Monday, 14 December 2015

Trump a woefully ignorant man

Donald Trump is a Presbyterian. Not only that, he says he is a Presbyterian Protestant.

I say Donald Trump is confused. Not only that, he’s a demagogue and a bigot.  

He’s running for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, if you didn’t know. His latest policy announcement is that he would ban the admission of all Muslims, for any reason, including refugees, into the United States. He would not answer, when asked, if that included American citizens who might be Muslim, travelling abroad. Nor would he answer how US border officials would determine the religion of anyone coming into the United States.

What Donald Trump is, simply put, is ignorant. He is ignorant as a Presbyterian and ignorant as a Christian.

The church he claims affiliation with is Marble Collegiate Church in New York. The church itself released a statement that said Mr. Trump attends the church but is not an active member. Marble Collegiate is a Presbyterian Church, part of the mainline PC(USA). The congregation’s  mission statement says, in part, “Marble Collegiate Church is a diverse, inclusive community of God’s people led by the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.”

Mr. Trump, unfortunately, seems unaware of his church’s mission statement, Presbyterian history and especially the history of Protestant reformer and theologian John Calvin.

Calvin was a lawyer, born in France in the early part of the 16th century. He broke with the Roman Catholic Church around 1530 and following anti-Protestant persecution, was forced to flee as a refugee to Switzerland, where he was given shelter in Geneva. There he did some of his most influential and significant work, publishing his multi-volume “Institutes of the Christian Religion” in 1536. Calvin also wrote commentaries on scripture, theological articles and preached for an hour or more, without notes, several times a week.

Calvin also alienated many of the civic leaders of Geneva, who expelled him to Strasbourg, Germany. There he became the pastor to a church of French refugees. Eventually he was invited back to Geneva to lead the Reformed church there, but once again ran afoul of the powerful families in the city with his preaching. Finally a flood of Protestant refugees into Geneva, who became citizens, tipped the balance of power in both the church and the city in Calvin’s favour.

While some historians suggest that Calvin’s Geneva became a theocracy, Calvin himself believed in separation of church and state.  As a refugee, he was one of the most influential thinkers and theologians of his day, an influence which continues five hundred years later. Donald Trump seems to be completely unaware of the refugee origins of his faith.
There are many who find Trump’s thinking attractive, even in Canada. Many think he is “telling it like it is.” 

Trump is not. He is a hate-filled bigot spouting nothing but fear and division. Donald Trump is woefully ignorant. He is not reflecting the history, faith and mission of the church he claims to attend. He does not bring out the best in us but brings out the worst in us. His reality is a lie. Beware.
Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Applause for Texas bishops

I love hearing stories of people who are prepared to stand up for their convictions. Especially stories of people who stand up to governments and their clearly unjustified actions.

Recently the Roman Catholic Bishops of the state of Texas have essentially told their state’s governor to go fly a kite. Not that crudely, mind you, but in language so clear that everyone could understand them.

Last month, the Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott told refugee resettlement agencies in his state that they must not resettle refuges from Syria for “security reasons”. Abbot was one of thirty US state governors who made that policy. Federal money for the support and resettlement of refugees comes through state governments, who have oversight of refugee resettlement programs. Abbot turned off the money tap and filed a lawsuit against one refugee resettlement agency.

The agencies, in turn, said they would continue their work of helping refugees, no matter where they came from. Their response to the Governor, who is himself a Roman Catholic, was unequivocal. Following the terrorist attacks in Paris, the Roman Catholic Bishops of Texas said, 

“We must not be led by our fears, but guided by our mercy and prudence to develop a means to protect refugees while also protecting ourselves at home. As Pope Francis recently said so eloquently before the US Congress, “if we want security let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunity, let us give opportunity. The yardstick by which we measure others is the yardstick by which time will measure us.”

One of the agencies said more succinctly, "We have no plans to stop welcoming Syrian refugees."

I am certain that the principle of mercy towards others found in Matthew 25:40 is at the heart of the Bishop’s decision. In that passage, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

The imperative nature of the words of Jesus make it clear that it is the responsibility of the Christian to respond with compassion and mercy to those who seek refuge among us.

Although voices in opposition in Canada have urged restraint and caution, including that of our own MP, none have gone so far as to stop funding refugee resettlement. The absolute opposite is true, thank goodness.

As a Christian, I am compelled by the words of Jesus to support refugee resettlement in Canada. It’s a principled position and one which history shows is  practical and possible.

Fortunately, Canada is not Texas. If it were, I’d have to say I’d be strongly supporting the Bishops in their fight with the  governor. My conscience tells me I can do nothing else.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Find a charity that's right for you

Are you planning to make a charitable donation this holiday season? I hope so. According to Imagine Canada, 60% of Canadians will give $5 billion between now and the end of the near. Given that Canadians give $13 billion annually to charities and non-profits, that means that 40% of Canadian charitable giving will occur in the last six weeks of the year.

I hope you will make your charitable donation for the right reasons. Imagine Canada has offered five key strategies to maximize the impact of your charitable giving. Yes, your giving, your philanthropy, can make a huge difference.

First, align your gift with your passion. Ask yourself what kind of a world you want and find a charitable organization that meets your vision. If world of community hunger concerns you, a food charity might be something to support. If a family member has dementia, a health-related charity might be what you are looking for. Do some research and find out more. Engage the charity. See if it matches your vision and make your gift.

Second, model giving for your children and peers. This matters. Children learn to give, not because they make a decision for themselves but because their parents modelled it for them. If you want your children to be generous, model generosity. Talk about giving over a meal. Let them know that you support a cause and invite them to join you in giving.

Third, focus on impact, not overhead. There has been a lot of talk in our community, about the overhead of charitable organizations. But this bottom line thinking is the wrong way to look at things. If a charitable organization takes a percentage of donations (and make no mistake, all charities do) to fund their work, ask what else they do. Is their work more effective because they can do more? Are those fees returned to the community? Does it enhance their mission as an organization?

Fourth, be flexible in your donation. All of us have limitations in our giving, but I believe what really limits us is our thinking. We can’t give to every request, but we can support what we believe in, no matter what the amount is. And those amounts can change over the years. There may be times in our lives when we can make a big donation. Sometimes it may only be a dollar or two. Or we might give time to a cause, instead. It is the act of giving, not the size of the gift that matters.

Finally, leadership matters. If a charitable organization is well led and well managed, has good governance practices and is transparent and accountable, it is worthy of support. Look for things like audited financial statements, properly filed T3010 returns with Canada Revenue and a willingness to openly answer your questions.

When you make that charitable donation this Christmas, make it with confidence. Know your gift is doing what you want it to do. Ask questions. Model generosity and philanthropy. And know that in your charitable giving, your gift is making our community and the world a better place.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Things to know about us

I understand some Americans are thinking of moving to Canada if the US allows Syrian refugees into their country. In light of that, I have some words for them.

My dear American friends:

If you are serious about moving to Canada because your government is planning to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees into your country by the end of 2016, you might want to know that our government is bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015.  Housing for immigrants, then, will be at a premium. And it is our intention to welcome them. You may have to wait in line. Sorry.

You won't qualify for our taxpayer funded health care system for a while; at least until you become a Permanent Resident. Marry a Canadian. Let them sponsor you as an immigrant. Allow a couple of years for paperwork. You could try applying for refugee status, but unless you face capital punishment in your own country, it would be a very long shot. Again, sorry about that.

Leave your guns at home. And don't even think once about "open carry" It's illegal and the police are quite strict about it. It's a Canadian thing and something we aren't sorry about.

Canada is a bilingual country. That's English and French. Your Spanish may be helpful, but if you speak Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, Korean, Arabic, Tigre, Afar or Tagalog you will be at a decided advantage.

Do speak slowly as we become accustomed to your American accent. When you start ending your sentences with "eh?", you will be well on your way to becoming one of us.

Yes, we play baseball, football and, of course, hockey. Our baseball team, the Blue Jays, is quite good. If the baseball gods agree, they could be a World Series contender. We live in hope.

Learn the basics of hockey. You may not like the game, but it beats the hell out of invading other countries, taking down governments and then basing your army there. We invited the Russians here during the Cold War and beat them. We have beaten your hockey team in Olympic competition. It is our game and we are quite good at it. Sorry for the prideful moment.

You will hear of something called the Maple Leafs. They are, allegedly, a hockey team in the NHL. I say "allegedly", because there are an awful lot of Canadians who believe they are not a hockey team but a perpetual excuse for charging high ticket prices to see bad hockey in Toronto. But their fans live in hope, too.

Our football is also different. The field is bigger and our players are, by and large, not quite the NFL, but they play a good entertaining game with some rule differences. Learn them.

There are many other things you will have to become accustomed to. Poutine is an acquired taste, but worth it. Our beer is stronger than what you are used to, so be careful. Do pick up your litter and enjoy the weather. Put snow tires on your car. It will save you money on insurance and could save your life.

Welcome to Canada. We like it. We hope you do, too.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Overjoyed at being wrong

I love it when I am proved wrong. I love it even more when the people of Grey Bruce step up and challenge the government and institutions of the day and say “We can do better.” 

In a September column I said, “Bringing a refugee family or families calls for great thought, prayer and consideration. I hope those who want to do the hard work will talk to those with experience, first. And perhaps what we can do best is to support the work of others with better access to supportive community and resources.” 

Boy, was my suggestion ignored. 

Very shortly after that column was published I heard that some of “old hands” at refugee and immigration sponsorship had called a public meeting to talk about what people could do. They were overwhelmed by the support. It turned out that there were many people in Grey Bruce, some from the most unlikely places, who wanted to find out more and do something positive to help refugees get a new start in Canada. 

The people who had been through refugee sponsorship shared their knowledge and experience. People found out about other groups. Bridges were built. Communication was established. Outreach into the community was made.  

Today, here is what I know. St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church has a family of 5 from Eritrea coming from a refugee camp in Ethiopia very shortly. The Lutheran Church in Owen Sound is moving forward. The Roman Catholic Diocese is providing leadership for the Catholic parishes' efforts. There is a group of five citizens in Georgian Bluffs who are hoping to sponsor a family. Conversation is under way among St. George's Anglican Church, Georgian Shores United Church and the local Muslim Association. There are also groups I have heard of in North Bruce Peninsula, Saugeen Shores and Meaford.  

A community meeting will be held Wednesday, November 18th at 7p.m. at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church to share information and to develop links and plans further.  

My own denomination has put more money into their refugee support program. In September, Toronto Conference committed $250,000 in $5,000 grants to United Church congregations who were planning refugee sponsorship. Within two weeks all of the money had been allocated to fifty groups across Canada and twenty one were on a waiting list. In early November the conference added $150,000 to remove any churches from the waiting list and then added $100,000 more, bringing the total to half a million dollars. 

I am very pleased to see people are stepping up with their time and talent and willing to live out the universal call to have love and care for their neighbour.  

I am pleased that the people of Grey Bruce are not intimidated by fearmongering, partisan politics and the fear of others or of someone different.  

I am pleased that Canadians are willing to do what we have always done; offer our best so that others can enjoy what we already have.  

And I am very, very pleased, Grey Bruce, that you have proved me wrong.  

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.


Monday, 9 November 2015

Hydro One rates rise again

Here we go again. Effective November 1, Hydro One power rates went up again. On peak rates went up 25% and off peak rates went up 7.8%. This also means other charges in your hydro bill also went up.

The line I find most difficult to understand is the amount marked Delivery. Oh, there is a lot of fine print at the bottom of your bill what explains it, but after squinting to try and read the fine print, I still have discovered that delivery charges are one third to two thirds of the bill’s bottom line.

That’s outrageous.

On the Hydro One web page, buried deep in the section called “Understand My Bill” is an even longer and more dense section on all the charges found on your bill under section marked “Delivery”. It includes preventing outages, customer service, administration, information technology, responding to outages and upgrading the system. Sounds like they are doing something, right?

The way this is charged is a flat distribution charge, an additional distribution charge of so many cents per kilowatt hour and an amount depending on how much electricity you actually used.

Still following me? I admit that I’m lost, myself.

Then there is a charge of 79 cents for the privilege of having a smart meter (which I have discovered should really be called a dumb meter) . There is also an adjustment for power lost in transmission (an additional charge). Wow. Hydro One has discovered a way to make money from basic physics.

That last amount may matter to you. Hydro One hired a consultant to do a study of power line loss and adjusted the rate for losses so that it will be lower in urban areas but (and I am sure you guessed this) higher in rural areas.

The bottom line for all of this is that the average customer’s bill, including changes in delivery charges and rate increases will be $5.71 a month. Plus HST. Or $6.45 a month. That is $77.40 per year.

Hydro One can do it again, because every regulated item has to be approved by the Ontario Energy Board. The OEB requires every item to be justified. The public an intervene, but I doubt anyone would. How do you argue with a consultant with a PhD? The public is at a huge disadvantage here.

On the bright side, Hydro One has announced a new program to assist people on low income with the cost of their hydro bills. It comes in the form of a billing credit, as opposed to the one time LEAP payment of last winter. It takes effect January , 2016 and will last up to five years. It is funded by a small billing assessment on all Hydro One customers. Call 211 for more information.

I don’t like Hydro One’s attitude on rates. They can justify all they want, but we are all trapped as consumers. They just keep grinding out our money from us and we have no options.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Remembering the Jervis Bay

If you drive the wrong way up 1st Ave West in Owen Sound, you will come to a small park. Even in the height of summer it sits in deep shade. It is the HMS Jervis Bay park, one of three memorial parks in the city.

The HMS Jervis Bay park commemorates a naval battle seventy five years ago this week. A naval battle that occurred in the cold North Atlantic. A battle connected to this city by one single casualty, Stoker A.M. “Jimmie” Johnson, RCNR.

On November 5, 1040, British convoy HX-84 came under attack from the German Admiral Scheer. Protected only by an armed merchant cruiser, a civilian colony ship called the Jervis Bay, converted and armed with Boer War naval cannons, the convoy was ordered to scatter and make its own way to England.

The Captain of the Jervis Bay, Fogarty Fegen, then turned towards the attacking German ship and with a combination of gunfire and smoke floats, distracted the attacker from the rest of the ships in the convoy, allowing them to escape. In the end, all but five ships made it safely to England. The HMS Jervis Bay, however, was sunk with 190 of her crew, including her Captain, perishing in the cold North Atlantic.

The death of Jimmie Johnson must have hit this city hard. All of a sudden war was very, very real. This was no longer some great patriotic battle. War and death came home and the city must have mourned.

In response, the city named a small park across from the cenotaph and the library after the Jervis Bay. Dedicated in 1941, the one existing photo shows a bright, sunny green space with pillars and benches.

Over the years, the park and the ship it honoured and the connection to this city has been forgotten. The park was overgrown with trees. Various light displays were placed in it, including purple dinosaurs, aircraft and soldiers. But that has begun to change.

This past summer, the city has kept the park tidier and neater than I recall it being in the past. The flower bed was moved forward, closer to the road, and planted in the pattern of the Naval Ensign, the battle flag of the HMS Jervis Bay. Other changes are promised.

For myself, the sinking of the Jervis Bay and what happened afterwards is a symbol of what we often do with important stories.

We forget.

We forget that there was a local connection to the Jervis Bay. We forget that Captain Fegen was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in action, a medal of valour shared by all who served on the Jervis bay.

In this seventy fifth anniversary year, I intend to go to the park at 2:00 PM on Saturday November 7th and remember. Anyone is welcome to join me. I wish it could be on November 5th, but I will be out of town, unfortunately.

The HMS Jervis Bay and her story is our story. All we can do is to remind ourselves of the words of the poet Lawrence Binyon; “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

Yes. We will remember them.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Churches agree to close ties

Last weekend, while we were all making up our minds for Monday’s election, two large Christian denominations in North America did something very special. They signed a unique agreement which brought them closer together.

On October 17, the United Church of Canada and the United Church of Christ signed an agreement of full communion.

What this means is that two large denominations of the Christian church agreed that they had much more in common with each other than they had differences, and decided to do something about that and say so.

The United Church of Canada, Canada’s largest protestant church, was born ninety years ago in a similar agreement bringing most of the Presbyterian church and all of the  Methodist and Congregational churches in the country together. The Evangelical United Brethren joined the church in 1968.

The United Church of Christ was formed in 1957, in Cleveland, Ohio, with the merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches. The Congregational Churches traced their roots to the English Reformation and to Puritan New England, while the Christian Church had its beginnings on the American frontier. The Evangelical Synod of North America, a 19th-century German-American church, was prominent in the Mississippi Valley, and the Reformed Church in the United States, which was of German and Swiss heritage, was initially made up of churches in Pennsylvania and surrounding colonies in the early 1700s.

Both churches have a strong commitment to social justice and commitment to inclusion of diversity in sexual and gender identities, in disabilities, and in theological openness and expression. For example, The United Church of Christ, through its predecessor bodies, ordained its first female minister in 1853, its first black minister in 1892, and its first openly gay minister in 1972. The United Church of Canada first ordained women in 1936, and in 1988 declared that sexual orientation was not a criterion for determining eligibility for ordination.

The agreement signed in Niagara Falls has five key features. Both churches agree that their common confession that “God is in Christ”. Both now recognize each other’s members and baptisms. Both agree in the common celebration of the Lord’s supper or holy communion. Both recognize the credentials of each other’s ordained ministers and both share a common commitment to the mission of each church.

At a practical level, this means that there will be much greater freedom of movement between pastors in both churches across the border, without any problems with credentials. Members of one church can be members of the others, especially in places like Florida, where some Canadians spend part of their winter. The two churches will also work together to act internationally in mission.

Such agreements are not new nor unusual. The Anglican and Lutheran churches in Canada and the US have such a full communion agreement, allowing ministers from one church to serve in the other. This has already happened in Grey Bruce.

I look forward to seeing the strengths the United Church of Christ can bring in many areas of common interest, including racial justice, aboriginal rights and climate change. Having known many United Church of Christ ministers through my own ministry, I can see their positive influence on our common work.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Poll duty had its moments

So what did you do on the Thanksgiving weekend? Turkey dinner? Visited family? Family drop in? Me? I worked all weekend supervising an Advance Poll location so people could vote. My feet and back hurt. I’m dead tired, even after a good night’s sleep. But I have a deep satisfaction at being able to help my neighbours do something that is a right for all citizens over 18 in Canada. I wasn’t alone. A lot of citizens helped you vote, right across Canada.

It was clear well before the Advance Polls opened that you wanted to vote. You lined up an hour before opening at noon on Friday and you just kept coming for four days.

You broke voting records. You confounded the experts. Elections Canada didn’t think that so many would be voting and planned accordingly. They underestimated you.

While you were standing in line, we were doing our best to make the voting process as easy for you as possible. At my location we developed a new methods of getting the information we needed as quickly as possible so you could vote. What we did wasn’t in the training manual and we did get our ideas approved by our supervisor. They worked.

We understood your frustration. We didn’t like it either. But we had to do things according to the Elections Act and if that took a minute or two longer, we are sorry but we had no choice. We understood your tearing up your voter card and throwing it in our face. We picked up the pieces. We know why you dropped the F-bombs. And we also appreciated your coming back and apologizing to us and acknowledging that your behaviour wasn’t helpful. How truly Canadian of you. But what meant the most was that you voted, no matter what. Thank you.

If there were moments that really gave us a lot of pleasure, it was when we were able to make things work for you. I won’t forget the look of shear joy on the face of a first time voter who came up to the Registration Officer and said, “All I have is my health card and a pay stub. Can I vote?” “Of course!” we answered.

Then there was an elector who had specifically taken a taxi to the polling place but had no id with their place of residence on it. We watched as they went through their bag, checking every nook and cranny for something acceptable. Then an unnoticed pocket was opened and inside there was a handicapped parking permit. It had an address on it. Gold. And that elector was delighted.

Elections Canada is very much a hands-on agency. As the polls opened, a senior official arrived for a spot check. She saw the lineup and how we were overwhelmed. Her first words were “How can I help?” I put her to work at as a poll clerk for three hours until a replacement arrived.

Thanks to all my fellow election workers in the Advance Poll. You did a great job. As for the rest of you, if you haven’t voted yet, do it now. It’s your right as a Canadian citizen.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Charities deserve a say

Should charitable organizations speak out during election campaigns? It’s an important question. There has been a long tradition of churches inviting electors to look at party platforms through the lens of their faith. But in this election campaign, something has changed. Not just religions groups but the whole charitable sector is publishing position papers and forming questions for electors to consider and ask the candidates in their district.

This is not, as a recent letter in this newspaper suggested, push polling.

Push polling is a form of election telemarketing which attempts to engage in propaganda and rumour mongering in the guise of a telephone poll. There is not analysis of data, just an attempt to spread doubt or fear. Richard Nixon was a pioneer of push polling in 1946 in an American congressional race. George W. Bush used it in his successful 2000 presidential campaign.

What the charitable and non profit sector is doing in this election campaign is looking at various party platforms and out of their particular learned experience on certain issues, asking specific questions for voters to think about.

So who is doing it?

According to a recent report published by Imagine Canada, a charitable organization itself dedicated to the support of the charitable and on-profit sector alongside business and government, charitable organisations have published briefs especially directed towards economic policy and quality of life issues.

Barrier-Free Canada, CNIB, the March of Dimes, the Canadian Hearing Society, Accessible Media Inc., and the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada have released
a set of principles and recommendations to improve federal protection for persons with disabilities.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada have developed a youth-focussed election platform, with policy recommendations on youth engagement, mental health and youth employment. The Canadian Cancer Society has made a set of recommendations regarding tobacco regulations, research, and palliative care.

Other organizations have raised questions about aboriginal affairs, violence against women, the environment and conservation and many other concerns.

This is especially significant given that the charitable and non-profit sector has been paralysed by the alleged Canada Revenue Agency’s “audit chill”, where it was suspected (though not proved) that certain charities were being singled out for review based on government direction and not general audit principles.

In Canada, charities and non-profits are permitted to address public policy and engage in advocacy if they are strictly non-partisan, present information which is based on verifiable research and experience and which are subordinate to the activities which their charitable status is based on. A charity for the homeless has to help the homeless first and foremost (and this is what is reviewed by the CRA) but can speak from that experience to public policy, including during an election campaign. As Imagine Canada says, this is a much higher standard than to which any other sector is held. 

That the charitable and non-profit sector is speaking out of their experience is a good and healthy thing for our civic conversation. I invite you to look at your own favourite charity to see if they have a position paper for you to consider as you make your choice as an elector.

In the interest of full disclosure, I worked in the charitable sector for thirty six years

Monday, 5 October 2015

Google alert lets me follow Bieber's beliefs

Anyone seen Justin Bieber lately?

I know, the young artist everyone loves to hate. The talented kind who seemed to be popping up in all the wrong places (car crashes, assaults, court hearings) at all the wrong times. Justin Bieber, it appeared, was headed for an early destruction, a victim of too much money, too much time and lot of really bad press.

Then he dropped off the radar. Gone. No bad boy antics. No real public image. An occasional TV appearance.

What happened?

I have a Google news alert on the word “church”. Google sends me all the stories it finds with the word “church in them. A few months ago, Justin Bieber started showing up in the news feed.

Justin Bieber? Yes. And it appears that he is turning into a “belieber” (um, sorry. I mean “believer”). Justin Bieber is going to church.

The first clue was several stories that Bieber and his old girlfriend, Selena Gomez, attended a Pentecostal megachurch in Los Angeles called Hillsong. Within a month Bieber was attending a week-long Hillsong conference in Sydney, Australia.

Hillsong, however, is just one piece of this story. Another is Pastor Carl Lentz of Hillsong New York and several others, all within Bieber’s circle of friends and acquaintances. Adept at social media, these Christians get the word out in ways unheard of even a decade ago. Hundreds of thousands  followers on Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram watch and listen to their message; one which is entirely conventional and evangelical. And it’s less focussed on institutional church and more on being followers of Jesus.

How influential are these leaders? If Bieber is any indication, the word is “very”.

In the October November issue of COMPLEX Magazine, Bieber speaks for himself about his faith, his journey and what he believes. Perhaps some of his deeper thoughts come on love, something he has made a career singing about. Reflecting on moving in with his girlfriend at 18, he says, “Love is a choice. Love is not a feeling. People have made it seem in movies that it’s this fairy tale. That’s not what love is. You’re not gonna want to love your girl sometimes but you’re gonna choose to love her. That’s something in life that I had to figure out. I can’t lean on people. I got to lean on God. I gotta trust in him through all my situations. Then, hopefully, my other relationships will flourish around me.”

There’s more.  Bieber says, “There’s a lot of really weird stuff going on at churches. You ever flicked on a channel and a late-night church show is on? Sometimes it’s like, “You better do this or you gon’ die and you gon’ burn in hell!” And you’re like, I don’t want anything to do with this. I’m the same way. I’m not religious. I, personally, love Jesus and that was my salvation. I want to share what I’m going through and what I’m feeling and I think it shouldn’t be ostracized. I think that everybody should get their chance to share what they’re doing or where their journey is headed, whether they’re straight or gay or what they believe in.”

Has Bieber turned himself around? I think he’s well on his way. He’s asking tough questions about life and about himself. He’s getting good faith mentoring. He knows he’s on an important journey. I’ll know, though, that he has started to develop a mature faith when he invites Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai on stage at a concert, has a meaningful conversation with her and then gives the proceeds from one of his albums to the education of young women. I hope that day isn’t too far off.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Pope's message not one often heard in the West

I just gets more and more weird. Pope Francis, I mean.

Many years ago a wise pastor told me that ministry was always a tightrope walk between law and gospel, mercy and hardness. I learned over a lifetime in ministry just how true that was. There were times when people wanted you to be literal and hard as nails. And there were other times when bending towards mercy not only was the right thing, it was the only thing possible.

Pope Francis is living the way of mercy. And it is getting him some hard knocks.

Francis call to the Roman Catholic parishes of Europe is particularly direct. He challenged every parish to welcome one refugee family. What is even more remarkable about this is that he has made it clear that such offers of sanctuary, a historic tradition and practice of the Christian Church for millennia, should be done without regard to the faith of the refugee. It is to be done openly, with welcome to all.

Francis has also called into question the unfettered capitalism of the world’s markets, attacked the idolatry of money and in his recent encyclical, “Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou should not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills."  He has also referred to the unfettered pursuit of money as the “dung of the devil”.

There are those whom this kind of plain talk offends. They are, more often then not, the privileged and the wealthy. They would rather see the church confines to the cloister and the sacristy (the room behind the alter where the priest prepares the elements for the Eucharist).

That’s not Pope Francis.

Francis, if his public record is an indication, has said, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security."

This is not what the western church, and particularly the church in North America, has been used to hearing. Some of the western church is more accustomed to literal reading of scripture; of counting jots and tittles; of believing the Bible was written in the King James Version originally and has never changed.

Francis’ message is different. He reminds us all to be merciful, as God is merciful. Be kind as God is kind. Serve the people on the edges of society, not be served by them. Share what you have with the people on the margins and treat them with dignity and respect. Welcome the stranger.

If this is the message of Pope Francis to North America, then it’s time we woke up. There is much work to be done to serve God’s justice and to change the world. Are we listening?

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 14 September 2015

We might help refugees more in support role

Like many Canadians, I had a visceral reaction to the photos of the body of young Alan Kurdi washing ashore on a Turkish beach. Since then, a lot has happened.

The Prime Minister has said that Canada will continue to admit refugees from Syria on a priority basis, but he would not compromise Canadian security by starting an airlift or even an expedited refugee process.

I am told by colleagues that there was much after-church chatter over coffee about what we could do, and that there were some vague feelings of unsettlement that “something” should be done. But not having access to a congregation’s coffee hour, I did some of my own listening this past week. What I found out may be surprising.

I spoke to some of those involved in the most recent refugee family resettlement in Owen Sound. They made some important points which I hope people would consider seriously before moving forward with refugee sponsorship.

The first thing I was told is that one family being resettled in Owen Sound as refugees is incredibly tough. There is generally no supportive larger community of the same nationality. This was a serious problem with the Karin family from Burma. As the nearest Karin community was in Hamilton, support and encouragement from fellow refugees and immigrants was almost impossible. The need for supportive community in that first year could not be stressed enough, I was told.

The second thing I was told was that Grey Bruce has very little to offer in the area of employment for refugees with little or no English language competence or Canadian job skills. Seasonal work shuts down in December. It’s a long winter. Lack of meaningful work leads to many complications, crisis and even depression among refugees in that crucial first year.

Finally, Grey Bruce does not have the refugee and immigrant support services found in larger centres. These services, sometimes called settlement houses, offer a one stop place to navigate to ins and outs of a new country. They provide services in the refugee or immigrant’s own language. They teach English. They provide support and assistance to help families get through the red tape of a new country as well as a listening ear when things just get to be too much. The nearest settlement house services are in Kitchener or London. There is nothing in Grey Bruce.

So what can we do?

In these situations of human tragedy my own default position is to send money. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but a donation to any of the larger charitable groups serving refugees is a good way to begin.

Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada is offering up to fifty grants of $5,000 each to sponsorship groups. The only criterion is that the group have some connection to a local United Church.

The Archdiocese of Toronto of the Roman Catholic Church is putting its considerable resources into play to welcome one hundred refugee families to the community.

Many local churches and faith groups in larger centres are starting to dialogue and share resources to bring refugees to Canada.

There is an ongoing need to help civilians caught up in the civil war in the Middle East who are in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. They need to be fed and protected. We can support the Red Cross/Red Crescent, Mennonite Central Committee, ACT Alliance (the world’s Christian churches relief body) and the UN to help relieve their misery.

Bringing a refugee family or families calls for great thought, prayer and consideration. I hope those who want to do the hard work will talk to those with experience, first. And perhaps what we can do best is to support the work of others with better access to supportive community and resources. 

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

We need to change our refugee program now

The image was as tragic as it was heartbreaking. The photo of a child’s body, lying face down in the sand, washed ashore on a Turkish beach. The next photo showed the child’s body being carried from the surf in the arms of a Turkish police officer.

We aren’t used to seeing these kind of graphic images in North America. Our media tends to filter such things out of our view. Yet that is the stark reality of death and death as a refugee.

It turns out the child has a name, Alan Kurdi. Not only did he have a name, but it turns out Alan’s extended family in Canada had applied to bring the boy, his brother and mother to Canada as refugees. Alan’s mother and brother also died.

According to MP Fin Donnelly, he had brought the family’s case to the attention of Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander, earlier this year. The family’s refugee application was later rejected. Neither the family nor Donnelly received any reason for the rejection.

Something is wrong here. Something is terribly wrong, morally and ethically. We have somehow allowed the government to develop refugee policies which are restrictive, disrespectful of families and unprotective of genuine refugees.

According to the Canadian Council on Refugees, a national non-profit umbrella organization committed to the rights and protection of refugees and other vulnerable migrants in Canada and around the world and to the settlement of refugees and immigrants in Canada, Canada has neglected its historically strong humanitarian component of its immigration program. Specifically, the current wait for immigration for reunification between parents and children is almost three years.

The current government has also shifted the burden of refugee sponsorship (of approved refugees, who may have already waited years in a UN refugee camp) to the private and non-profit sector and especially on religious communities. That’s all well and good, but the additional resources needed for resettlement have continually been reduced or made more complex through additional paperwork.

The government also withdrew health care services from non-sponsored refugees provided little or no support for these refugees. They were not receiving anything more than what anyone would on ODSP or Ontario Works. However the Federal Court of Canada declared the cuts unconstitutional and forced the government to reintroduce refugee health care.

Our current government has a very poor record on the immigration file. We need a broad, inclusive and effective refugee resettlement program now. The government needs to step up and put in place a sponsored and funded non-discriminatory resettlement program for refugees. It need to support and encourage the private sector to add to that program, allowing families, non-profit organizations and religious bodies to sponsor members of their own group or communities in which they have an interest.

Finally, look at your own family history. Do you think your family would have been allowed into Canada under our current rules and programs? I doubt it. Most of us are here because of immigration policies and practices which were permissive rather than restrictive. We need to think and act to do more in the midst of the worst refugee crisis in recent history. For Alan’s sake, if for no one else.

Let’s hope Alan Kurdi’s death is not in vain. Let’s hope it will catalyse the current government to move quickly to assist in refugee resettlement. We have done it before and we can do it again. We’re Canadians and we do this kind of thing.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 31 August 2015

General Council's work largely ignored by media

Every three years the United Church of Canada gathers as a church, bringing elected delegates called commissioners together to make decisions of significant importance to the denomination. This year, the 42nd General Council met in early August in Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador.

You didn’t hear a lot in the media about General Council. It didn’t attract as much attention as previous meetings have, like 1990 when the church reaffirmed there was no barrier to suitably qualified members becoming ministers, no matter what their sexual orientation. At the same time, major and significant changes are being proposed, which will affect the United Church and how it works, right down to the local congregation.

Since the denomination’s founding 90 years ago, there has always been a complex, four level governance system in place. The General Council is proposing, and local associations called presbyteries and local churches will be asked to approve a new, three level structure. All boundaries are on the table and the structure which was, will not exist in two years if two thirds of those voting approve.

In addition, the United Church’s Mission and Service Fund, which is supported by individual church members, will be used to fund the outreach work of the church alone. 10% will be dedicated to aboriginal ministries. Another 10% will be dedicated to new ministries and new, innovative forms of ministries.

In the past, money from the Mission and Service Fund has been used to support church governance funding, including staff salaries. No more. Denominational staff will be reduced significantly and governance and administration will be funded from congregational assessments. Congregations are currently assessed for some governance functions, but it was suggested in one pre-council report that such assessments will increase by 25%.

Of more importance was that the United Church made a long term commitment to reconciliation with First Nations in Canada. This, along with the commitment to First Nations ministries, is seen as the United Church’s way of living out the denominational apology first voiced in 1986 and responding to the calls to the churches and religious organizations by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission this past spring.

The General Council also directed the denomination to divest all holdings in fossil fuel stocks, totalling over 5 million dollars.

Perhaps of more long term significance were three unique agreements. The General Council approved Mutual Recognition agreements with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) and the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PROK). These agreements will allow, among other things, greater facility of denominational pastors to serve immigrant congregations under the umbrella of the United Church of Canada.

The third agreement is to be in Full Communion with the United Church of Christ in the United States. Ratified in July by United Church of Christ’s denominational gathering, the agreement allows for mutual recognition of each denomination’s ministers and opens the door to co-operation at many levels from local to international.

The main item of General Council business was to elected a Moderator, or presiding officer of the General Council. The commissioners, in five ballot rounds, elected The Right Rev. Jordan Cantwell of Delisle-Vanscoy United Church, near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. In her first press conference she said, “We are fundamentally a people of hope. Our story is one of hope. We have something to offer the world. We as a church need to tap into the hope that is at the core of our faith. It’s easy to get lost in the business and in the fear [of change].”

Cantwell is a graduate of St. Andrew’s College, Saskatoon and was ordained in 2010. She is married to Laura Fouhse, a diaconal minister. They have one daughter.

The next meeting of General Council is in 2017, which may meet electronically, and then in 2018 in Oshawa, Ontario.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Minister's avowed atheism stirs debate

If you want to get people, and especially ministers in the United Church of Canada excited, just say two words. Gretta Vosper.

The Rev. Gretta Vosper is the minister of West Hill United Church in Toronto. In her own words she defines herself as an atheist and her mission in life, according to her Twitter profile is “Irritating the church into the 21st Century”.

That’s all well and good, but in the process, other United Church congregations and members have asked how a someone can say they don't believe in God and say they are an atheist and still claim to be a United Church minister.

Vosper, for her part, is very adept at the use of social media. She is an author. She is well spoken and literate. And she has a lot of supporters, including her congregation. But questions are being asked.

While Vosper has been public about her atheism for well over a decade and has written several books on her beliefs, questions are being raised about what she has said publicly.

In the United Church, every minister is asked questions of belief on their ordination, commissioning, designation or admission to the ministry. The questions are, “Do you believe in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and do you commit yourself anew to God?”; “Do you believe that God is calling you to the ordained ministry of Word, sacrament and pastoral care, and do you accept this call?" and, "Are you willing to exercise your ministry in accordance with the scriptures, in continuity with the faith of the Church, and subject to the oversight and discipline of The United Church of Canada?" Every minister is also asked to reaffirm those questions when they start with a new congregation.

With Vosper’s public statements, questions of her consistency with those statements, which she would have had to reaffirm when she started ministry at West Hill United Church in the 1997, were raised.

The only tool the United Church as to answer such questions is what is called a “review”. I have been the subject of a review myself. It is a most unpleasant, isolating process. I would not wish it on anyone. But many ministers have been reviewed. Most have continued in ministry. It is simply a tool for answering questions which have been raised.

The best parallel I can think of is the professional review process which happens to teachers, nurses, social workers and doctors in Ontario. In their cases, their professional regulatory college has the power to review their conduct. In Vosper’s case, a governing body in the United Church, the conference, has that authority.

Because the situation was so unusual, the church’s senior administrator, the General Secretary, was asked to outline a review process to follow. Vosper appealed that decision outlining the process. That appeal will be heard in the fall.

Vosper is now conducting a campaign to raise money for her legal expenses (reviews don’t normally use lawyers) and to drum up support in social media.

This is going to be a long, drawn out process. And it won’t be pleasant for anyone. That I know from experience.

I have my opinions about Vosper and her theology, but in the meantime she still has my vocational courtesy. She is still a ministerial colleague, even though we are light years apart in our beliefs. The only thing I can say is that time and the United Church’s due process will give us the outcome. 

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Apologies from Hydro One, but what of others?

It appears that my troubles with Hydro One are, at least in the short term, over.

When I last left you on this journey through Hydro One-derland, I said that it appeared that Hydro One had sent me an up to date bill and my account was paid in full. So far, so good.

Then I received a call from Hydro One. My guts turned to jelly. Had they messed up my payment? Did I owe more money? 

It turned out that Hydro One wanted to offer me special treatment. I was called to offer an apology for my billing problems. The person went on to assure me that further inquiries were being made and that I would be called when answers were available. I was also given a different phone number and extension and told that from now on they would be my single point of contact for any Hydro One billing issues I might have.

Wow! My own private customer service agent! I guess I’m special.

The person from Hydro One-derland called again later in the week. There was more  information.

First, I received an apology for all the confusing advice I had received from Hydro One. The tapes of my interactions with Hydro One had been reviewed and I indeed had received conflicting and contradictory information from Hydro One agents. The tapes would be reviewed with them and their supervisor and they would be further counselled so this would not happen again.

I hope they don’t lose their jobs.

There was another apology. Am I detecting a pattern here?

The reason there were so many problems was because of a billing rate change on May 1, Hydro One’s billing system did not pick up the meter data and bill me correctly. I was assured that the meter was now communicating properly with Hydro One and feeding usage data. This I already knew, because I could see the usage data on Hydro One’s web page. I couldn’t before.

When I pointed out that the problem was not just with the meter but with their billing system not picking up the data from their own system, it was acknowledged that was also an issue, complicated by the rate change on May 1. I was given no assurance that it would not happen again. In other words, Hydro One’s billing system is still busted.

Finally, Hydro One said they will refund me three months of service charges of $19.28 per month or $57.84 (no mention of including HST, of course).

And I got another apology.

While all of this seems to bring my trip into Hydro One-derland to a close, I am still deeply troubled. I received this level of service because I was able to advocate for myself. I’m not afraid to stand up for my rights and challenge something I feel is wrong. I am literate and have a high level of education. I also have the advantage of a bully pulpit in this column, something I am certain was known to Hydro One.

But what about the people who aren’t literate? What about the people who keep getting further and further behind in their bills and are threatened with disconnection? What about the people who are too afraid to stand up to Hydro One because that might cost them a lot more money?

After careful consideration I am declining the Hydro One billing credit. I shouldn’t be getting special treatment because of my position or place. Hydro One should treat all their customers the same way. They should fix their billing system. But somehow I doubt they will.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Church offers election resource unlike any other

I hate it when a candidate says “I will run on my record”. It is, obviously, the incumbent who makes the statement, but what it does is make the electoral playing field very uneven and unbalanced.

Unless you have been asleep in your hammock on vacation, we are into an election campaign; one of the longest in Canadian history.

If there is any benefit to a longer campaign (and I am willing to be convinced) it is that it may result in more in depth conversations about key issues. Not just an electoral record, but it may provide a better opportunity for voters to take the measure of all the candidates and their leaders.

There are those who say that politics and faith should never mix.

To which I say balderdash.

Politics and religious faith have been entwined since before Canada was a nation. Sometimes the effect was salutatory and sometimes not.

Some of our greatest parliamentarians have been pastors. Tommy Douglas, Stanley Knowles and Bill Blakie were leaders in parliamentary process and debate. David MacDonald was a Conservative member of Joe Clark’s cabinet.

As we begin this election campaign, a number of the usual voices have already been heard. Debate schedules have been proposed and collapsed. Incumbents are trying to set the rules and their opponents are trying not to play by those rules.

So what is a voter to do?

One of the more helpful resources I have found is the Canadian Council of Churches Federal Election Resource. It’s available on their web site.

The election resource is interesting in that it poses questions which invite candidates of all parties to speak clearly about their convictions on important issues.

Those important issues are not the issues the various parties define. We are not playing by their partisan agenda. These are more broad, thoughtful questions which don’t address party bias.

The presumption of the report is helpful. It says, “For people of faith, religious convictions are not purely a private matter. Values, justice principles and moral commitments inform all our actions. They guide us when we speak to politicians and when we vote on election day. Similarly, candidates representing political parties who arrive on our doorsteps or at our community centres speak from their principles and convictions when they ask for our votes.”

The resource has gathered together seven citizen’s organizations and invited them to give a background to an issue and then pose one or two questions.

Issues include climate justice, poverty, prisons, a national inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women and children, welcoming the stranger, physician assisted death, international trade, support for small scale farmers, the arms trade, banning nuclear weapons, the Canadian military mission to Iraq and Syria and Canadian mining companies respecting human rights.

On physician assisted death, the kit asks, “What is your position on physician assisted death? Do you agree that a broadly based, public consultation is necessary? As a Member of Parliament, how would you and your party proceed with a comprehensive consultation to ensure all voices are heard?”

On a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, the question is, “As a Member of Parliament, would you and your party support a national public inquiry and work with Indigenous peoples on the development of a clear action plan to address the urgent crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and children?”

You may not agree with all the questions, but if they get us thinking, they can help us get past the party propaganda and petty bickering and into substantive issues affecting all Canadians. For people of faith, our faith should inform our political decisions. These questions help us do just that.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

The billing rabbit hole to Hydro One-derland

A few weeks ago, I jumped down the rabbit hole called Hydro One billing. It turned me into a meter reader, because for some unknown reason, Hydro One could not give me an accurate hydro bill. All I had received were a series of estimated bills, which I knew from taking meter readings, were several thousand kilowatt hours and several hundred dollars too low.

When I left the story last time, I was told to call in on appointed day with a meter reading. So I did.

I'm sorry, sir, you are not allowed to do that.

But I was told that I was.

You aren't. I cannot accept a meter reading from you.

But I was told...

You were told wrongly, sir. I am a billing expert at Hydro One. I know these things.

So I can't give you my meter reading?

No, sir.  And your last reading was declined.


You must wait until we have estimated your bill for three months and then we can accept a manual reading.

But your system is not working.

Sir, that is Hydro One's billing system. You have no need to know how the billing system works. 

I hung up. I hate arrogance, especially when all I want to do is pay my bill.

Several days later, my regular Hydro One bill arrived. Or it was posted to their customer service portal. And again it was an estimated bill. That made the perfect three. 

I called Hydro One. I talked to a representative who was polite and helpful. Perhaps my file had been flagged.

The representative took my meter reading and said that it would be inputted into the billing system and used to correct my next bill in thirty days or so.

No corrected bill?

No sir. No corrected bill.

Later that day, while looking for my missing user data on the Hydro One web site, I checked my account again. The mysterious missing usage data had somehow miraculously appeared! All three months' worth!

Then, 24 hours after my calling Hydro One, some strange entries appeared on my payments section. Thinking this could only predict a very expensive bill, I was astonished to find that 24 hours after that, I received, via the Hydro One web page, another, corrected bill! The bill was for $600! But less all the credits, I apparently owed Hydro One just $55.

I paid it immediately. In full. 

Hydro One’s billing system is broken. Badly. They are lying to their customers when they say it has been fixed. My experience shows it has not. 

Hydro One is not responsive to consumer attempts to correct billing problems. Their customer service reps can be arrogant and inflexible. They appear powerless to change anything and can only offer an advice of "pay your bill". They blame their customers, when it is their billing system which is obviously at fault. The billing system works contrary to what their customer representatives say, causing consumer confusion.

No one has authority or ability to do anything. I called the Ontario Ombudsman's office, who took my story, but said they are powerless. The Ontario Energy Board took my information, but said that Hydro One is supposed to establish their own ombudsman's office, which they have not yet done.

There may be another column out of this. But it shows that so far, anyone can fall down the Hydro One rabbit hole at any time. And once there, you are largely on your own in Hydro One-derland.  Welcome to Hydro One hell. May God have mercy on your soul.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Respond to hate with hospitality and care

Just when you think the wold is going to hell in a handbasket, things happen that cause you to shake your head and realize that just maybe there is cause for hope.

Two recent events in the news cause me to think that way.

The first was the response by a former Ontario MPP and cabinet member, Dr. Marie Bountrogianni, to the social media postings of Diane Francis, Editor-at-large of the National Post newspaper.

Francis, in a series of social media postings during the recent Greek financial crisis, called for a return to a military dictatorship in Greece, among other things. This naturally enraged the Greek community in Canada. That was a terrible time in recent Greek history. Some threatened legal action. Others wrote public pronouncements of outrage.

Bountrogianni had a different response. She invited Francis to come to Greece to meet her family. All 275 members of her family.

She said Francis would be impressed by their hospitality. And, she continued, “Many of them have survived more than one military dictatorship. Other families were not so lucky. Hundreds were killed in the last dictatorship in the late sixties and early seventies— killed for nothing more than speaking out against the government!”

No response to the invitation from Francis yet.

The second sign of hope was a story out of Vancouver, where the Vancouver police reported on an undercover operation in the city’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.

The Downtown Eastside is sometimes called “Canada’s poorest postal code”. It is  noted for a high incidence of poverty, drug use, sex trade, crime, violence, as well as a history of community activism. It has a high rate of HIV, Hepatitis C and was the site of North America’s first safe injection site, reducing the spread of HIV considerably. 40% of the homeless population in the area, according to the city, suffers from mental illness.

Last spring, in response to a string of robberies in the area of people in wheelchairs, police launched a sting operation. According to news reports, for five days, Staff Sgt. Mark Horsley wheeled through the neighbourhood in a wheelchair. He told people he had a brain injury and couldn't count and wore a waist wallet with money spilling out.

Expecting to encounter street thieves, Horsley, a 30-year police veteran, instead met men and women who looked out for him, gave him money and even prayed for him.

No one tried to rob him or short change him during transactions.

"Not one person took advantage of my vulnerability," Horsley said at a news conference, "This community has soul."

When I shared the story with church colleagues who had worked in the Downtown Eastside, they simply agreed and said “That’s the way people really are there.”

In a world where many, including our politicians, try to stir up our emotions by fearmongering and tell us the whole world is a dangerous place (and make no mistake, there are dangerous places in the world), real people respond to the human condition with hospitality and kindness. Real people care about others. And real people offer, by their actions, not just words, but real hope.

No, the world is not going to hell in a handbasket. And it will get better if we respond to hate with hospitality and offer care, even in the smallest way, for each other.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 20 July 2015

I'll take time to ponder before taking on new roles

Last Friday I packed up my computer, my last box of books and papers, closed the door to my office of the last fifteen years and turned my keys in to the church secretary.

I am now retired from the active ministry of the United Church of Canada.

It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but in the end, the alignment of events made the decision. It feel right and good.

For the purposes of the United Church of Canada I am officially retired effective August 1, 2015. But the fact is much more clear and simple. I have surrendered the keys to the church. Someone else will be doing preaching and pastoral care from now on.

I have a date with the deck of my cottage, which my wife helpfully reminds me needs to be painted.

To be sure, I will continue to do certain things. I will continue writing this column as long as the Editor wants to publish it and I feel I can contribute something. I will do another season of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County. I will continue to serve as a public member on the Board of Health. But I have made a decision to accept no more commitments, long or short, until after October 1 at the earliest.

When the news of my retirement became public, I was approached to serve on several community boards and committees.

I declined.

Not yet. Maybe never. Who knows? I have to take stock of my skills and abilities, first.

One thing the United Church makes clear when their ministry personnel retire that their roles become, in many ways, very carefully defined.

Because of the terms of the Marriage Act in Ontario, the United Church removes my credentials to officiate at and solemnize weddings. That disappointed a few people, but the law is clear. Not all churches are as strict as the United Church, because I see the names of ministers who are long dead on the provincial lists, but in my case it’s just as absolute.

I am also not permitted to offer any pastoral services to members of my former congregation without the consent of the current minister and the church board.

That makes good sense.

Many years ago, when I first started in ministry, I was officiating at the funeral of a gentleman and shared that duty with a long-time former minister who had since retired.

He took over the service. He spoke well of the deceased, offered comforting prayers and scriptures and consoled the family. I just closed my service book and at the end said, "Amen."

Shortly after, he was spoken to by other pastors and he was never invited back for any other services.

I am still able to accept what are called "supply appointments" to serve churches who are between ministers.

I can officiate at funerals of people not connected with my former congregation.

I can also sleep in a bit on Sunday morning and not be anxious over the quality of a sermon or if my words were, in fact, helpful.

I started ministry with typewriters, gestetner duplicators and stencils. I retired with photocopiers, computers and smart phones.

It’s been a wonderful journey. But it’s not over yet. The next chapter in my ministry is just beginning.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Hydro One has turned me into a meter reader

Long ago, I grew up in Mississauga. We had inside water meters.

Every month or so a city water department employee came around to the house to read the meter. If you weren’t home, the meter reader left a postage paid card in the door. You entered the numbers on your water meter and drop the card in the mail box. In due course, the water bill arrived.

I was dreamed of those easy days after I called Hydro One about my latest bill.
Hydro One is the utility we all love to hate. Sometimes with justification. The stories of the recent report of the Ombudsman on the ongoing disaster that is Hydro One is the stuff of legend. Reading about it can keep children up at night.

My last hydro bill wasn’t all that outrageous. But I looked at it carefully.

There it was, right in the middle of the page. Those words which strike fear into consumers everywhere.

We estimated your meter on June 13...

Estimated my meter? Wasn’t my meter read? What is all this multi-billion dollar Smart Meter stuff if Hydro One can only estimate my meter?

Out of curiosity, I went and took a reading off my meter.

The difference was shocking. 1400 kilowatt hours more than their “estimated” reading. Using the most expensive hydro rate band, that’s an additional $200 in hydro that I have used in the last three months but not been billed for. Not yet, anyway.

I pulled out my old bills. Hydro One hadn’t read the meter at all since late March! Every single bill since has been an estimate!

I called Hydro One.

They did not seem very concerned that they had not been able to read my meter for several months.

I asked Hydro One if they could tell me when my meter would be read.


I asked if they could take a manual reading.

Not possible.

What solution did they have to their problem?

Well, you could call us once a month with a meter reading.

Let me get this straight. I have to call Hydro One once a month with my meter reading?

That’s right, sir.

Can you tell me when I should call? Should it be the fifteenth of the month, for example?

No, sir. I will give you the exact date when you have to call us.

Can I send the meter reading by e-mail or by fax or even Canada Post?

No, sir. You have to call us personally.

And if I can’t call you on that date that you give me?

You have to call us on that exact date, sir. Otherwise we can’t give you an accurate bill.

So now I am stuck with calling Hydro One on an exact day of the month. It varies between the 11th and the 15th, depending on the month, between now and the end of the year.

All to get an accurate bill and not have to pay a sizable catch up amount.

Something is really, really wrong with Hydro One. But we all knew that, right?

Incidentally, I shared my little Hydro One tumble down the rabbit hole with Francesca (Call 211) Dobbyn, Executive Director of the United Way of Bruce Grey, my all-knowing wizard on everything Hydro One.

She wasn’t surprised at all. She told me, however, that Hydro One can only estimate a bill for a maximum of four months. Then they have to do a manual reading and give you an accurate bill.

I guess I called Hydro One a month too soon.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister living in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Pope Francis’s encyclical is for all of us

In the midst of all the global turmoil of the last week, events in Charleston SC and even here at home, the Vatican released the second encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Se’ 

An encyclical is one of the highest forms of communication within the Roman catholic Church. At its most basic, it is a letter to the church leadership saying that in this time and place, this is a hugely important issue. It also outlines the church’s teaching on the issue. There is no debate of an encyclical. It is as if the church is saying, “Here we stand.”

Laudato Se’ is remarkable in many, many ways.

It is, without question a very political statement. At the same time, it breaks new ground by stating clearly that all our conversation about the environment (global warming, nuclear waste disposal, environmental degradation) has a spiritual component. Pope Francis is saying unequivocally that the language of faith has a place in those conversations and offers a framework for that participation.

Pope Francis makes clear that the poor and those on the margins of the global community are the ones most affected by environmental change. They bear the brunt of what happens to our environment, yet often they have no voice. That has to change.

Technology is no solution. That flies in the face of so called “dynamists”, as Ross Douthat has named them in the New York Times. Dynamists believe that all human problems can be solved by technology, there is a genius and rightness in free markets and modernity is a success story whose best days are ahead.

On the other hand, Douthat suggests that Francis is a “catastrophist” who sees a global civilization that for all its achievements is becoming more divided, more environmentally despoiling. Catastrophists say that things cannot go on as they are and that the trajectory we’re on will end in crisis and disaster.

But perhaps Francis’ biggest connection is the reminder to all of us that “we are all connected”. We are all in this together. He is most harsh towards indifference and selfishness. We cannot care for the rest of nature “if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings”.

For the first time, this encyclical is not eurocentric. The insights of bishops in the Third World are included, as is a comment from the Eastern Patriarch, Bartholomew and an ancient Sufi mystic. This is a global message for all of us.

Perhaps the best words of Francis are descriptive of our situation. We face an urgent crisis, he says, when, thanks to our actions, the earth has begun to look more and more like, “an immense pile of filth”. At the same time, there is hope. Francis reminds us that because God is with us, we can strive to change course.

As Fr. James Martin, editor of America: The National Catholic Review says, “To use religious language, what the pope is calling for is conversion.”

But are we prepared for that step? Our future as a world demands it and depends on it.

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

Monday, 22 June 2015

United Church on what could be a painful journey

If you have not heard, Canada’s largest Protestant church, the United Church if Canada, will be undergoing massive changes in structure in the next five years.

Did I say the changes would be massive?

The reason for the change is primarily to streamline structure so as to be economically affordable.

Like most churches, the United Church has a serious financial challenge. Givings to the Mission and Service Fund, which pay for the work of the national church structure, have been flat for over two decades. Financial reserves have reached a critical level. The United Church must (not might or could but must) cut $12,000,000 from it’s overall budget of about $40,000,000 per year.

Cuts to staff are first. It is expected that 60 positions will be lost.

Restructuring is next. A four level system is proposed to be come three and geographical groupings will be greatly expanded and existing boundaries will disappear.

Local congregations will be given much more control over their property and ability to call and terminate ministers.

This has the potential to cause massive dislocation and upheaval. The closest parallel I can think of was the Hospital Services Restructuring Commission in Ontario between 1996 and 1998. If you remember those days, there was turmoil, upheaval, dislocation, protests and job losses as change worked its way through the system.

A recent analysis of the proposals for change used the phrase “disruption of the system”.

I think that’s probably quite apt. The United Church of Canada, sometimes seen as a consummate example of the Canadian identity, along with hockey and Tim Hortons coffee, is going to be different.

Organizations don’t to change well. Kathy Underwood, in a recent report to the church’s Toronto Conference, laid out the risks ahead in very clear terms.

She says that there needs to be a clear rationale for change. People have to understand what it is about and why.

Small changes have to come first, building on successes and learning from mistakes.

There will need to be a high level team leading the change, who are committed and skilled in project management and change management.

There will also need to be champions and encouragers of the change. Communication will be paramount. The leadership will have to communicate, communicate and communicate again.

If there is a flaw in what lies ahead, it is, I think, a lack of mission and vision. That may sound like a strange statement for a Christian Church, but it endemic to the United Church of Canada. It’s not that there is no vision. The problem is that there are many, many visions. And without clarity of vision, the difficulty of change multiplies.

Personally, I predict a good five years of anxiety ahead for the United Church. The proposals which will initiate the change process will be discussed at this summer’s General Council in Corner Brook, NL in early August. There may be some tweaking, but the main thrust of the change movement can’t be denied.

This will require a lot of patience on the part of church leadership and members and a concerted effort not to be anxious. That’s not going to be easy for both pastors and local congregations. But it is necessary.

My prayers are with the representatives to the General Council, called “commissioners”, and with the United Church in the next few years.

They have much to decide.

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

Monday, 15 June 2015

Church far from the only place to find God

Are declining numbers and empty pews a serious problem for the Christian church today? Not according to the new Bishop of Crediton of the Church of England, Dame Sarah Mullally.

Dame Sarah, former Chief Nursing Officer on the UK’s Nation al Health Service and now an Anglican priest and the church’s newest Bishop Designate, said in a media interview recently that people will still “encounter God” without ever taking their place in a pew.  She went on to say that “...clerics must recognise that young people are as likely to hear the Christian message through social media sites such as Facebook or in caf├ęs as in a church.”, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Society is changing, she went on to say, and membership in many organizations is declining. She pointed out that many people encounter the church and encounter God, but will only occasionally engage the church on a Sunday.

This is the kind of forward thinking I like to se happening in the church. For far too long and especially in North America and western Europe we have been bound to buildings where somehow we thing God can be found.

God isn’t just in church buildings. God can be found in many places; in a hospital room; in a hospice; at a local coffee shop. God can be found on the ranges at Meaford and on the cliffs overlooking Georgian Bay at Cypress Lake. God can be encountered anywhere.

That does not make the church, as a gathering irrelevant. By definition, one can not practice the Christian faith alone. It’s a faith founded in community and community gathering. But Gos is everywhere.

Many years ago I knew of a Roman Catholic parish which had an ongoing dilemma. They held Mass every Sunday in a local community centre. Sixty of seventy showed up regularly and I was told there were probably a hundred or so families connected to the parish. They had property a mile down the road from the community centre. There was even a big sign on the property saying that this would be the new home of St. So and So Roman Catholic Church.

Over the years, the sign became more and more worn. The paint peeled and eventually the wind blew the sign over.


The parish could not come to agreement whether they should build a ”proper” church or keep using the community centre. One group argued that the money raised for a building could be better used for mission and outreach work while the other group sais that they needed a permanent, dedicated church building.

If God can be found anywhere (or at least beyond the church doors), doesn’t it make sense to worry less about buildings and more about mission?

I envied that parish and their freedom. Every church I have served has had a permanent sanctuary that has taken up an increasing amount of money to heat, cool and repair. Is that a responsible use of time, talent and treasure? Or should it be dedicated to outreach in the community?

On one hand, it’s a chicken and egg situation. On the other, it neatly captures the dilemma the Christian church faces today.

I don’t have any solution to offer, but I agree with the Bishop of Crediton. God can be found and encountered in many places in life. The more important question is Where will the church be found? In those many places? Or only in it’s buildings?

The answer will be an interesting one.