Monday, 25 August 2014

Snow days mean hunger as school role grows

I am more than a little surprised the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario wants schools to close entirely on snow days.

We know a lot about snow days here in Grey - Bruce. We have a lot of snow up here and we have schools both in our towns and in rural areas. We are no strangers to snow day announcements on the radio and more recently in social media.

As a parent, I have lived through the times when my kids would ask me if there was any chance of a snow day the night before a storm. My stock answer was "We will see in the morning."

There were days when we wondered about sending the kids to school if the schools were open or whether we should just let them stay home.

I understand the perspective of the ETFO. I get it when they wonder why teachers are required to report for work when school buses aren’t running. I understand the risks of driving on snow-covered roads and the prudence required in driving to and from work in a snowstorm. I know a teaching colleague was killed last year near Peterborough while driving to work on a snow day.

But I also think the ETFO hasn’t thought this through completely. It’s not just about teachers and driving and buses. It’s also about students and hunger and poverty.

I didn’t realize the connection until I read of discussions, remarkably similar to the conversation in Ontario, happening in the Lake Erie snow belt region of Ohio.

Schools there and in other snow belt areas of the US are beginning to realize that closing a school on a snow day has a real impact on students, their families and on hunger.

In the US there are many food programs for low income families delivered through schools. These may be breakfast programs or hot lunch meals provided at no cost or reduced cost. There are also sacks of nutritious foods available for students to take home.

What the schools found was that breakfast at the school and the nutritious, hot lunch were the only food the children were eating all day. Their families did not have enough food available to them to prevent hunger. If the schools closed for snow days, those children went hungry.


Families struggling to pay heating bills did not have enough money left for food.

Do we have similar issues in Ontario and right here in Grey - Bruce?


I recall being in the office of the principal of one of our local high schools and noticing a box on his desk with granola bars and bags of dried fruit. I asked what it was there for.

"It’s for students," the principal replied. "We found a lot of kids came to school with no breakfast. When we dug deeper we found that they simply didn’t have enough food at home. So we put together this program. Every teacher has a box on their desk. Everyone is welcome to take what they need. It’s made a difference in learning attention, especially around lunch time."

Child poverty and child hunger are very real issues in Canada and in Grey-Bruce. According to the charity Breakfast for Learning, one in six or one million Canadian children face hunger every year. 15% of Canadian children live below the poverty line. That number jumps to a horrific 40% among aboriginal children.

In addition, 31% of elementary school aged children don’t eat a healthy breakfast and an astonishing 62% of high school aged young people don’t eat a healthy breakfast before school at all.

I hope the ETFO will think their request through more deeply.

While teachers have a right to be safe while driving to work, until we address the issues of food security and child poverty in our community their request comes across as somewhat less than thoughtful. Perhaps the responsibility is more on the school boards to review their own snow day policies, taking all those affected into account. For the kids who are hungry that is only fair.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Impact, not membership, measure of a church

I see that another church congregation has closed their doors in Owen Sound. A Baptist congregation on 9th St. East folded their tent this summer.

It’s not a surprise. Churches are having a rough go these days. We have gone from five United Church congregations to three in the last twenty years. There is a church out near Keppel Sarawak school that has a For Sale sign on their building.

It would appear that churches are failing.

The most common way of measuring churches is what are called "butts in the pews". If a church is full on Sunday, then it is deemed a success and the pastor thought to be a great leader and preacher.

That kind of metric goes along well with our market mentality and out 21st century emphasis on consumer consumption.

Churches and religion are just another consumer item.

This has reached it’s zenith in the United States where megachurches like Saddleback, The Potter’s House and Willow Creek are national institutions and preachers like T.D. Jakes and Bill Hybells are household names.

I think the metric is wrong.

What we need to be paying attention to is the impact of the church on a given community and not the number of butts in the pews.

How does a congregation make a difference in a community? And what is the lasting impact of the church among the people?

David Odom in Duke University’s "Call and Response" blog recently asked this very provocative question. Odom suggests, "Through the generations, congregations have been the kitchens where Christians are "cooked" into the sort of people God intends us to be. We worship, study, pray and share meals, knitting us closer to God and each other. Congregations matter because Christians would not be Christians if we did not have people with whom to practice loving God and loving neighbour."

I think there is a lot to be said for that image of congregation as "kitchen". And I think it’s especially close to the small, rural congregations that dotted this country. We have forgotten that role of teaching ourselves to live with each other in community. We have forgotten how to love our neighbour.

Odom goes on to refer to a book by Christine Pohl titled "Living in Community". Pohl suggests there are four practices which are critical to the life of community: embracing gratitude; making and keeping promises; living truthfully; and practising hospitality.

Odom concludes, "Life in congregations both requires and molds us into these practices."

What if we started to measure churches, not by the number of people in the pews or the size of the budget or the number of people on staff but by the way they lived out those four spiritual practices?

What would happen if we started to think of churches as incubators of faithful people, who then went out and lived the principles of faith in their daily lives?

Odom tells the story of a probation officer he worked with in Texas who was extremely critical of Christians. The veteran had seen churches come into the jails and prisons for years, visiting the inmates and befriending them. But when those same people were released from jail on probation or parole, the "Christians" shunned the ones they had visited and did not know them nor invite them into their churches.

It’s going to take a generation to move away from seeing church success using consumer-oriented metrics. And it is quite possible that more churches will close in the meantime. But the church that sees itself as an incubator of faith, teaching the ways of living in a God-focussed, Christ-centred, grateful, truthful, integrity-living and hospitable way will survive and, I believe, prosper. It won’t be large. It may not even use a recognizable building nor have a full-time, paid pastor. But it will be a congregation of faithful people. And that is enough.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County, Cable 53.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Suicide discussion shows issue's complexity

Last week I attended a consultation, at the invitation of our MP, Larry Miller, to discuss mental health issues, especially suicide, with an emphasis on youth.

I was one of about forty people asked to share our thoughts around this delicate subject.

It wasn’t easy.

We started by talking about all the good things we are doing in Grey-Bruce; the services which are available and the work that is being done on a shoestring. We do our best here, often cobbling together programs based on crossing traditional boundaries, pooling resources and simply making it work for us. We do it because we have had to. Some of our efforts are seen by the Ministry of Health as exemplars of how services should be delivered.

But the meeting was stopped cold by OPP Inspector Scott Stewart, who pointed out that while youth suicide is deeply tragic, behind much of the suicides in Grey-Bruce is one thing. Poverty. And until we start addressing poverty issues, he said, people will continue to sink into despair and into the black hole of depression and commit suicide.

Inspector Stewart pointed out that men over fifty in Grey - Bruce often find themselves unable to provide for their family and with no job, limited social assistance, poor transportation and other complications.

I think he is right. There are many groups at risk in our community; men, women, seniors and especially gay, lesbian and transgender youth. Suicide is often seen as the only way out.

What is even more tragic, as we have seen elsewhere in this province, is a parent committing suicide and killing members of their family, usually their children, at the same time.

From my perspective, there are three areas which need emphasis and support from our government, both provincially and federally.

The first area is training and recruitment.

I have served on the governing board of one of our local mental health agencies. I can not count the times the Executive Director reported to us that there were no qualified applicants or simply no applicants at all for advertised positions.

We are facing the retirement of a generation of skilled clinicians; mental health nurses, social workers and others. Unless our government financially supports and encourages professional training, we will be in serious difficulty.

The second area of concern is child and youth psychiatric services in Grey-Bruce.

We have no child psychiatrist in our area. The nearest centre providing intensive psychiatric care for children and youth is in London. We desperately need additional and high level mental health services for children and youth in this community.

We also need physicians who are well trained in mental health issues, both to follow the complex cases in the community but also to diagnose and treat people with mental health conditions effectively.

The third area of concern is our First Nations community.

The speaker from the First Nations community at the meeting reminded us all of the impact of residential schools on the First Nations, going back generations. The legacy will continue for generations more. Rates of suicide among the First Nations population in Canada, and especially among aboriginal youth, are such that it fits the definition of an epidemic.

Apologizing for the residential schools, as the federal government of Mr. Harper has done, is not the end, but is the first small step in the beginning of a multi-generational journey with our First Nations peoples.

I was surprised to hear Mr. Miller’s lack of familiarity with the impact of residential schools, but to his credit he was open to hearing more and coming to some understanding. I hope that those with much more experience than I will take him up on the invitation to further conversation.

The discussion last week was deep and intense. Young people who were present took risks and shared their experiences and feelings around mental health, depression and suicide. Parents shared their frustration with the health care system and what it was like to be shunted around, not finding any answers, even after death.

There is more we can and need to do as a community. It won’t be an easy, quick fix. But taking mental health seriously and putting pressure on our governments to help us all is a good first step.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

A good story, hymn or poem stimulates through imagination

The words were to a well-known hymn from the United Church’s Voices United.

My life flows on in endless song,

above earth's lamentation.

I hear the sweet, though far off hymn

that hails a new creation.

Below the words was a black and white picture of a newborn child. The poster of the projected image in social media asked if this wasn’t a powerful way of communicating the Christian message.

The discussion about the relevance of using projection for singing in Christian worship has been ongoing for years.

It’s a highly polarizing conversation, with deep and strong feelings on either side. I won’t repeat the arguments here, except to suggest that I believe we are really talking about the difference between communication and imagination.

Communication tells us information. In the case of the hymn and image, it points out that the far-off sound of a child crying at birth is a sign of the creation of new life and a way of understanding God in creation.

But the image didn’t connect with me, at all.

As I lay in bed this morning I heard the sound of birds in the trees; owls and then bluejays and then crows. I heard the sound of surf crashing on the beach of Lake Huron and I knew that forces far stronger than me were at work in the world. This morning I knew would find that the sand would have a new configuration, a new creation, as I walked along the shore.

That’s imagination.

The hymn is called "How Can I Keep From Singing". It dates from 1869 and was written by Robert S. Lowrey. The third verse was added in 1957, as a tribute to those who were imprisoned for their political views in the US in during the McCarthy era.

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,

and hear their death knells ringing:

when friends rejoice both far and near,

how can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile

our thoughts to them are winging:

when friends by shame are undefiled,

how can I keep from singing?

The hymn was also one of the favourites sung in the 1960's during the American civil rights struggle among those who were jailed with Martin Luther King.

None of that history and story could be communicated by any kind of projected image. Yet the story and the hymn together stimulate the imagination to greater things.

I suspect that is what resonates with Canadians when they see the images of the Group of Seven and especially our own Tom Thompson. His images stimulate our imagination of what might be and recall for us that which we have seen, even in passing.

I remember the first time I saw Tom Thompson’s sketch of Lake Scugog. It’s not one of his more notable paintings but it resonated with me. It touched my soul because I not only knew the place from were he had painted it, I recognized the colours and the background. I was drawn in and drawn back into my memory and my imagination for a few glorious moments.

That is what a good hymn, poem, story or painting does for us. It draws us in and stimulates our imagination. It takes us beyond communication. It takes us out of ourselves into something and someplace special. Losing our imagination by substituting communication is a real risk for us in our data-centred world. We lose our imagination and all that it gives us at our peril.

Projection communicates, but does not stimulate. Our imagination dies. We are the poorer.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County, Cable 53.