By Colleen Sym
Published: October 2010
Related Topics: Social Justice
Do people living in poverty celebrate Thanksgiving? Do they celebrate proportionately to their share in the abundance of God's gift of the harvest? Are you more thankful if you have more? Are you more thankful if you have less because it means more?
It can't be a surprise to anyone that we don't all share equally or equitably in the abundance of the wealth and riches of the harvest that is the focus of Thanksgiving. I am sure that in every community and parish within this Diocese there is a food bank. I know that in one of the most affluent areas of the Diocese, indeed in one of the most affluent areas of the country, more than 5000 people a month are being assisted with food donations and the supply cannot meet the demand. This is likely a problem in every other community too in the wake of increased need arising out of the recession from which we have not fully recovered.
I expect that many of us will be making a donation to our local food bank as we shop for our meal to mark the holiday. This is a good thing to do and makes us feel good to do. Is that enough? It's not enough to make the problem go away.
Is it a sufficient response to the problem? My response is that charity is never a sufficient response. As an act of thankfulness for a more than adequate share in the harvest, surely we can do more than some canned goods and peanut butter. A social safety net that relies on charity to fill a gap caused by inadequate rates of assistance is unjust.
A key piece of the Diocesan vision is prophetic social justice making. The vision requires that we respond not only to those in need amongst us through continuing acts of charity but to also seek justice through the transformation of unjust structures of society.
The approach being taken by both Bishop Bird and Archdeacon Patterson in their social justice ministries has been to work in a cross-community/cross–sector way on initiatives and campaigns related to poverty reduction activities taking place in the Diocese and beyond.
To this end over the past year, the Diocese has been involved in activities related to the Do the Math/Put Food in the Budget Campaign. As well, both the Bishop and the Archdeacon have been involved in the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition social audit.
Now the Archdeacon is taking this to the next level and as a result I know he will be thinking a lot more than usual about what's for dinner on Thanksgiving. This is because in the week before the holiday he will be participating in Do the Math Challenge and for a period of three days or more has agreed to eat what a person on social assistance typically eats in the last week of the month when their money is gone and food banks fare fills the gap. The goal of the challenge is to demonstrate to the provincial government that there is widespread support for the Put Food in the Budget demands for:
An immediate $100 increase per month for each adult on social assistance in Ontario. Right now a single person receives only $585 each month, for all their needs.
In the longer term, revised social assistance rates based on actual local living costs for social assistance recipients. This must become part of Ontario's poverty reduction strategy.
The Archdeacon's involvement in the Do the Math Challenge is an extension of his participation in the earlier related initiatives and marks a willingness not only to learn through listening to the stories of those with lived experience of poverty but to act in solidarity with them through sharing, for a brief time, their experience in order to enhance his capacity to be an advocate for social change seeking an end to hunger caused by an inability of far too many of our neighbours to afford a healthy and nutritious diet.
The Archdeacon puts it this way; "I have had my awareness raised through 'Do the Math' that social assistance is an oxymoron; government support for those that are in need of support is just not enough. I have heard their stories as a rapporteur during the social audit, but listening is still not enough. I must walk in their shoes and live that life, if just for a short time, for it to mean something profound. In that moment, transformation and change may begin."
In Toronto, Archbishop Johnson will be participating in the Challenge and says: "I'm not looking forward to subsisting on a plain, bare-bones diet for three days. But the fact is, I can choose to do this or not. That is not the case for thousands of people across Ontario. Throughout his life and witness, Jesus Christ made abundantly clear his sense of compassion and caring for those on the margins of society. We need to follow his example today, and the Do the Math Challenge is one way that we can be, however briefly, in the situation of people who are truly on the margins of our affluent society.
This is an act of solidarity with them, one that we feel will strengthen our advocacy with government. We hope to persuade government to do more to help the poorest members of our society through increases in social assistance rates."
Personal transformation and social transformation must take place together. That is what the challenge is about. This Thanksgiving, one of things I'll be thankful for is the leadership of the church in this initiative.