What I learned in Toronto

/ 12 April 2019

This is a piece I wrote for The Concord (Luther Seminary’s student newspaper), back in 2017:

I spent 2016-2017 serving as the Patrick and Barbara Keenan Visiting Chair of Religious Education on the Faculty of Theology at the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. What did I learn? Starting with that mouthful — that is, learning the full name of this organization I joined for a year — I had the privilege of a year of cross cultural engagement at a time when the contrasts between the US and Canada are particularly keen.

Generalizing from limited experience always carries risks, but here are three moments which struck me as sharply tangible evidence of the differences:

(1) The University of Toronto (a global research university of more than 70,000 students) is committed to implementing the recommendations of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As part of this process of recognizing the realities endured by First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples in Canada (particularly forced residential schooling), I learned how to share a territorial acknowledgement of respect at the beginning of every class and every public lecture I gave.

(2) During my time at the University of Toronto, President Trump was widely reported as castigating the mainstream news media in the US as “enemies of the people.” At roughly the same moment a standing committee of the Canadian Federal Parliament released a report seeking to find ways to shore up news media journalism, because it is so crucial to a democracy. There were many faculty at the UofT who were either involved in developing that report, or in teaching with it.

(3) During the winter months of my time in Toronto, there were frequent reports of people who were seeking to cross the border illegally from Minnesota into Canada. Stories of frostbitten people struggling into Emerson, Manitoba were a daily occurrence. I watched as Premier Trudeau and these communities just over the border from my home state welcomed newcomers, and I listened as the Faculty of Theology at St. Michael’s prepared to sponsor a Syrian family of refugees.

Stated this way, these examples look like quite stark political contrasts. But I want to point to something deeper than mere differences in policy, something that I only slowly began to understand as I lived and worked and listened and prayed with people in Toronto: Torontonians (and I might intuit Canadians far beyond Toronto), believe in civic engagement and shared public goods.

The primary story of Canada heavily emphasizes “the story of us” as a diverse multi-national, multi-religious, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, tapestry woven together amongst vast difference. Canada was celebrating its 150th birthday while I was there, and sometimes I wondered if its very youth is what helps it to remain open to welcome and engagement? However this stance has emerged, it is not without struggle and conflict. But it is also a national story which invites Canadians into a capacious shared vision for who they are and who they are becoming.

David Brooks wrote in the NYTimes Thanksgiving weekend of 2017 of the need to find a national narrative here in the US that invites us to recognize the “divisions and disappointments that plague” us and yet draw us into some kind of unity.

Serene Jones, the president of Union Seminary in NYC, made an even more compelling call for such a narrative in the summer of 2016, amidst the turmoil of the 2016 national elections.

She wrote then:

“A refreshed, reinvigorated story of our nation needs to begin by saying: “We are human beings on this planet, and we are deeply flawed yet deeply good. We who live in the United States are part of a community known for its honesty and its openness, its ability to wonder and our willingness to take responsibility for our harms and seek redress.”

This American story weaves pain, failure, violence and tragic into its story of progress and goodness. If embraced, it has the power to take hold of our conscious and unconscious lives and bodies as well as our textbooks, religions, national stories and even families.

If we open to this deeper spiritual understanding of the nation, I believe we can truly become the “exceptional” country we hear so much about in American political speeches. This is the nation we do not yet have and hopefully want to become— together.”

Religious peoples from all over the globe live together in Toronto. They live in ways that are not free of conflict, but they respect each other across various differences. Toronto is not a utopia, but somehow Canadians have managed to retain a degree of mutual respect and curiosity that helps them to live not so much in fear (because fear is a very common feeling for all humans), but in openness and wonder, in curious inquiry and in generous reflection.

I come back from my time in Canada with a clear desire for finding and nourishing a similarly robust and generous national story here in the US.