The multi-dimensional Peter Desbarats

Official UWO portrait
Peter Desbarats 1933-2014

As I wrote in a newspaper column last week, former Canadian journalist Peter Desbarats was a complex individual with many sides and a variety of literary voices: poet, journalist, author, essayist, children’s author, performer, scholar. Noted obituary writer Fred Langan captured much of this in his memorial piece in Saturday’s Globe and Mail, describing Desbarats as a multimedia man with “a Don Draper phase.”

Indeed, some of this complexity emerged at Desbarats’ funeral on Friday. There were tears; there was laughter. Nephews joked about his “sideburns phase” at Global Television and the fact that, for a while, he wore a cape. “Yes, an actual cape,” one said. Peter’s widow, Hazel, read one of his favourite children’s stories — Halibut York: The Night the City Sang, which Desbarats published in 1964. And there was, even among those of us who knew him fairly well, a new appreciation for the diversity of his writing.

John Longhurst, a communications staffer with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and a longtime friend, wrote to remind me that Desbarats had been a keynote speaker at a conference on faith and media in Winnipeg in 1998. In that speech, Desbarats revealed the texture of his spiritual side and how it meshed with his function as a journalist. Portions of that speech are worth reprinting here, as a kind of epilogue.

“I was raised in a strict Roman Catholic home, educated by Jesuit priests, rebelled against this in my late teens, became the first member of my family to go through a divorce (followed by many others in subsequent years), later insisted on sending my reluctant younger children to Sunday school and wound up to my astonishment as a member of the United Church of Canada, a denomination that my Jesuit professors used to refer to as the ‘Rotary Club of Canadian churches,’ ” Desbarats said.

“When I was in school, I was taught by my enlightened Jesuit professors that these two approaches [rationalist and fundamentalist] were not in irreconcilable opposition, and in fact could never be, because God had not only given some of us faith but had endowed us with intelligence. For instance, I was taught that the science of evolution was reconcilable with Roman Catholic doctrine, as long as we believed that an act of divine creation started the whole process.

“In centuries past, and up to my own school days, the contrast between religion and science was manageable, but now the gap has become unbridgeable . Rationalists who cling to religion because of tradition, or because it provides an ethical guide, do so with a growing sense of contradiction between what they know and what they believe. In practising their religion, they have to turn off a larger and larger part of their intelligence. In the same way, only more extreme, fundamentalists have to deny a larger and larger body of scientific evidence that is in conflict with their most basic beliefs. They do this by believing more intensely.

“Surely this growing chasm between rationalists and fundamentalists — which most of us see reflected in our own inner lives all the time, and witness constantly in the world around us and in its reflection in the media — surely this is the most significant development of our generation.

“Oddly enough, I suppose that what this typical liberal journalist is concluding at this point is that the big story of our time, the great and growing divide between rationalists and fundamentalists, cannot be properly covered by liberal journalists who are religious illiterates. It requires journalists who are rationalists, for journalism as we know it is essentially a rationalist undertaking, but who also know, understand and respect what is happening on the ‘other’ side, the fundamentalist side. This kind of reporting is not occurring at the moment, its absence is making it much more difficult for us to understand what is happening in our own society and in others, and the problem isn’t going to be resolved by paying more attention to, or trying to improve, religious journalism in the conventional sense.”

Desbarats’ observation remains apt, 16 years later.

An “Immanuel” moment, a year ago

The calendar says it’s nearly Christmas. For me, however, it’s unlikely that anything that occurs in the coming week — no family gathering, no preacher’s words — will surpass the “Immanuel” moment of nearly 13 months ago.

My spouse and I were amid the fields of rural Waterloo County when we got a phone call that our first grandchild was about to be born.

Like shepherds who had just been visited by an angelic host, we looked at each other in awe and excitation. Our adrenalin was pumping; our pulses racing. And after a night of restless sleep followed by a day of work-related obligations, we began our pilgrimage.

Born last November, she is now just over a year old.
The little baby is now just over a year old.

There were no hills and craggy trails along our journey; only a mildly congested highway. No tax collectors, livestock or dusty feet, although there were inns, crowds, shops and the bustle of a busy Toronto neighbourhood on a Saturday night.

We climbed the front porch and rang the bell. Our son answered. He led us up the stair, around a corner and toward the street-facing bedroom, where, despite the large bay window, the light of day was now nearly gone.

And there, against the slate-grey walls, white trim and yellowish incandescent light, was a modern-day crèche: a tiny, perfect baby swaddled in a white blanket adorned with brightly coloured diamonds, in the arms of her enervated but radiant mother. Beside the bed sat a time-honoured family cradle. In the background, the family’s Polish lowland sheepdog bellowed her excitement and approval.

I couldn’t help but pause for a few moments at the foot of bed — the very spot where just a day earlier a young woman, great with child, had given birth — to take in the mystical tableau. It was the end of a long anticipation; the culmination of a very personal season of advent.

It was a deeply moving moment. Not that there was any particular cosmic or historic significance in the birth of the little cherub — after all, she was only one of about 100 babies born in the city that day and one of a half million born worldwide.

But in that instant, long before I held her in my arms for the first time, I was reminded of the nativity of old, which is celebrated at Christmas but around which circles the language of God’s immanence and presence among humankind.

Specifically, I recalled the ancient Hebrew word “Immanuel,” a symbolic name to be given to a child foretold by the Jewish prophet Isaiah, and referenced again some 600 years later by an anonymous, genealogy-obsessed writer in his curation of the recollections of Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples. The word means, “God is with us.” Us, as in humankind.

Seasonal lights may twinkle and congested shopping malls may cough up gifts for under the tree. But above all else, Christmas is about the fact that there exists a spiritual connectedness between humans of all creeds and cultures and the eternal presence or consciousness that pervades the universe, which many of us simply call God. God is with us. God is among us.

The birth of a baby — the coming into existence of a human life where, minutes earlier, none had existed — is the perfect symbol for such a spiritual notion. Ancient prophets and writers understood its metaphorical power and it still communicates today.

Christmas, however, is about something else too; something expressed by the Christian season of Advent, which ends at the stroke of midnight tonight. It is the fact that the eternal, the sacred, the profoundly spiritual cannot be fully encountered without expectation, preparation or effort.

The baby in the cradle is merely the end point, the destination. Christmas is about undertaking the journey, making the trek, climbing the stair toward the discovery of God’s immanence, whether it is across town, across the street or just to the front door and finding God there, whether in the guise of an infant, a neighbour, an old friend, a co-worker, a parent, a child.

The old saying, “It’s not the destination; it’s the journey,” has been attributed to a variety of authors. The pilgrimage toward the nativity is no different.

Christmas invites us to undertake our pilgrimage through life with courage, and to discover the sacred and eternal along its rocky trails and open thoroughfares — but especially within ourselves and the fellow travellers we meet along the way.

(This blog post is based on a column published in The London Free Press on Dec. 24, 2011.)

Ottawa issues warning to Canadian Mennonite magazine

When my electronic copy of the latest issue of the award-winning church magazine Canadian Mennonite arrived in my inbox last week, I was shocked while reading editor-publisher Dick Benner’s editorial. In it, he disclosed the magazine has received a warning letter from Canada Revenue Agency about its “political activities.” Additional details were published in a news story by board vice-chair Carl DeGurse in the same issue. The story disturbed me on two levels: one, sudden engagement of a government department with a magazine that has had a long history of provoking discussion about the interplay between church and state; second, the notion that Ottawa is, apparently, making subjective judgments about the political activities of Canadian charities, applying litmus tests by which their charitable status might be preserved or revoked.

Canadian Mennonite is the published under a partnership agreement between six different Mennonite bodies under the umbrella of Canadian Mennonite Publishing Service, which has charitable status so that individual church members (or others) may make personal donations. The magazine’s guiding principles, ownership and governance structures, bylaws and annual reports are all abundantly transparent and are available here. (Full disclosure: I served on the board of CMPS from 2004-2010; the last two years as board chair.) Throughout its existence, it has been a member of the Canadian Church Press and has regularly been recognized for excellence in editorial content and design.

Canadian Mennonite is, in fact, the successor to a tabloid newspaper called Mennonite Reporter, whose founding editor in 1971 was historian and church journalist Frank H. Epp. Owing to the nature of Mennonite experience and theology, both periodicals have a long history of reflecting the continuing struggle, within their constituents and readers, of what it means to be “in the world but not of the world.” Isolation from society, as reflected among the Amish (theological cousins to Mennonites) is one response; full engagement with it is another. There are many shades of grey in between. The point is that it is within the nature of the denomination, which sees peace and justice as primary motivators, to continuously grapple with the church-state relationship, including issues such as war, peacemaking, sanctuary for refugees, justice, humanitarian concerns, disaster relief, foreign policy and so on. Over the past century, Mennonite periodicals in Canada and the United States have reflected this. Many other denominations, such as the United Church of Canada, have had similar priorities.

I can appreciate the byzantine challenge that the CRA faces in trying to determine which applicants and holders of Canadian charitable status are legitimate. The task of separating the wheat from the chaff here must be complex and occasionally frustrating. And, indeed, it’s important for all of us, as citizens, that Canadian charities not be fronts from political organizations, fly-by-night operators, hate groups, foreign operatives and other schemes. To that extent, it’s appropriate for CRA to examine the nature and general activities of each Canadian charity on a regular basis.

But to issue a warning to an established church magazine over content that urges readers to carefully consider the voting records of MPs before casting their ballots, or opinion pieces that wonder about the Christian response to the killing of Osama bin Laden, smacks of administrative overreaching and interference, not to mention the chilling effect it has on religious press freedoms.

Application of the same type of monitoring to other Canadian charities would mean that CRA would begin vetting the homilies and sermons delivered in churches, synagogues and mosques (Canadian charities, all) or keeping a closer watch over the activities of AIDS societies, United Way campaigns, or community foundations for some sense as to their political leanings.

I’m glad Mia Rabson of the Winnipeg Free Press picked up this story yesterday, as have a number of other bloggers, writers, newscasts and websites over the past few days. Every Canadian charity should be concerned, even if Canadian Mennonite is the only member of the Canadian Church Press to have received such a letter of warning.

Update: Marcy Markusa of CBC’s Information Radio in Manitoba interviewed Benner regarding this issue on Nov. 9; that chat can be heard here.

Update 2: Here’s Dick Benner’s second editorial on the subject; this one in the Nov. 26 issue of Canadian Mennonite.

Remembering a soldier I never knew

A couple of years ago, I happened onto the website of Legion magazine, the English-language periodical dedicated to “Canada’s military and its heritage.” I noticed the “last post search” tool in a lower corner of the page and, rather offhandedly, plugged in my surname. I was certain I’d get a “no results” type of response. But there, in blue on grey, was the unexpected outcome: Private William Cornies. Service No. B154579. Died Jan. 19, 2003.

It surprised me, because nearly every Cornies is Canada is somehow related, however distantly. Nearly all arrived in this country during one of several waves of Mennonite migrations from Europe — either as settlers or refugees — during the 19th and 20th centuries. And with them came the dominant view of warfare and participation in it: that it ran counter to their understanding of Christian faith. They were, and are, predominantly pacifist. So how was it, I wondered, that a young man of Mennonite ancestry came to serve in the Canadian military?

I began my search with Library and Archives Canada. I wasn’t immediate family, so there were strict limits on what the Archives’ analysts could tell me. They could reveal this: He enlisted on Feb. 1, 1944, and was discharged on July 15, 1946. He served with the Irish Fusiliers (Vancouver Regiment) at the rank of fusilier.

The next step was to ask my parents (I’m fortunate both are still alive). I provided what details I had and they, in turn, dove into their multi-tiered network of acquaintances, as robust — and often as reliable — as any Internet connection. Within a matter of days, the answer came back: They knew someone who knew someone who would likely know. (Among Canadian Mennonites, the notion of six degrees of separation shrinks to two or three.)

I followed the virtual trail of DNA and, before long, was speaking to Henry Cornies of St. Catharines, Ont. Private Bill had been his older brother. During that conversation, a picture emerged of an independent-minded young man who didn’t unquestioningly accept the religious views of his parents. (His father, Wilhelm Henry, had served in the Russian army during the First World War and had become an ardent pacifist.)

After his draft notice arrived shortly before his 18th birthday, William refused to let anyone talk him out of enlisting in the army. He was determined to serve his country and didn’t want to be branded a coward — the epithet leveled at many young Mennonite men who applied for and received conscientious objector status. They served their tours of duty as farm workers, loggers, lumberjacks, miners, grain handlers, factory labourers, construction workers and similar assignments. Some served in the medical or dental corps.

In all, about 7,500 young Mennonites claimed CO status during the Second World War. There is another figure, however, that gets far less mention in official denominational circles: about 4,500 young Canadian Mennonite men (and a few women) enlisted for active military service, despite church’s historic peace position and the invocations of their elders to shun enlistment in the Canadian forces in favour of CO service. For them, church leaders deployed an unfortunate term: verlorene Soehne. Lost sons. And thus began a disaffection that, in many cases, would be last a lifetime. William was one of these. He was resolute. For church elders, there would be no saving Private Cornies.

He trained as an anti-aircraft gunner in Nova Scotia, where he met Shirley Smith, his future wife, from nearby Windsor, N.S. He was eventually relegated to the service corps and was discharged from the army on July 15, 1946, after serving about 30 months. He spent the lion’s share of his career as a steelworker and boilermaker at Foster Wheeler in St. Catharines, which, at the time, was doing a lot of work for Atomic Energy of Canada.

After his children, Billy Jr. and Linda, had grown and his wife Shirley had died, William Cornies continued his connection to a brotherhood that would never have dubbed him “lost.” He was a proud member of the Legion’s General Nelles Branch in Niagara-on-the Lake, where even today he is remembered for his loyalty, independent thought and the frequent companionship of his dog.

I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet this distant relative a few years earlier. I would have enjoyed the conversation.

Obama’s eloquent defence of religious freedom

During an iftar dinner last night with American Muslim leaders at the White House to mark the start of Ramadan, U.S. President Barack Obama made an eloquent case for religious freedom. The immediate context was the controversy in New York over the proposed building of a mosque near Ground Zero. But his speech was an articulate plea for respect for the religious traditions of others, not mere tolerance of them. It’s the kind of speech more political leaders ought not to be afraid to give, rather than to pander to narrow interests.

Holiday treat: Rhoda Janzen’s take on Mennonites

I hadn’t heard of either Rhoda Janzen or her new book, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, before a post-Christmas browse through a local bookstore. But as I flipped through the pages, I knew I’d have to put it on my holiday reading list. Which I did.

And I loved it. An English professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich., Janzen is intimately acquainted with Mennonite history, theology and culture, yet far enough removed to possess the refreshing perspective of one who can skewer them with ease and a certain relish. For those of us who were raised in Mennonite homes and have, through our lives, been alternately repelled by and attracted to various aspects of this faith tradition, Janzen’s memoir of her return home after a series of personal crises was unvarnished, penetrating, insightful and humorous in the deadpan manner of a Mennonite Bob Newhart. The last time I rang up this many LOLs per page was reading Armin Wiebe’s The Salvation of Jasch Siemens.

If I’d been paying closer attention to the denominational press or the book sections of prominent U.S. newspapers, Janzen’s memoir wouldn’t have come as much as a surprise. In the Mennonite Weekly Review, editor Paul Schrag went to great lengths to document the decidedly mixed reception the book has had in Janzen’s home community of Fresno, Calif., where there is much handwringing about the promotion of stereotypes and the biting nature of Janzen’s satire and critiques. A profile of the author by Cathy Horyn in The New York Times, however, is much more revelatory of Janzen’s personality and intent. Erika Schickel’s review in the Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, seems to miss the essence of the book almost entirely.

Janzen has posted a kind of trailer to the book on YouTube, in which she provides some of the anecdotes from the memoir’s opening chapters (see the clip below). The video, however, doesn’t match the wonderfully engaging style that is Rhoda Janzen in print.

Janzen has already reached a deal with her publisher for a kind of sequel, titled Backslider, which Horyn describes as “an ongoing history of a skeptic’s move back to a community of faith.” Which could easily describe Little Black Dress, too. What’s evident from the early pages is that implanted in Janzen’s consciousness is a homing beacon that steadily points the way back to a tradition she thought she’d left — but that evidently had never left her.

Mennonites hold worldwide gathering in Asunción, Paraguay

Many longtime readers of my newspaper columns are aware that I was raised in a Mennonite home and still identify with that faith tradition on a number of levels. When asked to define the term “Mennonite,” most people in North America reference the black-attired plain folk who populate parts of Ontario’s Waterloo County. Or they’ll allude to their spiritual cousins, the Amish, popularized in the Hollywood film Witness and thrust into the public spotlight during the Nickel Mines massacre in Pennsylvania in October 2006. Surprisingly often, the term gets confused with “Mormon.” In terms of their beliefs, Mennonites are fairly widely known for their positions on issues related to peace, nonviolence and justice.

Mennonites have been sufficiently schismatic over the centuries that it takes a church historian to really delineate between the dozens of religious groups with a legitimate claim to the term. To simplify, Mennonites are the spiritual descendants of Menno Simons, one of a series of Anabaptist (meaning “re-baptizing”) reformers of the early 16th century. Other branches of Anabaptism include the followers of Jacob Amman (the Amish) and Jacob Hutter (the Hutterites). I could go on and list some of the others, but to do so would require a book, not a blog post.

Let’s just say this: Contrary to North American perception, there are now more non-white Mennonites in the world than white. Canada and the United States are home to only about one-third of the globe’s 1.5 million Mennos, and there are significant populations in Europe, Latin America, Africa, Indonesia and the Indian subcontinent. So much for the Waterloo County stereotype.

Danisa Ndlovu and Nancy Heisey
Danisa Ndlovu and Nancy Heisey

The global Mennonite family holds a worldwide gathering once every six years or so under the auspices of an organization called Mennonite World Conference; that event got underway in Asunción, Paraguay, this week. Most of the weeklong celebration is devoted to worship, study and, as you might expect, service projects (someone once said that Mennonitism is Christianity with work clothes on). Occasional live streaming from the conference is planned.

There have so far been two interesting markers at the Asunción gathering. First, Danisa Ndlovu, a bishop in the Brethren in Christ church of Zimbabwe, has assumed the presidency of Mennonite World Conference from Nancy Heisey, an American religion scholar (see photo). Second, representatives of the Lutheran World Federation were on hand yesterday as a gesture of reconciliation and solidarity (warning: more arcane church history follows) for the difficult and ofttimes deadly hatred that stained relationships between the two emerging Protestant groups during the early years of the Reformation. They disagreed intensely over issues such as baptism and ecclesiology (the nature and structure of the church), with the Lutherans hardening their position against the Anabaptists in the Augsburg Confession of 1530. Essentially, the Lutherans agreed that the state (under the sway of the Roman Catholic Church) had the right to execute the Anabaptists for their sedition and heresy.

So the centuries-old rift between Anabaptists and Lutherans is beginning to heal. The same can’t yet be said for the much deeper divide between Anabaptists and Roman Catholics, though dialogue is ongoing at a number of levels.