Thursday, August 8, 2013

Something more

I work for a Christian ministry. At least that's what I always thought I did. Maybe I didn't always say it that way, but I work for a Christian organization that cares for people with mental disabilities. I'm a support worker, pretty basic work, helping people with their medications, finances, transportation, planning activities and helping people connect with their loved ones, that sort of thing. I work nights, so my role has been a bit limited by my schedule in the last number of years, but those would be a few of the things that support workers tend to do, in caring for people who need assistance.

The reason I mention that Christian Horizons is a ministry though, is because that self-perception as an organization has been challenged in numerous court cases in the last number of years. CH came out of the evangelical Christian community in the 1960's, originating with the love of a family who was concerned about the needs of their disabled son, their desire being that there would be an organization that would provide Christian ministry in care for their own and other families seeking the same option. Being understood to the people it grew up with as an organization, it's leadership always saw it as a ministry, providing services and supports to persons with developmental disabilities, though eventually also providing supports in the broader community. Put simply, Christian Horizons saw itself as sharing the love of Christ with people who were marginalized by the greater society. In time the organization has grown to become the largest service provider for persons with developmental disabilities in the province of Ontario.

But the notion of CH as a ministry has been challenged in recent years by people who don't understand the history of the organization. What does a person's sexual orientation or religious beliefs have to do with their ability to cook or clean or do laundry, they charge? It's a fair question, from a secular society that looks at things differently.

Speaking personally, I guess I didn't think much about the lifestyle agreement that I was asked to sign when I started working at CH years ago. As a clean cut young kid who'd been a Christian for much of my life it had long been part of my lifestyle to not drink much or smoke. I don't even remember what was on that paper come to think of it, I just read it quickly and signed it and handed it in as part of the process of being hired. The gentleman who had spoken to me on the phone had explained that CH saw itself as a ministry, which well, I fit, what can I say? So I never really had to give the organization's policies all that much thought.

In continuing though, I really can't comment much on the court cases that have led to legal confrontations in recent years, and I prefer to stay away from commenting on such, not knowing the details of specific cases. But what I feel I can offer in the way of insight to the outsider is to suggest to people who don't understand where CH is coming from, is to picture Christian Horizons' policies as a minister in a church. If a minister was openly using drugs or openly having an affair unrepentantly, what do you think would happen? He'd be asked to step down, because he's considered a role model in the church community, and his personal conduct is expected to reflect Christian teaching as a minister and church leader. As an organization that saw itself as a ministry from the get go, that's where CH has been coming from all these years, but the larger culture doesn't understand that CH sees itself in this way. The world looks at CH and says hey, anyone can do laundry and dishes and cook, what does that have to do with being gay or being of another faith? Point taken, if that's all you see when you look at Christian Horizons, well, you would see it that way.

But I wonder, to be quite honest, if our culture is as objective as it assumes in thinking that faith based organizations are the only possible culprits in the discrimination department. I just wonder, if they looked a little deeper what they might find. I think faith based organizations are an easy target sometimes, and I think our culture is blind to it's own biases. For example, if I was to go to a gay pride organization that also accepts public funds, really, do you think they'd hire me, with my facebook record haha.

But I would never do that, for the record, because I like to think I respect people's right to see things differently. I don't really see the same respect in the larger culture for faith based organizations to have our own space. But I'm not going to get off on all that. The heart of what I really want to get at here is in asking a deeper question. Namely, can you reduce the role of a support worker, or a nurse, or a parent to cooking and cleaning and laundry? I know sometimes as a mother that I feel like that's all I do haha, but most days I know better. Is that really all a support worker does, cooking, cleaning and laundry?

Gosh I hope not haha, because if that's all it is, I suspect there would be fewer people doing it, because it's not always an easy job, much like parenting is not always an easy job. But I'll go further in saying that if I thought about my role as a parent in that way or as a support worker in the same way, that's all it is: I fear that I would be at risk of dehumanizing the person in front of me with that attitude. In beginning to look at the people I serve, not as a whole person, worthy of engaging with, but simply someone that requires a service. As long is the job gets done, how much of my treatment of that person then matters? I'll go further in saying that I think it was precisely the ability of Christian Horizons or other faith based organizations who reach out to the marginalized, to see beyond the cooking and the cleaning and the laundry to begin to see the value of the whole person, regardless of the limitations that society sees when interacting with persons with special needs. In other words, I fear that if I were to accept the stance of seeing support work as simply physical work that anyone can do, I think CH would be on it's way to becoming an institution, the very thing that we've tried to get beyond in community based care initiatives.

In looking at things a bit more, I think the thing that people often overlook is that both the foundation and the motivation behind CH was it's Christian message. And I think the reason people don't recognize that influence as authentic or value that influence is because we often don't recognize how our Judeo-Christian heritage in the western world has shaped us in the first place. It's a history that is being secularized and marginalized. People take from this worldview, assume the now "humanistic" values of Judaism and Christianity, but begin to ask yourself why the Red Cross is called the Red Cross, or the Salvation army is called the Salvation army or the United Way is called the United Way or so forth. Why? Why are there saints names on schools and hospitals? Does anyone know?  When are we ever taught the religious aspect of our history? Can anyone tell me? And yes our secular society has adopted these values and yes there are many people out there who share the same values and no I don't think that someone has to necessarily share my beliefs to provide quality care. I'm simply retracing some historical steps in noting that there has often been a link between Christianity and concern for the marginalized, and that this concern is part of our western history but it's source is often not recognized.

The thing about Christian Horizons though, is that they never wanted to become another YMCA, Christian in name alone, and that was reflected in their hiring policy. That's the reason behind it, the fear that we would just become another YMCA. We'll all have the song in our heads now, but CH started as a Christian ministry in the hearts of the people who began it, and they desired to keep that message as a reminder central to maintaining the integrity of their work going forward. But what difference is it if the Y is still Christian or not, if they do good work? Well, that's a fair question. You might also argue that surely someone doesn't have to be a Christian to reach out to another human being, and you would surely have a point there.

Speaking personally, I've had mixed feelings about CH's hiring policy over the years. I've known people that I would have loved to have said hey, you're looking for work, knowing they were nice people, and have been able to send along their resume, but I knew they wouldn't have the pastoral reference and so would not be hired. So, I've been saddened and disappointed by that at times, but at the same time I feel like I know where CH is coming from, in not wanting to lose the vision of their founders. As I write this that hiring policy is being changed, one charge of discrimination too many I guess. I agree with management, that I don't want Christian Horizons to be known for it's court cases. I want CH, where I've worked for much of the last 14 years, to be known for the wonderful work we do with mentally disabled persons.

But I think the thing that bugs me personally, and I see it when I talk to people in the secular sphere, is that they often come across as not having a ounce of respect for faith-based organizations. They have no problem complaining about not being hired at a Catholic school or an organization like CH, which I can take to a point. Okay fine, you're upset because you feel like you're being discriminated against, but while you're complaining about not being hired, do you think you could show a little respect for the work that Catholic schools (as another example) have done for so many years while you're at it? It was their faith that lead Christians to want to educate people, so they could learn about their faith, it's part of who we are and it's part of our history. If you don't respect who we are as human beings, why would you want to be a part of a faith-based organization in the first place?

Criticizing an organization for being faith based, while never acknowledging that Christianity played a huge role in initiating public education in the first place, or in public health care, and not seeing that it was their faith that propelled them to do so much to help others, but often people don't know, precisely because that history is being erased as faith based organizations are being secularized. So much so, that I can be having a discussion with someone who is secular, and they haven't a clue what I'm talking about, in trying to say Judeo-Christianity may have done a few good things too. They seem to remember the bad things alright, somehow that manages to get remembered, but they don't seem to get taught much of the good.

And so again, CH never wanted to become another YMCA. Will we be another YMCA in 50 years, now that CH will be hiring people who are not Christians? I don't know. But that does seem to be a pattern with religious organizations, that they gradually become secularized with time. I've sometimes thought that if I was going to open my own agency (not that I have any intention of doing that but hypothetically speaking), that I would want to be somewhere between the two organizations that I have worked for in the developmental disabilities field. The first organization that I volunteered with way back when is called L'Arche. They were very welcoming. That's what I always liked about L'Arche. You could be an atheist or a Buddhist, as long as you were open to the faith aspect of the community and were respectful. I wouldn't worry too much about lifestyle either if it were my choice (that's being changed too by the way- CH will not be requiring people to sign a lifestyle agreement). I say that because I see works as secondary to faith in Christ to begin with. But then like CH, I would want to maintain strongly that Marg's hypothetical ministry is a Christian organization, like it or lump it folks, this is who we are, this is our space.

But when I look at those two models though, in terms of strengths and weaknesses, as much as I have always admired L'Arche for it's openness, I can't help wondering if L'Arche is also becoming secularized with time. I say this given that here doesn't seem to be any mention of the Christian references that I experienced as foundational to L'Arche, even an historical mention, on a L'Arche Canada website I noticed a while back. I'm trying to remember, but maybe there was always an interfaith intentionality with L'Arche, even when I was there, so maybe it never really saw itself as a Christian organization (or hasn't for a long time). That may have been an assumption on my part to think that it did; I always thought of L'Arche as Catholic or historically Catholic. Regardless, I think the bigger question is can an organization, or an entire culture for that matter, persist in espousing a value, if the philosophical underpinnings of that value have been lost?

Personally, I'm inclined to think that the underpinnings of the sanctity of human life and the rights of the individual in the western world are Judeo-Christian. That's not to say there aren't people out there that could give me a good argument about that, but I don't think that Jesus' message that the last will be first is the natural way of the world. I don't think that this idea can be assumed at all, and I think it is specifically that Christian message to care for the poor and the marginalized that is at the heart of both organizations that I've worked for. And I think that message is deeply counter cultural and I do not share the attitude of secularists that human beings are naturally bent toward putting the poor first. Furthermore, when I think of the fact that it was Jesus-influenced people that started both L'Arche and CH, and secular influence that is behind 90 percent of children with Down's Syndrome being aborted, a favour to them we're told, the facts speak for themselves. Secularization doesn't necessarily mean an advance in compassion.

All I know at the end of the day though, is that I was the kid that couldn't make it in the fast food business because I was too thoughtful. A kid with a B.A. like so many other kids with B.A.'s finding themselves working at Tim Horton's or McDonald's. And I just remember thinking while pouring coffee, "please God get me out of here, there's got to be something more out there." And I thought that I'd found that something, it wasn't high on the world's view of important occupations, I know that, but it was that little something more, that I could say at the end of the day, I work with people. I've done my little bit to try to make a difference in the life of another human being, as they have in mine.

In concluding, yes, Christian Horizons is a ministry, for those in doubt, and that ministry doesn't start or end in an office, it starts with the love and compassion and mercy of Jesus Christ. Christian Horizons is a ministry reaching out to persons with developmental disabilities and their families across Ontario and in developing parts of the world. CH isn't perfect, no organization is, but I will say that in the time that I've worked at CH I've always felt that from Joe part time night sleep weekend staff like myself to the lovely Newfoundlander CEO at the top, that there is a common vision present in all we do, a vision that is rooted in a common faith. In my experience I've also known CH to be a compassionate organization, both towards the people we serve but also typically with each other as employees. I'm optimistic going forward (despite being a bit wary), that in opening the doors of CH to many wonderful new people from diverse backgrounds, that they will begin to see that common vision too, with a few reminders here and there, that the least of these will continue to be placed at the centre of Christian Horizons, the heart and hope of all we do.

Thanks for listening,

M.A. Harvey

Christian Horizons values statement:

We will honour God and value people in all we do and with all our resources

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