Times like this are hard on a church congregation. Here we are, between ministers, aware that many of our friends on the Island no longer see coming to church as important; knowing that on the mainland there are thousands more families in malls every Sunday than there are in all of our churches combined.
Nothing much makes us think of the good that churches have done, or of the powerful help, faith and strength that has come to individuals, families and communities all around the world through the efforts of congregations just like ours.
And that, for all of us, is a real pity. The story is a good deal more positive than most of us realize. And, for us as we look at what we want St Paul’s Amherst Island to accomplish over the next few years, it’s actually quite encouraging.
We could talk for ages about what our church has meant to Amherst Island families. We could spend a long time on what St Paul’s is still doing for those of us who depend on it now.
But today, if only because I know it best, let’s think of the love and purpose which has gone from St. Paul’s to the wider world well beyond Amherst Island and Kingston.
And to what St Paul’s is still doing to spread Christian love and assurance in a global community so desperate for both - but still so lacking in either.
We don’t think about it much, but this congregation has been a firm stalwart of the Presbyterian Church in Canada ever since its founding over 165 years ago.
For all of its history, this church family has been part of what Canadians have done not only in the local cmmunty, but abroad to put into action Christ’s command to love our neighbours as ourselves, to bring home the reality of Christian love.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to have come from churches like St Pauls have been taught that we are indeed our brothers’ –and sisters’ keepers. As a direct result, we do believe we have an obligation to those less well off than we are.
Whatever the current drift in Canada, we know that Christ taught that we are to demonstrate practical love, worked out in all the hurly burly of the troubles of the wider world.
If you think I am overstating this - that I am gilding the lily of what St Paul’s has really accomplished-- I can offer some quite convincing proof.
If you were to have been with Alena and me in Ghana, or South Africa, or Zimbabwe, we could have shown you truly remarkable examples of what the Christian concern of congregations like ours can accomplish. Let me tell you about three of them:
Mensahs in Ghana;
Here’s one particular example from Ghana. It concerns the Ghanaian- Canadian family of David and Brenda Mensah. Brenda is from Uxbridge; David was doing a PhD at Toronto, and they met when Brenda’s father gave David a summer job on their Uxbridge farm - and thus gave David the funds to complete his education.
It proved a good investment. Over the years since he and Brenda met at though a church like ours in Uxbridge, the Mensahs have helped hundreds of women start and run one of the most amazing and productive community development projects I have ever come across in our many years in Africa.
With the support of Canadian churches, through Presbyterian World Service and Development, and the Sharing Way, David Mensah and his wife Brenda have inspired these rural women to raise their own levels of education, health and income from amongst the lowest in Ghana to amongst the highest. Now they market their fish, tomatoes, vegetables and shea nuts internationally. (Those of you who buy Body Shop products will be using their produce!).
Women and their families who only a couple of decades ago were fortunate to see $365 in a year now make upwards of $19,000 through marketing their produce – an unheard of annual income in other rural areas of West Africa.
This is Christian commitment and love at its best – an example of what Canadian churches like St Paul’s can accomplish when they work to support people like the Mensahs and their communities in Ghana.
My second example of what people in congregations just like St Paul’s have accomplished takes place in South Africa, in the depths of apartheid – the late eighties, early nineties before Nelson Mandela came out of jail and South Africa changed.
In those years, not very long ago, South Africa was a land of racial solitudes. It was illegal or just not done to live or come together in even the simplest of social interaction - like eating a meal together. Black and coloured South Africans were not only poor; not only poorly educated, but they were consigned to townships. Breadwinners went to far-away mines or to cities as domestics. They lived far apart from their families.
Outside of working hours, whites and blacks seldom met, but some amongst both groups saw that they were indeed brothers and sisters – that things should not and could not continue as they were. Against all odds, they were prepared to work peacefully and prayerfully to change it.
A small minority of white men and women were willing to risk all, families, social standing, comforts, and jobs. Many of this select few were people of strong faith. Many were Christian, but many others were Jewish, Hindu and Muslim.
They braved arrest to help black people challenge white busses, or to demand service for black people in hospitals, or to work for good education, or for fair court trials for black people.
How did St Paul’s have a role in this?
These few saints and heroes gained immense strength from knowing that the international community – not least Canadians – firmly supported them. Canadian church congregations took a lead in this effort. And thus you, the members of St Paul’s, can claim some modest pride in what Canadian and South African churches did for the future of their broader society.
Equally impressively, some of you from this church will have been part of the enormous group of anonymous Canadians who sent substantial sums of money to the Defence and Aid Fund for South Africa. This is the movement that was coordinated in Canada by Anglican Archbishop Ted Scott. It collected donations from church basements, individuals and service clubs.
This money was sent off to church people and lawyers in South Africa. No one outside the local distribution committees ever knew who gave it or to whom it went. Certainly we in the Canadian embassy did not know. If the South African authorities had found out, the recipients and Committee members would have been arrested and the support would have dried up.
But this money from Canadians like you in local congregations offered life-saving support to political detainees and their families: it found them good lawyers to ensure fair trails; it provided education to their children; it ensured single mothers whose breadwinners were in jail could feed their families.
And it kept alive the sense that the struggle against apartheid had worldwide support, and thus would ultimately be won.
And now we have the same sort of situation in Zimbabwe. Here is a place where an aging president and his hangers on are more interested in their own power than in the well-being of their people.
Instead of pushing for the tolerance, respect for human rights and rule of law for which he was admired by PM Mulroney and Joe Clark during their work together in the Commonwealth against apartheid, the Zimbabwe president ‘does-in’ his own population.
He wrecks their businesses and homes; throws white farmers off their land; turns African success story into tragedy. He has completely abandoned his earlier commitment to dialogue, democracy and the welfare of all his people just to keep himself and his own party in power.
What has this to do with Canadian church people?
Well, as in South Africa, the Church is active in Zimbabwe. Here, too, a brave minority of church people who are trying to promote dialogue and understanding.
The Presbyterian church Alena and I attended in Harare was a depleted, downtown former “white’ church, traditionally run by past white farmers and top white political figures of colonial days. But thanks in part to churches in Canada, it now has a black minister with a commitment to a multi-racial, non-political congregation. More importantly, with the support of Canadian Presbyterians, it is part of an all-too-rare process of national reconciliation and dialogue.
Once more, we can see what can be done when prayer, discussion and financial support here in Canada lead to action in other countries. And when committed people abroad are supported by congregations just like this one here on Amherst Island.
So despite seeming uncertainty and drift of these times, we really do have a lot to celebrate – probably more than we ever knew.
St Paul’s is part of something big. Its past is truly glorious both for what it has done here at home, and for what it has contributed overseas.
Let’s thank God for St Paul’s Church -- for her history and her good works.
But more, let’s thank God that this church is alive and growing, that is has younger families and many children to give it new life - and that it is still ready to help meet the age-old, world-wide need for Christian love.
Let’s pray for the inspiration and commitment to carry St. Paul’s proud past forward into the challenge of an equally useful future
Let us pray:
Father, we do indeed give you thanks for St Paul’s Church. We thank you for so many years of past service. We thank you for all that has been done through this congregation to extend the message and action of Christian love. We thank you for St Paul’s contribution to Canadian Christian work in Africa. And we thank you for what has been done for people of this church and community right here at home. We pray for commitment, for resolution and for inspiration to push forward into these coming years of new ministry and contribution. We sense that the challenges will be greater than ever before. But we know that if we are faithful to our past and strong in our commitment to the future, your strength will be sufficient to carry us through.
We pray through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen