‘Faith demands action’: A conversation with Cheri DiNovo

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"We have power; we should use it." The Rev. Cheri DiNovo, United Church minister, former Ontario MPP and longtime LGBTQ rights activist. Photo: Contributed

The message of Jesus is a profoundly radical one for the Rev. Cheri DiNovo.

A United Church minister and former NDP MPP in Ontario, DiNovo has long lived out the revolutionary implications she finds in the gospels—even before she became a Christian. As a young activist, DiNovo, who is bisexual, signed “We Demand” in 1971, the first gay rights statement in Canadian history. As a minister in downtown Toronto, she reached out to marginalized community members and presided over Canada’s first legalized same-sex marriage in 2001. As an MPP representing Parkdale-High Park from 2006 to 2017, she helped pass numerous bills supporting LGBTQ rights.

The name of DiNovo’s current radio show, The Radical Reverend, aptly sums up her perspective on ministry, which she continues today at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre for Faith, Justice and the Arts. Recently she released her memoir, The Queer Evangelist: A Socialist Clergy’s Radically Honest Tale. The Anglican Journal spoke to DiNovo about lessons from her life and ministry and how Christians can work to create positive change in the world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How would you describe the relationship between your Christian faith and your views on politics and social justice?

First off, I’d say that it’s pretty clear that Jesus was a communist. By communist, I don’t mean a Stalinist. I mean someone who believed, as Marx said, from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs. That was clearly how Jesus lived, how all the early disciples lived, how the early church got going before empire played a role. Following Jesus is simply following that. That’s pretty clear to me.

The other thing that’s clear to me is that being a socialist activist is not easy. We live in a neoliberal capitalist world which is fast racing to destruction, and in the middle of a pandemic. It’s not easy to be an activist ever, and it’s particularly not easy right now. I’ve seen so many activists burn out, because ultimately, when you’re hitting your head against a wall, your head tends to go and the wall tends to stay.

Really, I suppose my pitch for not just Christian communities, but faith communities is that we as activists fight for pie tomorrow, but you have to have some joy today. You have to have some support today. You have to have community today. You have to model the kind of world you want to see everybody have today. At our best, as faith communities, that is exactly what we do.

The connection between Christianity and socialism might be a controversial one for a lot of people who view themselves as Christians. Do you ever find people are shocked when you say things like that, and if so, what’s your response to them?

Well, I organized the Christian Left Conference last year, the first one in Canada—not myself alone, but my church, Trinity-St. Paul’s, was a sponsor of it. So was Emmanuel College, University of Toronto Centre for Religion, Toronto Mennonite Committee, the Institute for Christian Studies, and a number of Anglicans. Anglican priests presented papers at that conference and will again this year.

There’s a Christian right and there’s a Christian left. And as I would say, the Christian right is neither right nor Christian. I truly believe that. I think if you actually read Scripture and see what’s going on in the life of Jesus and the life of the disciples, you’re looking at a person that walked in this world as a communist in the true sense, as a socialist, and I think we’re called to follow that.

Wasn’t it Jesus that said a rich person didn’t have a very good chance of getting into heaven—better chance of a camel getting through the eye of a needle—and overturned the moneychangers’ tables? Bottom line is, this is not a religion founded on capitalism. This has nothing to do with capitalism. It’s a religion that runs counter to capitalist ethics and should. So I don’t see that there’s a discrepancy.

I see that empire has used Christianity, has used the gospel in ways that are, I think, heretical and blasphemous and destructive, colonialist and imperialist. But that isn’t what’s in the gospel and that’s not what Christ was about, and that is not Christianity.

I’ve heard some people say that the church should stay out of politics. You explained partly why you would disagree with that. You make the point in the book that everyone is partisan, whether they believe themselves to be or not.

Absolutely. There’s no neutrality. If you think of dramatic examples, say during Nazi Germany, how do you be neutral when your Jewish neighbours are being marched down the street in front of you? What does faith look like there?

I think we had a very clear example in exactly that situation what Christian faith looked like. We had Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who ended up paying with his life for his Christian faith, and the Dissenting Church, which was about 1 per cent of the Christian church back then. Many of the Christian churches hung up Nazi flags and insignia. Think about that. I always wonder what they were preaching about. But you still hear that kind of preaching today. It’s the how to get along, go along, how to profit, “don’t worry, be happy” kind of preaching. I’m sure that was what they were hearing in those churches, as contrasted with the sliver of a truly Christian church that was in resistance to fascism.

“Bottom line is, this is not a religion founded on capitalism.”

So what is our call today? To go along and get along and be happy while we’re seeing the earth being destroyed, while we’re seeing BIPOC people being murdered by police, while we’re seeing people dying from inept government from a disease that should have been controlled? Is it Christian to do nothing, to not respond? No, I would argue, absolutely not, and there’s certainly lots of scriptural basis to back me up on that.

In the book you describe your childhood and years as a young adult, which were often quite tumultuous. You witnessed some pretty violent scenes as a kid, spent time on the streets, had some unpleasant interactions with police officers, and had to deal drugs to survive. How do you think those early years shaped the person you are and your subsequent career, ministry and politics?

There’s certainly a political outlook that comes from that. There’s an understanding of your own position vis-à-vis the state, and it blows away any mythology, for example, that the institution of policing is there to protect us. Well, it wasn’t there to protect me. It wasn’t and isn’t there to protect street kids and those who are still on the streets in our cities.

You get that perspective. And this is spoken as a woman who fought for PTSD as a workplace injury coverage for first responders, including police. But the reality is that they were not our friends. It’s a reality that not a lot of white people have experienced unless you’ve found yourself marginalized in that way. I was politically active before that, but it certainly didn’t dull that. In fact, it gave impetus to more political action after that.

A major avenue for your political activity in the 1960s and ’70s was in the early queer liberation movement. You signed “We Demand,” the first major gay liberation statement in Canadian history.

Yeah, and I was honoured to be the only woman to sign onto it. This is what I say to people who are frustrated in their social justice action. When you look at those demands, we were just this ragtag group of hippies. We thought we were being almost utopian in those demands. When you look at it now, we have achieved just about every one of those demands in a real sense.

This is a major point of the book, in fact: just because we want a revolution—and I think we need one—doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t engage with political parties and parliamentary procedure and try to get change happening now, because literally, I see it as saving lives.

To me, there’s no dichotomy between reform and revolution. You do both. You do reform and you work with whatever power you can get and whatever avenues open themselves to you. You work for that to save lives now, and you do that by changing laws. And you also work for a time when the entire state apparatus itself will be changed so that it’s not run by multinationals and large corporations who wield their power over politicians and political process, but is actually run by the vast majority of people so that we actually become a true democracy.

After your early activism, you took some time to become a mother and worked in corporate Canada for a bit, started your own business. Then the economic boom of the 1980s gave way to the recession of the early ’90s, which seems to have played a role in your journey towards Christianity. For our readers, an interesting question might be how someone who was raised as an atheist ended up becoming a Christian.

I tell lots of anecdotal stories there. I was in Richmond Hill at the time and my son saw a lighted neon cross outside of an evangelical church and said, “Mom, what’s that lighted T for?” I thought, “Well, I’m not doing my duty as a parent if they don’t understand the Western canon. How will they ever read Shakespeare?”

But I think the true spiritual response to that is that even when times were good in my company, my moods were still dependent on my company’s billings every month, and it dawned on me that that’s not a great way to live. Then when the kids’ dad died and other things happened, the latest war that capitalists took upon themselves in Iraq [in 1990], the call upon me as a social justice activist was, “OK, I better get active again. The world is calling me to be active. But also personally, I need to find some direction. I need to do something that means something and that has some lasting value.”

Weirdly, I found that in church. Who would have thought? I walked into church in part because the United Church had a great speakers’ series on the war in Iraq. They had an imam, they had a rabbi, they had a minister talking about “Is this a just war?” in the theological sense. But I also went because spiritually, I wasn’t feeling particularly positive about my life back then, and I just said, in part, why?

I think that’s a reason people walk into our churches. They walk into our churches because things aren’t going well for the most part. There was a time in the Anglican Church and the United Church, Presbyterian Church, and even the Catholic Church where people went to church because that’s where you were expected to go. It looked good on your résumé and you developed business contacts there. That era has long since passed us by. It’s not a popular thing to go to church. Nobody cares, nobody wants to see it on your résumé particularly much.

So why do people walk into our churches? People walk into our churches, I think, because they’re looking for something. They’re searching, and it’s a spiritual searching and a spiritual hunger that they often can’t put into words. I think as clergy and as people who are active in churches, we have to be sensitive to that, and sensitive to the fact that healthy, completely happy people tend not to walk into churches—and to be aware and to be compassionate and to learn to love people as part of our job.

There are stories of Jesus that had always moved me, and they were in the cultural lexicon back then. At that point, I was involved in church, was loving it, was loving reading theology. I was a philosophy minor in university, so this was up my alley, and I was increasingly frustrated in business. I wanted to go and study theology, and luckily had enough equity to make that possible, just by downsizing and selling the big house, moving into a smaller house, et cetera.

Going to Emmanuel [College], that process convinced me that I did want to do this full-time. I did want to go into ministry. I always thought, looking at the minister’s job in Richmond Hill when I was there, that in a sense his job is better than mine. It just paid way worse [laugh]. I still think that. Having survived 12 years in politics, I still think that ministry is the best job. So I’m back home.

What makes ministry the best job?

Here’s a job where what you’re called to do is to learn to love people, and to learn to love a community, to learn to build a community based on love; where your job is to preach about love, where your job is to take that love, as Cornel West says, and turn it into justice in the outside world. That’s your job.

You’re also called to be with people at the most challenging and celebratory times of their lives, at funerals and at weddings, and to walk with them through those times when truly, very few people get to be there on an intimate basis with them and their family. That is an incredible honour and privilege and one I don’t take lightly at all. What other job allows you to do all of those things, wrapped up into one? It’s overwhelming to me in terms of the joy of that calling.

As a minister, you served in both rural and urban settings and were able to reverse declining attendance at the two churches you served in. A lot of your community ministry in Toronto involved reaching out to homeless people, sex workers, and other marginalized people in the neighbourhood. 

A long-term concern across Christian denominations for decades has been dwindling church attendance. In the book, you write that you had some ideas for ways to grow the congregation at the first Toronto church you worked in, Emmanuel-Howard Park United Church (now Roncesvalles United Church), but those didn’t quite work. Then you focused on ministering to the neighbourhood, offering programs like free meals, and evening services started to take off. You write, “The congregation grew because we were becoming more Christian.” Would you like to expand on that?

What I discovered was something that was there all along: what evangelism really is. Evangelism is about listening. It’s about gathering as a community, as we do in Christian churches, waiting for somebody to come in the door to teach us what we need to learn. It’s not about us holding some secret message or power and then taking it out there and converting people to our way of understanding. That’s not what it is.

When I discovered that, [I] inadvertently discovered it, because I thought it was marketing. I was almost taught that in seminary, and I think [it’s taught in] a lot of seminaries. When you dust off all the theological gloss from a lot of books about church growth, it’s marketing. It’s about, “How do we take this message and sell it to them?” I discovered that no, that’s not what it’s about, and I only discovered it because we’d given up.

We came to a place where we just said, “OK, nothing we’ve tried is working, church is going to close in a couple of years, got no money left. What will we do? Well, we might as well feed some people because there are hungry people out there. Let’s start feeding people and using what money we’ve got left to do the obvious stuff that needs to be done in this community.” And queer people came in, trans people came in, a couple of women came in who wanted to be married, which I did. All of a sudden, the margins started coming into the church in a way because we were welcoming them—because we were, probably for the first time, being truly inclusive. So the church grew from that.

“People walk into our churches, I think, because they’re looking for something.”

Now, there is work to do to do that. It’s not easy. It takes change on behalf of the ones who’ve kept the candles burning all those years. It takes them to recognize that this is what they need to do. It’s different if you’ve got somebody who truly is homeless sitting in the pew next to you than it is if you’ve got somebody who maybe is middle class and looks like you. It’s different, when you’ve got children in the church, if you’ve got somebody who’s got an addiction or mental health issue.

In most churches when you walk in the door and they say, “We want to grow our church” —and you say, “OK, so what’s happening in the neighbourhood? Who needs us?”—then they say, “Well, we don’t mean with them. We mean we want to grow the church with people like us.” Or more often, “We want to grow the church with people who have money, that contribute to the church.”

What I think we proved in both the churches I was at before was that if you actually do what Jesus did, eventually the money will come. Don’t worry about the money. Just do what Christ called you to do. Try that for a change, and then see what happens. And they’re both still going.

It sounds like your attitude to community ministry was “to each according to their needs.”

Pretty much, and that’s profoundly Christian. But it does take some shaking up, and it does take those who are there to be willing to engage in that being shaken up.

Speaking of shaking things up, at Emmanuel-Howard Park you presided over the first legalized same-sex marriage in Canada. Your attempts to legally marry Paula and Blanca faced resistance from government and within the United Church of Canada. Do you see that as an example of trying to do what you consider the right thing and then running up against entrenched power structures?

Yeah, [I had] a very supportive congregation that weathered the storm there. They’re the true heroes of this. But I assumed—obviously wrongly—that the United Church would back me. After all, I walked in there around 1988 because they had been the church that said “We are going to ordain openly gay and lesbian folk who are in relationships.” They were the first mainline denomination to do that. So I thought, “Well, of course they’d welcome this, too. This is exciting news, right?” Not so much.

I didn’t realize at the time, but apparently it had been debated in the [Legislative Assembly of Ontario]. The Government of Ontario, when they threatened to take away my licence from the registrar general’s office, it was their holy mistake. They vetted this marriage and they sent the Paula and Blanca license, because on the banns form, it just said bride and groom. It didn’t say male or female. They thought Paula was a man, so sent them a marriage license. When they threatened to take away my license for that, as I say in the book, that wonderful line from Sir Walter Raleigh, “If church and court reply / Then give them both the lie”—both state and church replied and they said no.

What do you do then? I jokingly say, “I got a good lawyer and phoned CBC.” But that’s about what it amounted to. I would have lost my licence if it weren’t for a good lawyer and CBC, who publicized this.

I’m interested how you might compare your work as a priest to your work as a politician. You write at one point, “I thought I might be able to do more for those crushed by the system in parliament than in the pulpit.” Did you find that to be the case?

Yes, I did find that, which is why when people ask me “Should I run?”, if I think that they should, I always say “Yes, absolutely.” Absolutely get involved in the political process in whatever way you can and fight within whatever party you’re in for principles. Obviously I’m a socialist, so I fight for socialist principles still and did in the NDP.

“To me, there’s no dichotomy between reform and revolution.”

I managed to pass more LGBTQ legislation than anybody in Canadian history, and I’m extremely proud of that, and also of some of the other bills I got passed. I passed more private member’s bills than anybody in Ontario’s history—and remember, we were not official opposition then. When I was first elected, there were only 10 of us in the NDP caucus at Queen’s Park. We didn’t have a lot of power. I didn’t have a lot of power, and I still managed to do that. Part of the book, I hope, is a kind of “how to do that” for people who find themselves lucky enough to be elected. You can do incredible amounts [of good], but it comes with a cost—sort of like church work.

I think what happens to people, and it’s understandable, is you get into cultures, whether political or church, where you kind of go along to get along. I understand, particularly when you’ve been battered by the same systems, why a lot of folk do that. But I hope that one of the things the book does is to inspire people not to do that, to say not only can you succeed, you can thrive in a sense by putting yourself out there. It comes with a cost, but it’s a joyous way of life. It’s truly being alive, and we should all engage in that.

You describe having a minimum wage above the poverty line as “a profoundly moral issue.” Do you think this is even more relevant now during the pandemic, when essential workers are still struggling to have a living wage? 

I think you hit it: we need a living wage. That living wage should be pegged to what the average wage is in some meaningful way. But to have a living wage is a profoundly moral issue. Nobody should be working full-time and having to use a food bank. Nobody should be working full-time and unable to pay their rent.

Cheri DiNovo speaks in 2015 during the National Day of Mourning for workers injured or killed on the job. Photo: United Steelworkers, via Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

I came from an era where student welfare paid for a basement apartment and food. It paid enough for me to go back to school. That’s impossible now, even on ODSP. It’s impossible on all forms of social assistance. So first of all, we need social assistance to be able to pay for people to do that.

Then we need the minimum livable wage to actually be able to live with some degree of comfort. This is not utopian. This is not rocket science. I went to Sweden, where McDonald’s workers were unionized and where their minimum wage—I think when we were fighting for $10, theirs was just under $13 an hour. What do you need for that? You need a strong union movement that fights for that, for not just their members—because there are a number of union members who don’t make a livable wage—but for everyone. One of the real lessons coming out of the pandemic is we need strong union leadership in terms of standing up for workers’ rights.

As an MP you put together a bill banning “conversion therapy” and worked on a bill to establish the Trans Day of Remembrance. How much farther do we still have to go in fighting for queer rights?

Certainly social reform and social progress in this reality, in this historical moment, is two steps forward and one step back. Now what we’re seeing particularly with trans rights is this pushback throughout North America and throughout the west, and the world for that matter.

What do we see? We’re seeing the rise of the TERF [trans-exclusionary radical feminist] movement—people, cis women, who are calling themselves feminists, fighting against their trans sisters. This is horrific and it needs to be called out. Now we’re fighting against this denying children and teens medical assistance if they’re trans.

We’re fighting, as we always have been, against brutal policing, against policing that doesn’t care if you’re Black and trans and a sex worker—where your murder is not taken seriously, as we’ve seen in Toronto. We’ve seen in Toronto where a serial killer [Bruce McArthur] isn’t apprehended in a timely manner. Why? Because they’re operating in a homophobic, transphobic situation, with policing that backs that up. Then we’re also seeing, of course, organized religions who have rallied behind hatred of trans folk and queer folk generally.

There’s huge pushback, and we will simply meet it when it comes and continue to uphold the rights that we fought for and to make them real. That’s the other problem. Even if the law is on your side, if it’s not enforced, if there’s no teeth to it, then what kind of law is it? I’m still hearing news of trans women being sent into male prisons. That’s a human rights abuse under the Ontario Human Rights Code now. I hope that coming out of the pandemic, there are a lot of lawsuits happening in civil court against actions of this government.

The system tries it best to say, “Oh yeah, that’s done.” No, it’s just the opening now. It needs to be continued.

Writing for an Anglican publication, it was interesting to hear you describe Archbishop Colin Johnson of the Anglican diocese of Toronto meeting with different caucuses in the Ontario legislature asking how he could get poverty on the agenda in the next election. As an MP, you suggested that Anglican churches host all-party debates on the issues. You remark in The Queer Evangelist that “the result was profound and it made a difference.” 

That was a wonderful moment. Thank you, Colin.

Churches should do so much more than they do. Every politician pays lip service to faith communities, particularly now to faith communities of colour: to Muslims, to Sikhs, to others. I think this is something to really drive home to people in congregations, especially the leaders of those congregations. You have power. Politicians will listen to you if you become a squeaky wheel and insist on being heard. Why? Because you represent hundreds of voters and that politician in your riding cannot get re-elected without those voters. Use that power to speak truth to power, to speak to your city councillor, to speak to your MP, to speak to your MPP. Every leader of a faith organization in a riding should know their MPs, their MPPs, and their city councillors, and those people should know them. They should go to them with asks and follow up when those asks aren’t listened to and when no action comes from them.

“Politicians will listen to you if you become a squeaky wheel and insist on being heard.”

In the United Church—and this may be true for Anglicans too—we expect government to somehow listen to us, to pay attention to what we’re doing in our little bubble. Trust me, they don’t. For example, we had something in the United Church where we all lit a candle for universal basic income. Do you think anybody’s paying attention to that? No, they’re not, really. I’m sorry, they’re not. They don’t know what’s happening in our churches, for the most part.

When I was in politics, it’s difficult because you’re always busy doing stuff on the weekends. We don’t tend to be frequent churchgoers, because it’s tricky. It’s just hard to make the time. For most politicians, it’s a Christmas and Easter thing where you show up to be seen. If they’re doing that and you’re not asking for something back from them, huge wasted opportunity there. We have power; we should use it.

When you returned to ministry after politics, you delivered a sermon on the Beatitudes and spoke about the revolutionary essence of Christianity, its appeal to the oppressed. You describe the Bible as a revolutionary, empowering document. You say, “Faith demands action, and action out of love.” What kind of action do you think faith demands of Christians in these times?

First of all, to show up. That may not mean in person during a pandemic, but show up. I have to say, particularly Twitter is something that politicians pay attention to. It tends to be very political. It’s a de facto poll. We can all be hacktivists. We can all at least amplify the voices of workers and those who are suffering right now, no matter what situation we’re in. Do that, I would say, until you see action.

Write letters, by all means. Sign petitions. But here’s the thing about petitions. I’ll tell you a little secret. Petitions for the most part are mostly to gain emails. Yes, sign petitions. They’re read out constantly in the house and they constantly get standard responses. All of these things are helpful only when they hit numbers, so when they become de facto polling mechanisms. If you’ve got 100,000 signing a petition, great. But this is where social media can be advantageous, because it’s so much faster. You can get up to those numbers so much faster on social media.

But also, use the phone. Call up your MP’s office. Call up your MPP’s office. Ask for an audience. Ask to meet them as the leader of a faith community because you have concerns. At worst, you won’t get the audience. But the staffer will still carry that message through to them. They will still hear your voice and get everybody in your church community to be calling. Phone’s actually pretty effective still. Call them, email them, keep bombarding them any way you can.

Then when it comes time for an election, be there at the mike. Be the squeaky wheel. Ask the questions. Dog them. The best lobbyists are not the wealthy people that represent big corporations. The best lobbyists, to me, are the people who take the time to just dog you, and to be there. They’ll be at every all-candidates meeting and they’ll be asking those questions. You know that they’ll be calling you. You know that they’ll want an audience. They just pop in to your constituency office once they’re open, or they’re constantly there when you have open-air forums on Zoom. They’re there, and they’ll be asking the questions. Those people that dog you over an issue will get that issue heard.

The Queer Evangelist is available for order online through Wilfrid Laurier University Press. The Radical Reverend airs in Toronto on Mondays from 4 to 5 p.m. on CIUT 89.5 FM and can also be downloaded as a podcast via SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts, or similar sites.

 

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Matt Gardner

Matt Gardner

Matt Gardner is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Gardner worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Gardner has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He will continue to support corporate communications efforts during his time at the Journal.

One Response

  1. What sort of action had this “christian minister” done for the Christian pastors who have been harassed in Canada?

    Just asking because there seems to be a lot of hypocrisy going on in the ACC. Give a full interview to a UC minister who regurgitates talking points but not Pastor Pawlowski.

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