Greetings – I am very honoured and very humbled to speak at Friday prayers. I confess I am not very familiar with Islamic Theology. I wish I were more so and perhaps this is part of my journey. It is not my intention to focus exclusively upon the immediate past tragedies and horrors that have occurred in Canada and Quebec of late.
Religious intolerance, cultural bigotry and attacks on people because of their differences are without reason or understanding. I do not wish to sensationalise either these or the misuses of government that we witness south of our border for fear of fanning the flames of xenophobia. Suffice to say, I want to focus on our virtues, the blessings of multiculturalism, multi faiths, sisterhood and brotherhood. I believe I am my brother’s and my sister’s keeper in alignment with the 5th pillar of Islam and the Christian principle of charity. In both, we find our common community and humility.
It is so easy to be angry and to misplace our anger. I lament the actions of Alexandre Bissonnette. To have embraced values that made his actions acceptable to him stems, likely, from what we have witnessed South of the Border and in Canada. I don’t understand it. I cannot fathom what might have led to Bissonnette to feel such as path was righteous. That cannot be entertained by me and I am sure by anyone in this room.
Perhaps what occurred in Quebec City has something to do with what has recently transpired in the United States. These actions which seem to refute our common humanity are equally puzzling.
Yet, I forgive America. I understand that most Americans do not embrace the anger and divisiveness we witness within the halls of their government today. I embrace the passion of the Million Women March that was inspired by inclusiveness and values of community. I embrace the spirit of the American Civil Rights movement. My America includes all people regardless of race, creed or colour. I much prefer to focus on the words inscribed on a plaque that lies at the base of the Statue of Liberty. These are words by which America lived and grew and by which the United States will do so again:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
I thank Emma Lazarus for coining those immortal words – they remind us how this continent – for I include Canada in this incantation – was built and populated. Neither Canada, nor the United States, were built by billionaires with power and arrogance. Rather, they were imagined and made manifest by desperate people seeking sanctuary from poverty, famine, racism, religious bigotry and war. In time, we shall awaken from this current of intellectual and emotional darkness under which we toil. When we do, we will continue to build a better world – a New Jerusalem with those huddled masses as the anchors of that paradise.
I think too of the province of Quebec. While I mourn their recent tragedy and others before it – the Montreal Massacre, the FLQ crisis, the riots of WWI, the antisemitism and persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses – I celebrate a province that is marvellous in its history and culture. I look fondly to a province that in many ways are more socially progressive than any part of Canada, that provides affordable day care to all, that first embraced gender equity. I marvel at a province that celebrates winter as its heritage – the words “mon pays c’est hiver, c’est hiver mon pays” (My country is the winter, the winter is my country) echo a culture that embraces the grandeur of God’s/Allah’s creation in the warmth of summer and also the cold frigid air of winter.
And we as Canadians, as residents of Guelph, as neighbours must embrace this frigid political climate in which we currently exist. We must find strength in each other. We understand we have our common heritage – the heritage that makes Jerusalem a pillar of three faiths – Muslim, Christian and Jew – a common culture sharing Abraham, and the prophets of old. We understand that while there seems to be a poverty of political will to embrace our differences and create beauty, we, the people, can do it regardless of governments that seek to divide and rule. We can come together as we did on Monday in a thousandfold or million fold. We can hug, cry, share each other’s pain and understand first and foremost, we are neighbours.
Each of us here has a different background, a different upbringing. My background in nominally Christian. I was baptised Presbyterian, attended Catholic College, studied Mennonite theology and was raised by a Jewish grandmother.
None of you has my background. Yet, you share my love of community and of Guelph. I know that you and I embrace, peace and social justice. We come together in community. We want to build something new and better – we want that New Jerusalem.
On these Friday prayers – at which I am honoured to attend – I wish to share the words of God/Allah found in The Book of Isaiah. They are perhaps appropriate for us now as we contemplate our next steps. These words focus upon the purpose of fasting. Why do some of us fast? What is its spiritual purpose? Perhaps The Book of Isaiah put it most appropriately – we fast for others, we fast for social justice:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
We can be the Repairer of Broken Walls, we can raise up age-old foundations, we can restore streets and dwellings. We can be the opposite of the anger and fear we see around us in Canada, the United States and Europe – dare I say world wide.
It has been said by Him whom some call The Christ and others call Prophet: “My Father’s house has many rooms”. Nothing could be more true. We are here together with so many faiths, so many cultures – figuratively living in so many rooms. Yet we abide in the same mansion of humanity.
It is right and proper to stand together, to live together, to embrace Zakat, Charity and social justice. Let us hold fast to higher values than those that might divide us. Let us do as Toronto, Hamilton and London Ontario have recently committed. Let us make Guelph a Sanctuary City for refugees and for those who are fleeing tyranny, oppression and war.
Shalom, Nameste, As-salāmu ʿalaykum, Peace be unto us all.