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Author: Tama

writer, milker, mother of teens

Statement Made to Judge Affleck of the Supreme Court of British Columbia Three Months After My Arrest at the Gates of Kinder Morgan for Protesting the Tripling of the Trans Mountain Pipeline

Your Honour, I want to tell you about the day in March that I stood at the gates outside of Kinder Morgan attempting, as the evidence has accurately established, to block access to the construction of a pipeline that I oppose. 

The police records and the Crown’s argument tell one side of the story. I’m grateful for your willingness to hear the other.

To be honest I had rather heroic ideas about my actions. I have a 15 year-old son, Oliver, and a 17 year-old daughter, Abigail, and they had become discouraged about their future. It seemed that every day on the news there was another development (You know the headlines): the collapse of the bee population worldwide, the demise of the Great Barrier Reef, the breaking up of the polar ice caps, extreme weather destroying homes and neighbourhoods, the anticipated extinction of orangutangs within the next 10 years. And so on.

There are many things a parent can endure, as I’m sure you can appreciate your Honour, but watching your kids lose hope is not one of them.

So, simply put, rather than sit passively by I decided I would do something to empower them  to reclaim their future. I had read recently that the civil disobedience toolkit has been lost to a whole generation in the west where hard-won liberties are now so taken for granted we naively presume right will prevail.  So I set out the morning of March 24 to demonstrate non-violent protest in action (though, truth be told, I hardly knew what I was doing myself.)   

Yet isn’t it the way with life: just when you think you are way out in the lead you discover that there are others with a knowledge and experience base who have been there long (sometimes centuries!)  before you ever appeared on the scene.

We were a big group that day (50 or 60 I believe). It was biting cold and then it started to snow: huge flakes, the size of saucers (you’ve probably seen the footage). The snow caked on our heads and soaked through our clothes to the bone. No one had come dressed for snow.

And that’s when a man by the name of Stacey, a self-identified Anishinaabe ally of the Tsleil Waututh, began walking back and forth in front of us in his toque and grey sweats and work boots, like an unlikely commander of a legion. And he started to play his drum for us and sing us the resistance songs of his people.  And when our teeth began to chatter he told us jokes and laughed with us. And when we could no longer feel our fingers and toes he walked among us passing out warm soup and bread.

And the day dragged on and as our spirits began to flag, an indigenous woman, whom I believe you have met, stood up on a ledge just to the right front of where I was. She needed a cane to balance her frail frame which was wracked by a lifetime of hardship that I’m sure I can’t begin to comprehend.  Yet with her free hand she held up an eagle feather high into the air above us.  I can’t tell you what she meant by this gesture but I can tell you how I experienced it: as an act of protection, as though to care for us and give us the strength we would need for the stand we were taking.

And when the police arrived, they positioned themselves in a line in front of us to begin their arrests. It was at this point that an indigenous man wearing a felt bowler hat stepped out from the crowd of supporters. I learned later that he is an artist and activist who goes by the name Ostwelve. And he planted himself eye-to-eye in front of each of the officers in turn and urged them to re-consider their options:  “History doesn’t have to unfold like this.” I overheard him implore. “None of us, not me, not you, has to follow the script life has handed us.”

As the hours passed I was worried about my daughter who had come to support me and as far as I knew was standing by herself lost in the crowd in the snow and the cold.  And I asked for news on her and word came back to me that she had been invited by the Tseleil Waututh youth leader, Cedar George to join a group of indigenous youth for a special youth-focused ceremony in the shelter and warmth of the Watch House.

And I thought “Who ARE these people?”   From what I know of the historic record all we’ve ever done is swindled, robed, bribed, and used whatever means available to us to take their land out from under them.

In the days following my arrest it became my quest to find an answer to this question. I went to the Tsleil Waututh camp by the Watch House on the soccer field to find out.

If you haven’t already done so I hope you get the chance to visit the Watch House, Your Honour.  I think you’ll be surprised as I was surprised to discover that this protest-based surveillance camp, before it is anything else, is a place for spiritual grounding.

The first thing you’ll be  invited to do on entering the camp is to offer prayer at the Sacred Fire. It’s an act that starts you down the road of reaffirming your connection to the Creator and to all living things (animate and inanimate alike). And the more time you spend at the camp the more you will remember what it means to put human relationships before personal acquisition and the health of the earth before material comforts.

I won’t take any more of your time, Judge Affleck.  My account has come full circle.  I crossed the injunction line not to bring discredit to the court but to bring hope to Abigail and Oliver. 

I believe we found the hope we were looking for though not as we expected.  It comes from the knowledge that at the forefront of the struggle there are indigenous leaders, not only here in our city, but across our country and around the world who understand  that caring for the earth is a sacred duty and comes at a great cost.

Regardless of the penalty you have assigned me today, my actions will have cost me little more than a sliver of my white privilege. In contrast the cost to the leaders I met on the mountain that day is incalculable. They have laid everything on the line for the sake of the struggle.  They are the true heroes.  It has  been an honour to stand with them.

Post script:  I pleaded guilty on June 26, 2018 and was sentenced to 25 hours community service.  The standoff on the mountain continues.  Click here to volunteer at the Watch House. 

Sign above the dish pit at the camp on Burnaby Mountain.

Loving Jesus and Letting Him Go, Again

I’m letting go of the Jesus I love. Which makes it twice now.

Out-growing a religious skin is scary.  I panic. My instinct is to crawl back into the old. Sure it was too tight and left me feeling irritable much of the time but at least it was familiar (and with familiar comes familiarity’s close cousin: security).

Still, I’ve lived long enough to know that that shedding an old skin is not so much a loss as it is a gain. Let me explain.

My Evangelical Innards

I grew up in a world I would describe as gently yet thoroughly evangelical (I say gentle to differentiate from the hard-edged, moralistic, Bible-thumping evangelical traditions that people often flee later in life and which can leave them with permanent spiritual scars.)  My evangelical upbringing had mostly to do with where you stood in your personal relationship with Jesus.

There is a story told in our family of one of my brother’s-in-law who as a youngster was disecting the carcass of a bird he had brought down with a slingshot. When asked what he was doing his reply was “Looking to see if Jesus is in this bird’s heart.”

When we were children where you stood on this matter was all important. It was your ticket off the sinking ship and into the next life, which we all learned at a young age, was the life that really counted.

I was a devout enough child. I had no reason to doubt what I was told by my adults about the value of, in their words, developing a personal relationship with Jesus.  I grew up going to prayer meetings with missionary aunties who would close their eyes, raise their hands up into the air and sing love songs to Jesus.  Never mind that my brothers and I would mimic them in jest afterward.

I did go forward once. It was during a religious rock concert at a highway church near Peterborough that my parents took my brothers and me to.  The drummer dazzled his audience with an instrumental rendition of Amazing Grace and while we were all on our feet clapping called forward those who were ready “right here, right now, to invite Jesus into your heart.”  My brother and I went up. When we got home everyone got a bowl of chocolate ice-cream to celebrate.

We were baptized soon after by a stout, grey-haired preacher with a thick Scottish accent in a Baptist baptismal tank with navy blue, velvet curtains. This formalized things.

My missionary boarding school encouraged morning devotions and gave us each a book called Daily With the King. I was one of a handful of keeners from my dorm who would get up before dawn and sit in the common room in my pyjamas to read the day’s reflection on Christian living with the accompanying prayer and Bible verse.  Each page would get a big checkmark with my bic pen when I was done. I had fuelled up for the day.

My love for Jesus was true. I felt an energy around it and aspired to be like Dorothy Day or Tommy Douglas or other such followers of Jesus who were concerned for the poor and for justice. So much so that I went on to study theology and to become a Baptist minister. I worked in a suburban church (where I wore a black clerical robe and drank wine and discussed justice issues) and two urban churches  (where I dressed in jeans skirts and cardigans and drank beer and further discussed justice issues).

The First Letting Go

Still, when I turned 40 I began to feel boxed in by my faith tradition.  As I’ve described elsewhere it felt like living in a bungalow in the suburbs peering out at look-alike streets through plastic venetian blinds.

So I moved.  Across the neighbourhood into the Catholic church. This was my first letting go.  I let go all the securities of my childhood faith and the evangelical Jesus that went with it.

It’s not that Catholics don’t love Jesus. Of course they do.  But the emphasis in Catholic spirituality is different. Jesus is not so much your best buddy, the way evangelicals would have it. For Catholics, before Jesus is anything else, he is the Real Presence in the eucharistic.

So every time I go to mass and receive the host I receive the humanity and the divinity of Jesus. He becomes a apart of me. His suffering and his resurrection are absorbed at the cellular level of my existence.  All roads lead into the heart of this mystery for a Catholic.

Of course it has its funny side. Like the time a priest accidentally dropped the host during mass and it went down his sleeve and there was a great kurffufle at the alter in an attempt to retrieve it, and a murmur of snickering through the congregation.

I think I’ve become more human as a Catholic because I think I’ve become more attentive to life on earth as the dwelling place of God. As one teacher puts it: “God comes to us disguised as our life.”  Everywhere is God. The Real Presence is all around me. Catholics get this scandal.

Which is also, I believe, what has led me to the second letting go that I’m in the midst of right now.

The Second Letting Go

The catalyst for this change has been the global climate crisis and a fast-growing community of ordinary people around the world (me included) waking up to what is at stake for our common home, the earth.

For me, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with climate activists has meant standing alongside humans from every walk of life on this planet: indigenous peoples and children lead the way and everyone else follows – religious and secular and anarchists and grandparents and academics and poets and scientists and environmentalists and buffalo farmers and business owners and my two teenagers and black preachers and banjo pluckers and bagpipe players (to name only those to my immediate left and right).  Its an amazing feeling.

Religious differences don’t seem important anymore, superseded by a shared and urgent concern to rethink how we live and reduce our water and air of human-generated toxins.

I’ve always been interested in low-bar spirituality and recently made up the following creed.  I say it now (usually to myself inside my head) wherever I am to whomever I’m with:

I am human (and so are you).  I am held (and so are you).   I am storied (and so are you).  I am an earth-dweller (and so are you).                                                                                                                                                                 

It’s a start anyway.

I like how it points to the similarities between us rather than the differences. How it joins who I am to who you are.

I’ll say more on each of these statements in a future blog. But for now, back to Jesus:

What’s amazing to me is that in the process of letting him go Jesus hasn’t become less but more. More human. More divine. More universal. More local. More accessible. Marching along beside us as brothers and sisters. Full of laughter, full of hope.

And as a result I find myself more deeply in love with the earth community and the earth that sustains us.  Maybe  to have its well-being in my heart is to have Jesus in my heart.

Maybe, when all is said and done, all I’ve done is come full circle.

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All the Reasons Why Not To Become Catholic and Why I Did Anyway

As an outpost dweller when it comes to religion (in my case Christian/Catholic) I know how susceptible I am to converting. Outpost dwellers are naturally curious about “the other” and for that reason often see the lure of another tradition or cause, religious or otherwise.

At least that’s the way it is for me.  I watch one movie and I’m ready to march, I hear a public lecture and want to know where I sign up. Even being pulled off focus by a pesky Facebook video can leave me teary-eyed and wondering if I’ve missed my life’s purpose.  I want to become that, I want to be that.

I think that’s typical of outpost dwellers. I think that’s why we waffle in our own religious tradition or belief system. There are those at the centre of our respective traditions who see our endless longing as a weakness of conviction. Maybe, but what can be done.

I prefer to think of our outward-looking stance as a unique capacity to  recognize the innate beauty of human/divine breakthrough in “the other”, even when it contains elements that contradict our own adherence.

I share the story of my “conversion” to the Catholic faith not for the purpose of enticing others down the same path (I’m too much of an outpost dweller to have that sort of agenda). Rather I share it to illustrate my conversion to a tradition that is completely outside my own homegrown, bred-in-the-bone, the-air-I-breathe Protestant/evangelical moorings.

And to reflect on what it means for outpost dwellers like myself to straddle two, or more, religious traditions.(My kids joke with me: “What’s next Mom? Hinduism? Islam? Buddhism? Indigenous spirituality? Ha, I laugh out loud. Then under my breath….”Maybe.”)

You might think the starting point in any conversion experience is euphoric conviction, rose-coloured glasses and all that. That wasn’t the case for me.

Crippling doubt was my starting point.

For every reason I could find to become Catholic (acutally I could only find one but I’ll get to that later) there were one hundred valid and important reasons why not to convert. Most of them you could probably come up with yourself:

#1  Why voluntarily place myself under the weight of a religious institution from whose gender-exclusive hierarchies the enlightened conscience of the 21st century has finally emerged?

#2  What possible logic could there be in me, a theologically trained and gainfully employed Baptist minister,  rendering myself vocationally obsolete by turning my life over to the teaching and practice of the Catholic Church?

#3  How could I so blatantly betray the historical sacrifices and cultural distinctiveness of my Protestant heritage? What will my parents say? And what about my Protestantly-dedicated children?

#4  Why go through all the hassle of changing religious traditions when, at the end of the day, prayer is prayer (Do you really think God favours the prayers coming from a Catholic Church over those coming from a Protestant Church)?

Of course there was no shortage of people in my wider sphere of influence who were appalled at the thought of anyone voluntarily choosing to join the Catholic church.

#5  A Mexican acquaintance likened the methods of the Catholic Church in his country to multinational corporations which gut the continent for institutional and financial gain.

#6  A literary friend raised her eyebrow and suggested I read Angela’s Ashes, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel that paints a scathing portrait of the Church’s privilege, arrogance, and abuse in turn-of-the-century Ireland.

#7  My Italian brother-in-law who was raised Catholic in the heartland of Catholic culture is at war with the Church over its stand on gay marriage and viewed me as a traitor for even considering joining the ranks.

#8  My Catholic-raised Canadian sister-in-law warned me about the legacy of guilt imposed by the Church’s relentless systems of checks and balances. (“And believe me, Tama, you’ll find that you are always one down.”)

Nor was I immune to the headlines in the daily news: the devastating revelation of #9 sexual abuse by clergy, #10 cover-ups by bishops, #11  the devastating history of the Church’s involvement in running Canada’s residential schools.

And note that I haven’t even touched on theological objections all of which were well rehearsed at my Protestant boarding school (#s 12-99): Mother Mary, purgatory, indulgences, penance, beatification, the Magesterium , the Pope, the Apocrapha, transubstantiation, priests as mediators. Have I forgotten any?

But it was one of the teachers at my kid’s (Catholic) school who summed it up best. When she heard what I was thinking she looked truly perplexed:

#100 “I understand for those of us born Catholic. It’s the burden we bear.  But who in their right mind would cross the line and voluntarily relinquish their freedom?”

So as you can see, I didn’t have too much encouragement in my decision.

I was swimming upstream against a forceful counterflow.

But so were the salmon in the rivers where I live on the west coast of British Columbia. Driven by an inner compass that keeps them going (apparently it has something to do with their sense of smell….?!). A migrational pull so strong that the run can be suicidal.

Nevertheless, they swim.

So what was my inner compass, my homing signal?

Answer?

Simple.

The invitation to step (“through the wardrobe”) into a sacramental universe.

That was “the hidden treasure” for which I sold all that I owned and bought the whole field.

Father Gino lighting the Pascal candle from the primal bonfire at the Easter Vigil midnight mass.

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Becoming Catholic: An Allegorical Tale of a Baptist Conversion

There was once a child who lived in a bungalow. The rooms in her house were all on one level which made the house, above all else, accessible. Her bungalow was not the only bungalow in the neighbourhood. Indeed, the whole subdivision was made up of bungalows, all of which varied in style or layout to some extent but familiar and accessible in every other way. The bungalow was a happy and safe place for the child to grow up – busy and crowded and full of people she knew and loved.

One day while the child was outside at play in her neighbourhood she wandered off. Like the children in other allegorical stories who wandered off from the appointed areas of play, her wandering wasn’t a pre-meditated affair. It was not an act of defiance or restless exploration. It was simply that one curiosity on her path led to the next and before she knew it she was quite some distance from her point of origin.

When it came to her attention that she was in an unfamiliar part of the neighbourhood she did not feel panicked or anxious. To the contrary she felt intrigued and adventurous repeatedly negotiating with herself that she would go just one more block before turning back.

And so it was that – without a map or any directions, but on account only of her own curiosity and instincts -she came upon a house unlike any she had ever encountered before. And she was astonished by it for it was a house with multiple stories extending upwards and outwards in every direction. And what astounded her more was that this house, if one could call it that, was in the very neighbourhood in which she had grown up and yet no one had ever spoken of it to her before.

That night back in the familiarity of her own bungalow she asked about the house she had come upon. At first the adults in the house responded with surprise that she had ventured into such close proximity to the house and seemed more concerned with how she got there and why she had gone.

However the girl persisted with her quest for an explanation. Finally she was told what her heart had already guessed at. “That house”, she was told, “was the home of your ancestors”. The little girl listened. “Indeed once, long ago, there were no bungalows in this neighbourhood, only the Great House in which everyone lived.’ Her adults explained that they themselves had never been inside but her grandparents manygenerations back lived there. “It was the only home they knew”.

 

“Why did they leave?” inquired the little girl.

There was some hesitation and a weighing of words. “Well….all was not well. There was rumour that the Great House was in danger of collapsing. Some said it was that the beams in the building were rotting, others that the foundations had shifted. Either way, all began to live with a fear that the roof would come down on their heads.”

“So”, one adult continued, “there had been a great exodus from the Great House. Some families tried to rebuild their houses to resemble this original home. Others wanted to avoid the inherent structural dangers of the Great House and opted for the accessibility and simplicity of a bungalow. Bungalows were easy to build and almost overnight dozens sprouted up all across the neighbourhood, and over the years they had spread and grown into the great sprawling neighbourhood of bungalows seen on the landscape today.

The child was satisfied with these explanations. She trusted the wisdom of her adults. She wouldn’t want to live in a house in danger of collapse from rot.

Yet as the days went on she could not forget about the Great House. She found books in the library that spoke of it, describing the elaborate interior of rooms and the vantage points of its upper stories. She learned about concepts like upper floors and attics, of balconies and spiralling staircases. Some days she would walk to where she could see the Great House. Its gables and turrets towered high over the sprawling neighbourhood of huddled bungalows.

At the same time she had no desire to leave the bungalow. She cherished the way people crowded into it. It was small but practical and she knew each of the rooms intimately. She did not want to show disregard for those who had raised her here or to dishonour the judgement of her forbearers when they chose to leave the Great House so many generations ago.

However, the day came some years later, when to be true to her heart, she walked straight up to the door of the Great House. She reached to knock but there was no need. The wide doors swung open. So it was that she found herself standing alone on the threshold, slowly taking in her multidimensional surroundings. No one seemed to notice her or at least no one paid her any particular attention.

From the inside it seemed not a house at all but a space of endless dimensions, one blurring into the next.

There were expansive rooms interconnected in every direction each charged with the energy of music and art crossing the full spectrum of human cultural expression. Gardens with animals, and beaches with tides, and cliffs with cascading waterfalls seemed not out of place. And everywhere an intermingling of people from every walk of life: kings and peasants and fools and artisans and farmers and writers and poets and architects and palaeontologists and astronomers and theologians and saints and revolutionaries, and even a whisky priest. Instinctively the girl knew these to be from every generation – both past and present and, could it be, from generations yet to come.

The Great House was full of activity but not in the boisterous crowded way that she was accustomed to in the bungalow where everybody knew everybody’s name. The coming and going here all seemed to be from a centre which in turn gave a sense of Real Presence to the whole. It was at this centre that all names were spoken and from here that all names were known. The child stepped tentatively forward. She wondered if the Real Presence would have a memory of her name. After all, it had been five hundred years.

I am that child. I cherish my upbringing and roots in the Protestant tradition. And I suspect there are others like me who long for the Great House yet feel a deep affinity for the bungalow.

In Catholic terminology someone coming into the Catholic Church from a Protestant background isn’t “converted” to the Catholic faith. Rather they are “reconciled”.  I like that. It implies that the journey is not so much about loss as it is about recovery. Not so much a separation as a reunion. And like all works of reconciliation it implies a process.

In coming posts I will share my own process in the year long period of orientation and discernment that led me into the Catholic faith. If you are interested, stay tuned.

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