I suspect, the place where regions have the potential to make an important contribution going forward.