Cultivating compassion was the goal that the Rev. Jeffrey Metcalfe and his wife, Julie Boisvert, a teacher at Grosse-Ile School, had in mind when they created a youth pilot project called the Social Justice Club in their parish in the Magdalen Islands, a small archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Throughout the 2013-2014 school year, they met monthly with students to discuss social and environmental issues, aiming to “aid in the formation of critically thinking citizens who are engaged with issues within Canadian society, and who are able to respond to those different than themselves with compassion.” In May, they travelled to Toronto for an urban pilgrimage that brought 10 students away from their close-knit and insular village of 500 people for some face-to-face encounters with people involved with issues they had been discussing, such as poverty and homelessness, Islamophobia and reconciliation with First Nations peoples.
“What was really shocking for me is that there are so many things in the world that we weren’t aware of,” says Lucas Chenell, 16, after seeing people ask for spare change on Toronto streets. In his own community, he adds, poverty is less visible. “There’s a food bank, but…we really only hear about it around Christmas time.”
Students said volunteering with Toronto’s Church of the Redeemer’s breakfast and lunch program was very meaningful. “There’s this kind of stereotype about people who are less fortunate, who are living on the streets,” says Krista Clarke, 16, “but…I’ve had some of the best conversations in my life with these people.”
They also met Jozsef Pusuma, his wife, Timea Daroczi, and their six-year-old daughter, Lulu, who have been living in sanctuary in a local church since 2011 to avoid being deported back to Hungary, where the couple says they were attacked for being Roma human rights activists. Clarke says now that if she were to hear people speaking in a disparaging way about refugees, “I’d tell them that they don’t realize the actual struggle it is. People aren’t coming here to take our jobs; they are running for their lives.”
The students also visited a mosque and made a day trip to the Woodlands Cultural Centre on the Six Nations First Nation reserve near Brantford, Ont.
Metcalfe says he and Boisvert were “blown away” by the dramatic changes in the outlook of the kids, who returned home inspired with ideas of building a more caring community.