The Geography of Faith

[July 31, 2020 is my last day as a CRC Campus Minister and the pastor of the Wine Before Breakfast community at the University of Toronto. My “retirement” – whatever that means – begins at midnight tonight. And for many years I have written a weekly pastoral email to the WBB community during the school year, together with occasional emails throughout the summer. This is my last email to the community. Reflecting on the time of an ending, got me thinking of the places, or geography, of faith.]

Yonge and Gerrard
Bloor and Spadina
Gerrard and Parliament

This was the geography of my young faith.

More than simply street corners
these were the intersections of my earliest discipleship
in the Toronto of the late 60’s and early 70’s.

Yonge Street Mission at Yonge and Gerrard,
(later to become Evergreen)
was where I met Jesus
in the fall of 1969 at age 16.


Ontario Bible College at Bloor and Spadina
(later to become the suburban Tyndale University)
was where I began to cut my theological teeth
as a high school student crashing classes.

The Christian Youth Centre
at Gerrard and Parliament
(later to become the
Christian Community Centre)
was where my earliest discipleship happened,
hanging out with Regent Park kids.

And there was a path to be traversed
between these places.

The walk along Gerrard Street
from Yonge to Parliament
continues to stir up the emotions, excitement,
and turbulence of those early days.

But it was the walk from
Bloor and Spadina to Yonge and Gerrard
that would prove to be most formative
for where my path of discipleship would take me.

You see, between Bloor and Spadina
and Yonge and Gerrard
is the University of Toronto.

And so, I would cut through
the U of T campus
on my way to the Mission,
and I would linger there.

No, not really linger.
It would be more accurate to say
that I would snoop.

What is in that building?
What do they study there?
What happens if I open this door,
or the next one,
or the next one?
Can anyone walk into that library?
If I sit in this lounge and read for a while,
is anyone going to throw me out?

So it was that my very earliest geography of faith
included the University of Toronto.

Raised in a working class home,
with a very shaky educational career thus far,
going to university was not something that I even contemplated.

But the combination of an intellectual awakening
that came with my spiritual rebirth,
together with an emerging curiosity,
led me deeper and deeper into the world of the academy.

And then, sometime in 1970,
only a year into my Christian faith,
I found myself at an Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship meeting
in the Medical Sciences building at U of T.

An IVCF staff worker gave a talk.
I don’t remember who it was,
or even what the guy talked about.
But I know that it was good.

Some 25 or 30 students were hanging on his every word,
listening to him unpack the scriptures,
prodding them with questions,
discerning what faith looked like
at the modern university.

At the end of the meeting I wanted that guy’s job.

I wanted to spend my life unpacking the scriptures,
helping to dig deep into the struggles of life,
accompanying students into more radical paths of discipleship.

Yep, the youngest person in the room,
the kid who wasn’t even at university yet,
figured that his life would somehow
be bound up with campus ministry.

Between the intersections of
Bloor and Spadina and Yonge and Gerrard
lay the geography of my faith and calling.

I’ve never forgotten the path
down Gerrard Street to Regent Park,
or later, up through Victoria College
and along Charles Street to Sanctuary,
but my “place,”
even if sometimes uneasily
and almost always on the margins,
has been university life
and campus ministry in various forms,
for the past 50 years.

The last half of those 50 years
has been as a CRC campus minister
to the University of Toronto,
and most of that time as the pastor
of the Wine Before Breakfast community.

In your company, dear friends,
I have had the incredible privilege
of finding and making home.

Our campus ministry office
has become a sacred space,
baptized in tears,
ringing in laughter,
echoing in prayer,
resonating with song,
fragrant with coffee and good food,
filled with wonderful, and often hard, conversation.


In that office,
in our worship together,
and for some, in a weekly email,
many of us have found our way on the path of discipleship,
often after being lost, or at a dead end.

Many of us have discerned our place,
our calling, our life direction.

And many, many of us have come home,
in community with each other,
to God, made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth.

From the over-crowded refugee camp
that Bethlehem had become,

to the dusty, oppressed,
little village of Nazareth,

these are places in the geography of redemption.

Walking the road to Bethlehem during the census,
the panicked flight to Egypt
escaping the imperial death squads,
wandering throughout all of Galilee,
and that death march to Jerusalem,
these were the paths of God made flesh.

And somehow, our paths of discipleship,
and my path from Bloor and Spadina to Yonge and Gerrard,
is bound up with,
a continuation of,
and a participation in,
the path of Jesus.

His story becomes our story.
His path is our path.

That’s why we so often say together,

Christ has died.
Christ has risen.
Christ will come again.

This is our story, this is our song.

And finding our way into that story,
or perhaps to remain in the story
when so much suggests otherwise,
finding the breath to sing that song,
often through our tears,
has been at the heart of our life together.

There is, I suggest, a geography of faith.
Christian faith is neither generic nor homogenous.
Faith is always particular to place and time.

That’s why the New Testament is full of letters
written to distinct groups of people
in specified geographical locations,
at a particular time.

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus …
to the saints and faithful …
in Christ at Colossae.” (Col. 1.2)

To be “in Christ” is to have our fundamental identity
rooted in Jesus, to find ourselves embedded into his story.

But that rootedness is always located in a real place at a real time.

We are always “rooted” in particular soil,
flourishing (or not) during a particular season,
whether of abundance or scarcity,
of rich harvest or drought.

Our identity “in Christ” is manifest and realized differently
depending on the historical, cultural and geographical context
of the community who will seek the path of Christian discipleship.

What does this mean for a ministry at the University of Toronto?

What does it mean to follow Jesus the Liberator
at the heart of privilege and status?

What does discipleship look like in a secular university
that for so long has ruled “religious” questions out of order?

What does it mean to be a community following Jesus
in a world of violence, cruelty, deceit and injustice?

How do we raise our voices in song,
when the minstrels have all gone silent?

How do we even sing our “broken hallelujah”
when it all went wrong?

How do we negotiate a faithful and life-giving sexuality
in a confused and often exploitive culture of sexual consumption?

Is it possible to remain in the story of Jesus,
when it has been co-opted by imperial ideologies?

Is it possible to love and embrace the church,
after it has disappointed and hurt us so many times?

Is it possible to live in radical hope,
in the face of so much despair?

These, and many, many more questions
have served almost as navigational points
along our path together.

Struggling with these kinds of questions
has been at the heart of finding our place together …

in Christ,
at the University of Toronto

in Christ,
after 9/11

in Christ,
in a climate crisis

in Christ,
during war

in Christ,
under the weight of colonialism

in Christ,
in a pandemic

in Christ,
at another damn funeral.

But maybe that is still too general.
We all know that it is also deeply personal.

In pastoral conversations over the years,
folks have struggled with what it means to be …

in Christ,
lonely for a life partner

in Christ,
confused about your calling in life

in Christ,
in the wake of abuse

in Christ,
suffering from trauma

in Christ,
launching into a challenging career

in Christ,
struggling with soul-crushing unemployment

in Christ,
trying to deal with professional success with integrity

Dear friends,
my identity “in Christ” has been so profoundly shaped
by being in community with all of you.

My place as a campus pastor,
as a writer and a scholar,
indeed, as a follower of Jesus,
has been found in your company.

And so now as I relinquish my place
as campus minister,
as I end my time as the pastor of WBB,
as I pack up my books and vacate the office,
I do so without anxiety.

Over these years I have known
my place in your midst,
and I will now continue to discern my place
in a new season of life,
and at different geographical intersections.

So thank you, dear friends, thank you.

Thank you for your faith and your generosity.

Thank you for your commitment to being in Christ,
at the university,
in the church,
on the streets,
amongst the most vulnerable,
in your various vocations,
in your relationships,
and on Tuesday mornings at 7.22.

Thank you to my colleagues over the years,
as we have formed and grown an effective and creative team ministry.

Thank you to the Christian Reformed Church for giving a quasi-Anglican
like me a place to fulfill God’s call on my life.

Thank you to Wycliffe and Trinity Colleges for giving me
a place to teach and supervise graduate students.

Thanks also to Wycliffe College for hosting our ministry all these years,
and for agreeing some 19 years ago to partner
with an experiment in ministry called Wine Before Breakfast.

For some people, retirement is an escape,
often clouded with feelings of resentment.
I am happy to testify that I retire with excitement about what’s next,
and filled with profound feelings of deep, deep gratitude.

Thank you, beloved friends.

With a debt of gratitude,

Brian Walsh,

Campus Pastor

Now … five more things:

1. New email list: If you would like to be on my new email list to receive news of what Sylvia and are up to in our teaching, writing and farm life, then simply hit reply to this email ([email protected]) and I’ll add you to that list.

2. Affirming Aileen Verdun, our transitional pastor: During the August 11 on-line Wine Before Beer service the community will commission Aileen to the ministry of WBB transitional pastor for the months ahead. I am delighted with Aileen’s appointment and encourage you to affirm and support her in this ministry, and to pray for her and Deb Whalen-Blaize as they continue to give leadership during these difficult times.

3. Praying for and Welcoming Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink: Brenda and her family will be transitioning to Toronto throughout the fall semester and this could prove to be a complicated move from Michigan to Toronto during the COVID-19 crisis. Please pray for Brenda and welcome her with WBB generosity as she enters into her new ministry at U of T.

4. Please remember the financial needs of the ministry: My role as a fundraiser for our ministry ends with this email. And let me say that it has always been so humbling to experience the generosity of this community and our many, many friends, alumni and supporters throughout North America. So let me, this one last time, encourage you to continue to support the ministry, especially at this time of such significant transition. You can find all the details for donating on the website here.

5. Retirement Party! So June 13 came and went. But one way or another, we are still going to have a party together. It might not be until June of 2021, but whenever it is, everyone is invited! Keep tuned.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

One Response to “The Geography of Faith”

  1. Susanne McKim

    Deeply grateful for your ministry and your writing. Looking forward to seeing what you and Dr. Keesmaat get up to.
    Susanne

    Reply

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