Magazine Article

The Good Neighbor Church

There once was a church in Toronto . . .

Royson James
The Good Neighbor Church

At times the soaring rhetoric of a pastor from Boston, Massachusetts, ricochets off the walls of my church in Toronto, Canada.

The echo of Eugene Rivers’ 2006 screed finds particular resonance every time we talk about “another murder” or “guns and gangs” in this most livable city where 60 murders a year in a population of 3 million Torontonians is considered a crisis.

National Geographic magazine lists Toronto as the number two North American city to visit in 2019, and for good cause. Canada’s calling-card city played host to the General Conference session in 2000 and continues to show off its charms. Since then, as before, about 100,000 newcomers swell the population each year. It’s a desirable, enchanting, and successful city with bulging real estate prices, stifling rush-hour traffic, and eager entrepreneurs chasing the next big thing.

And at the other end of the spectrum: a growing underclass.

Different Location, Same Challenges

When the General Conference came calling in 2000, my congregation had just moved from downtown Toronto to the suburbs, as far north and west as you can go and still be inside the city borders. But in so doing, we were not eluding those who were poor. Out there, in Rexdale, the Toronto West Seventh-day Adventist Church is located in the middle of the city’s poorest ward.

A recent map of the city, entitled the “color of poverty,” shows how my church’s area—and other suburban locale filled with marginalized people—are disproportionately Black and Brown.

Into such landscapes of limited opportunities, social housing, higher unemployment, comparatively poor educational outcomes, and mental health disorder the drug trade finds productive recruits. Organized gangs are a natural outflow, and with that, gunplay and disproportionate violence.

By the time I was 16 years old I had received more positive messages than most Black kids will get in a lifetime.

Within six years of moving to Rexdale, our church was front-page news. A youth was shot on the front steps of our building as he attended the funeral of another youth who had been shot. The headline on the story I wrote for my newspaper, the Toronto Star, read: “My Church, the Crime Scene.”

Our perspectives changed that day. There is a moment that one is thrust into the maelstrom of events, and the stark choice is to sink or swim; to engage or disappear into irrelevance; to be a church in the community or a church of the community. Toronto West Adventist Church really had no choice. Its history dictates an Esther-like response “for such a time as this.”

And if we were tempted to hesitate and prevaricate and find excuses, the circumstances—God inspired and directed—wouldn’t let us.

In 1961 Toronto had no more than four Adventist congregations. Only a few Black immigrants were allowed into the country, to the point of sparking protests from Caribbean political leaders. So the sprinkling of color in those White congregations created some unease among the believers.

With relaxed immigration rules, the floodgates opened and before long the islanders organized a church where the style of worship and the opportunities of service reflected their active Adventist participation “back home.”

Leadership’s Response

In a most tumultuous and racially explosive period of North American history, the 1960s, the Ontario Conference of Seventh-day Adventists uneasily recognized and established a congregation in Toronto that nurtured the early influx of Caribbean immigrants.

In short, a Black church, the first for Adventists in Canada. Three years later the conference hired its first Black pastor, Rudy James.

From 38 Charter members in a rented church on the edge of downtown Toronto, the Toronto West Adventist Church would spark an explosion of Adventist membership that now populate numerous congregations across the province and Canada. Three of the five largest Adventist churches in Canada (Toronto West, Apple Creek, Toronto Perth) are direct descendants from these pioneers. As many as 40 churches in Greater Toronto and Hamilton have a majority West Indian membership. One estimate in 2011 suggests that as much as 60 percent of the Adventist population in Ontario has West Indian roots.

More than 200,000 West Indians would arrive in Canada between 1960 and 1980. Like other Black churches, Toronto West Adventist Church was settlement and immigration counselor, information center, social convener, spiritual guide and comfort, community resource, and go-to hub. For a people with multiple marginalizations—race, class, newcomer, immigrant, and peculiar religion—that church, raised on the backs of the quiet revolutionaries, holds a special place in Toronto’s history.

A Full-Message, Full-Body Experience

When my stepmother immigrated in 1963, the church was her village. I arrived in 1969 to a similar advantage over my fellow immigrants.

The 11:00 a.m. worship service featured boisterous singing, dramatic spoken word, creative drama, liturgy, and a total experience best described as a celebration.

Souls satisfied, the members feed their stomachs, often at one of several communal lunches at someone’s home, a weekly feast that lacked nothing in culinary creativity and expression.

As digestive juices flowed, the informal schooling of a people endured. They dissected immigration challenges, shared employment leads, circumvented racist practices, comforted the lonely, assisted the unemployed, filled the basket of the poor, and tackled educational obstacles in the way of the children. They encouraged, succored, empowered. And the most dynamic part of the day was still to come—one that ended in a social spiced with fantastic food and clean, vigorous family fun stretching into the night.

Instead of looking for a green field site to build a modern megachurch, we’ve voted several times to stay in Rexdale and be salt and light.

This youth-focused afternoon program often stressed education, social and community responsibility, healthful lifestyle, community development, social graces, environmental stewardship, and public service. The message drummed into every young person was: you are a child of God. You are meant to be great. You can do anything through Christ who gives you strength. No matter what happens to you in society, God has a higher purpose for your life.

Mission Sharpened

I get chills writing about this because I know that the Black kids I saw in the neighbourhood, my Black school friends, did not have access to one tenth of this positive, life-transforming food. By the time I was 16 years old I had received more positive messages than most Black kids will get in a lifetime. Talk about a village. And surrogates. How could I possibly fail?

So here I was, 30 years on, sitting in my church that had just been shot up, and Eugene Rivers, invited to explain how Boston addressed similar gun violence decades earlier, was about to call out the comfortable: The crisis in the Black community, he said, is a direct result of the failure of the Black church to “get from behind the public, put our lips with our hips, get down in the gutter, hallelujah, and love these young people.”

“We the church have sinned against God to the extent to which we have turned our backs on the young people that are now engaged in violence. The violence we see, and the blood outside that door, the blood in the streets is blood that drips from our hands, the hands of indifference, the hands of self-centered comfort, hands of religious tradition that elevates the created above the Creator, hands that preoccupy ourselves with big stadiums we call churches, wealth and more wealth at the expense of the poor.”

My church hasn’t been th
e same since. Our mission has sharpened. We pray and fast and plan and study and now yearn to become so indispensable to the Rexdale community that if, in the future, we would decide to move, the community would rise up and protest.

So instead of looking for a green field site to build a modern megachurch, we’ve voted several times to stay in Rexdale and be salt and light.

We are adding a new wing, the community evangelism wing, the Rexdale community development center, where we plan to propagate in all community youths the very same wonderful things we pour into our own youth. (If you have $1 million looking for a home, our e-mail contact is [email protected].)

Members have not waited for construction to begin. There is a food bank run by the Community Services department. Once a month the youth take food downtown to those who are homeless. We teach English as a second language and prepare tax returns for free. Every Sabbath members hold a story hour for neighbourhood kids. At Christmas we partner with the Toronto Star to deliver 1,400 gifts to needy Rexdale kids. In August we host a Love and Care Day when we dispense health tips, food, and back-to-school goodies, and we also stage an anti-drug and violence march.

In 2018 the number of murders spiked again. And with it, Rivers’ voice reverberates: “From this day forward, every church in this town should be challenged to live by biblical standards that say in thirty-third chapter of Ezekiel that you’re supposed to be the watchman on the wall, and if you’re not the watchman the blood of the innocents is on your hands.”

Who knows if our congregation has moved to this part of the city for such a time as this?

Royson James, a former columnist for the Toronto Star, is now a freelance contributor to the newspaper. He focuses on urban issues.

Royson James