“You take your hands,” she started, “and face them down. Then face them up. Then wrap your arms around yourself. And then spread your arms. And repeat …
“So … breathe in, breathe out, exhale for eight counts, and inhale for four counts. We breathe in, one, two, three, four, and exhale, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and inhale, one, two, three, four, palms down. Lord, we may imagine the foot of the cross, or a shoreline as the waves come to us, and we send out to you anything that might be weighing on us. We entrust it all to you, in a moment of silence …
“Lord, we face our palms to heaven as a sign of our trust in you. Lord, we know you are with us in this moment, space and time, so fill us, Lord, in a moment of silence …
“Lord, we wrap our arms around ourselves as an act of gratitude for the love you generously give to us …
“Lord, we take our arms and spread them apart as a call to spread your word, to make disciples of all whom we encounter.”
We did it again—breathe in, breathe out, long exhale, short inhale, palms down, palms up, wrapped arms, spread arms—in silence. A prayer expressed by the body, after the body has been cleansed to utter the prayer.
And then we went for a walk.
Almost a dozen from Morningside-High Park, Toronto, had met at the church on a Saturday in June to go for a walk around the immediate neighbourhood. There was no real agenda, other than to see what the neighbourhood looked like.
Morningside-High Park, like so many churches, is in transition. Rev. Ryu-Chan came on as minister this January. There are new members who do not live within walking distance—I’m one, for example. Others on the walk included Elaine and Sharon, two sisters, who moved to this church after their Presbyterian church closed.
Jack still lives in the house his parents bought in the ‘50s; he became a member two decades ago. Lauren and his family joined eight years ago; Marc, and his family, a while earlier. Both families have been active members since. Emily moved out of the local area recently and was a part of the church family for a while. And Hildy came to Morningside-High Park through her husband, whose family has been involved in the community for decades.
Just our touring group, then, represents a church in transition, with some veterans, some recent leaders, and some newbies.
We were on an exegetical walk of the neighbourhood. Exegesis is to interpret; it’s what the minister does from the pulpit with the Bible, interpreting the text. In the same way an exegetical walk is to interpret the neighbourhood.
The idea is to walk around without making any assumptions about the neighbourhood. As a group we observe, see what we see and talk about it. I got the idea of taking my own congregation through this exercise after I had participated in a similar one with Rev. Dr. Kevin Livingston, a specialist in evangelism and pastoral ministry, and a professor at Tyndale Seminary. He does these walks with his students at Knox Spadina, Toronto, where he was senior minister before joining the academy.
Livingston takes his Tyndale students on a walk around Knox, which is located at the corner of Spadina Ave. and Harbord St. Each direction from the church could be a different mission focus for the church. Face south, and there’s Chinatown. “And that symbolically represents a whole facet of ministry to new immigrants,” he says. Knox was home to the first Chapel Place, now in Markham, Ont., serving Arabic-speaking Christians, and also to the Koreans when they first arrived.
Looking west are pockets of urban poverty. The Christian Reformed Church has the Lighthouse Ministry on Bloor, for example. Knox itself initiated Evangel Hall and still runs an Out of the Cold program.
“Face north,” says Livingston, “towards a more typical middle class neighbourhood, where there are ministries and programs, youth groups and big parking lots. So, for some people at Knox the ministry is to become more like a large community church, a big preaching ministry.
“But for many others, the ministry was to face east. What’s literally across the street from Knox Spadina? The largest university in Canada. Knox historically had a long connection with campus Christian ministries, like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In fact, the very first Urbana, the mission conference that began after the Second World War, was held not in Urbana, Illinois, after which it was named, but at Convocation Hall, at the University of Toronto and the sanctuary of Knox Church. It had a student focus.”
Where you stand, and where you face, Livingston says, can determine the congregation’s mission. Campus? New immigrants? Urban poor and needy? Or the leafy suburbs?
Morningside-High Park sits at the top of a hill on Ellis Ave. From the sidewalk, going south on Ellis, we saw beautiful century homes, some renovated. These would all be worth close to a million dollars or more. Jack, our local historian, pointed out that behind some leafy bushes were massive mansions for very successful business tycoons. There’s at least one entertainment celebrity as well, and well known politicians.
At the bottom of Ellis is The Queensway, and just beyond that, across the rail tracks, Lakeshore Blvd. Tucked in-between these two major and busy thoroughfares is a new condo and townhome development with young professionals.
Stopping right there, we asked: Is our mission to the wealthy? Or is it to the young people starting their careers and families? The Presbyterian Church in Canada has done well serving both demographics. Young families are the lifeblood of freshly planted churches. And the rich too need the grace and community of God’s love.
A tycoon, William Rennie, who at the turn of the 20th-century had a successful seed business, built Morningside-High Park. He donated time, money and land, not only to the Presbyterian Church, but also to the local village of Swansea, atop which the church would sit. Morningside-High Park was rooted by wealth.
We walked west—to the east is High Park, one of Canada’s largest urban parks—the homes a little more modest, until we came to a large subsidized housing complex. These are the urban poor, the new immigrants, the down-on-their-luck. This area too is ripe for mission work—homework or drop-in for the kids, perhaps. Turning north we came upon a senior’s centre, another mission possibility.
We walked for two hours; the neighbourhood changed subtly block to block. It was only by walking we could see that. We even met the local municipal councillor, watering her front yard. She told us about municipal projects and programs she’s working on. Again, more mission potentials for the congregation to either initiate or join.
We saw a neighbourhood in transition. What was once the village of Swansea is known to most Torontonians as Bloor West. An old identity is fading. And Bloor West was known for decades as an Eastern European neighbourhood. That too is changing. The old world delis are giving way to coffee shops and bakeries.
Neighbourhoods, communities, congregations change over time; they morph from one thing into another. Missions also shift with the needs of a community. And none of these are monolithic. As Kevin Livingston pointed out, Knox has been involved in missions in all four directions. That church too has been involved in redefining its mission focus over the past few years.
What all this means for Morningside-High Park we don’t know yet. It’s raw data that has to be filtered through the changes occurring within the congregation itself. It will take time. Perhaps lots of it.
Later the next week several of us from the walk met at the church to share our impressions. We all knew of each other, of course. We’d nodded to each other during coffee hour, shared the peace during worship. But we really didn’t know each other. So, while we were meant to talk about our exegetical notes, we ended up introducing ourselves to each other.
Mission is a reflection of the whole congregation. But for most congregations, its parts rarely coalesce. Listening to the others talk about their faith journeys, what church has meant to them, how they do or do not yet fit into Morningside-High Park, was a lesson in understanding that the first step to mission is to look inside.
Our exegetical walk led to a more intimate introduction. It wasn’t done in any formal way, and certainly not with a representative cross section of the congregation, but … small steps.
Mission is not what a congregation does, it is what a congregation is. And that often is the most difficult challenge. Perhaps our mission lies in getting to know the challenging journeys and carrying the heavy baggage of those who come across the church threshold. Change is only scary if we are unwilling to be affected. It is exciting if we meet the new faces in our midst.
Morningside-High Park is no longer the tycoon’s church. And that is very exciting. Breathe in, breathe out, long exhale, short inhale, palms down, palms up, wrapped arms, spread arms. Amen.