Justice and solidarity at the Cahoots Festival: Annual gathering equips Christians to live out Social Gospel

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Musicians lead participants in a song during morning worship at the sixth annual Cahoots Festival, which took place from May 23-26 at Pearce Williams Family Camp. Photo by Matt Gardner

St. Thomas, Ont.  

On a former farm in southwestern Ontario, the sound of excited laughing, shouting and singing fills the fresh, rural air. Voices pour out from buildings—a chapel, a dining hall and sleeping cabins—that are cradled by pine trees under a wide-open sky. 

As the Journal arrived on a warm spring evening at the Pearce Williams Family Camp, 25 minutes from St. Thomas, the Cahoots Festival was just getting started. Youth and adults played an icebreaker game, building a culture that would help attendees feel part of something larger than themselves as they explored difficult topics in the days ahead. 

The following morning, worship in the chapel began with a land acknowledgement, in which participants expressed their desire to live in right relationship with Indigenous peoples. On this and each morning of the festival, they sang the hymn “O Healing River,” with its call to “send down your waters upon this land. Let the seed of freedom awake and flourish / Let the deep roots nourish, let the tall stalks rise.” 

A sense of solidarity between individuals and the larger world undergirds Cahoots, a grassroots ecumenical gathering organized by the Student Christian Movement (SCM) and centred around the principles of faith, justice, and DIY (do-it-yourself) methodology. On May 23-26, the sixth annual Cahoots Festival took place at Pearce Williams, its first time in this location.  

Approximately 100 Christians of all ages attended the gathering, which featured a variety of workshops and activities along with worship, music and dancing. Anglicans had a strong presence at this year’s festival, leading or co-leading workshops on climate change, Indigenous resistance, racial justice and nonviolent direct action.  

Guiding principles of Cahoots  

Peter Haresnape, general secretary of the SCM and a core organizer of Cahoots since its first year in 2013, is a Mennonite with “strong ecumenical interest” who regularly attends the Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, an Anglican congregation in Toronto. 

He describes the festival as “not just a mobilizer, but also an energizer,” which seeks to help attendees build connections and leave feeling energized to take on new projects and activism. 

Peter Haresnape, general secretary of the Student Christian Movement, is one of the lead organizers of Cahoots. Photo courtesy of Cahoots Festival via Flickr

“For me, my experience of faith is really only meaningful when it’s a type of faith that includes or prioritizes social justice, in the sense of that’s what I understand to be meaningful about the mission and life of Jesus, and the way that he was and that we are called to be,” Haresnape says. 

Andrea Budgey, an Anglican priest who facilitated a workshop on nonviolent direct action at the festival, describes the link between faith and social justice activism in terms of the kingdom of God, which she says is not something to be regarded as a future prize for those who have behaved themselves. It’s something we’re trying to participate in now as Christians.” Budgey compares this view to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or “repair of the world.” 

Where there is injury in the world, it’s our role as people of faith to try to move towards the healing of the injury,” Budgey says. “And that’s through justice and peacenot peace as absence of violence, but peace as a healthy community, a healthy world, a healthy body politic as well as the body of Christ, because ultimately they’re not different.” 

Historically, Haresnape points out, mass movements for social justice, such as the black liberation struggle in the United States, were often led by Christians. 

“Today, there are certainly strong black Christian liberationist leaders,” he says. “But for the majority of the churches, they’re as a support rather than a leader in those kind of struggles…. Realistically speaking, I feel like a lot of the times, the church struggles even to show up…. But then we have to kind of redefine what we mean by church. 

“To some extent, this festival is church in the sense of it’s a gathering of people in the name of Christ at a particular time and place to try to do something…. We are trying to accomplish something in terms of demonstrating and experiencing a certain type of community and trying to eliminate some of the barriers that exist in our everyday lives.”  

In this sense, festival organizers model the gathering on visions of a better societyone rooted in anti-capitalism and DIY methods, through its approximation as much as possible to a moneyless society based in collective work for the common good.  

While attendees buy tickets to cover food and accommodation costs, no money is required at the camp itself. All food served in the cafeteria is vegetarian or vegan. Everyone who attends is asked to volunteer in a particular capacity, such as by helping out in the kitchen for meal preparation or washing dishes. “If you see a mess, clean it up” exemplifies the guiding philosophy. 

Art and music are a major part of the festival. Morning worship is accompanied by a band performing Christian songs. Evening activities at this year’s gathering included an open mike nightin which participants sing songs, play instruments, and recite poems—and a dance night featuring a playlist of tunes suggested by participants upon registration. 

Though daytimes include many activities targeted at families and children such as games and craft-making, at the heart of each day are the workshops held on social justice issues. The 2019 festival saw Anglicans leading two separate workshops during the first morning session.  

Eco-grief and climate change 

Lane Patriquin, a community organizer, educator and recent Anglican from rural Ontario who currently attends the Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields in Toronto, led a workshop on eco-grief, which refers to the psychological and emotional processes that people go through when coming to terms with climate change. 

Lane Patriquin leads an eco-grief circle at Cahoots. Photo by Matt Gardner

Speaking to a circle of participants in rocking chairs on a porch overlooking the camp, Patriquin explained that feelings of pervasive grief and anxiety related to the destruction of the environment have existed for centuries, particularly in Indigenous communities. In a nutshell: the onset of climate change affects all of us as citizens of the earth. Our feelings towards the destruction of the planet in many ways echo our fear of mortality and alienation from God.  

As described in the workshop, eco-grief draws on the Kübler-Ross model that outlines five stages for grappling with traumatic events: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The concept of eco-grief was first introduced to Patriquin by a close friend and dedicated climate activist, who committed suicide at the beginning of this year. 

“After that happened, it really cemented in me the importance for having community conversations and building resiliency strategies for mental health and grief processing in the face of this pervasive loss that we’re experiencing in our environments and in our social circles, and how all these different things are connected,” Patriquin says. “It just seemed like an imperative to me to help people start having these conversations, which I think should be happening in pretty much every community.” 

Encouraging such conversations is a major focus for Patriquin, who maintains a YouTube channel called Circle A Tattoo discussing political theory and skill-building for activists. They also lead adult education sessions on transgender allyship, climate justice and anti-fascismthe latter referring to organized opposition to far-right ideologies such as white supremacy and ultranationalism. 

Having joined the Anglican Church of Canada last year, Patriquin’s turn to faith emerged out of feelings of grief and grappling with issues such as climate change, and a feeling that activist communities needed grounding in a higher power and purpose. Despite having never previously been to church before, Patriquin began reading the gospels and attending Eucharist services at St. Stephen-in-the-Fields. 

There, they heard many encouraging words about empowerment for marginalized people, self-determination and liberation—key concerns for Patriquin, who joined the Anglican Church of Canada in part because of the church’s “really strong commitment to decolonization and Indigenous solidarity,” and viewing it as one of the most committed organizations in recognizing its own history and complicity in colonization while working towards justice and reconciliation. 

Having started their activism as an “agnostic, loosely spiritual anarchist,” Patriquin believes that there are many shared interests between Christian and anarchist communitiesand that “some Christian communities are honestly doing anarchism better than a lot of anarchists.”  

“Feeding the hungry and clothing the poor and holding space for community events and stuff like that are all things that activists want to be doing, and churches are already doing it,” Patriquin says. “They have this moral and faith grounding in their work that I feel brings a different spirit to it, that I think is really essential and really adds a level of depth and resiliency to the work.”  

Supporting Indigenous resistance  

Indigenous resistance and critical support were the main focus of a workshop by Mike Lickers, a Haudenosaunee activist, musician and Anglican from Six Nations who currently resides in Hamilton, where he attends St. James Anglican Church. Lickers previously led a similar workshop at the Niagara Youth Conference, an Anglican event in the diocese of Niagara. 

Speaking to participants in the chapel, Lickers began with a history lesson outlining instances of Indigenous resistance over the last few decades. These included the Oka Crisis in 1990, when Mohawk warriors resisting the construction of a golf course on their land faced off against Canadian military forces in Quebec; protests and blockades against logging in Clayoquot Sound, B.C., which took place throughout the 1980s and ’90s; and the Grand River land dispute, when protestors from the Six Nations of the Grand River engaged in blockades and other actions to stop development of a residential subdivision to be known as Douglas Creek Estates. 

Mike Lickers leads a workshop on Indigenous resistance and critical support. Photo by Matt Gardner

In many of these cases, Lickers said, the impetus for protest emerges when a company or wealthy land developer arrives and “in the pursuit of money and profits, starts just ruining the environment and the ancestral homes of a lot of people.” Because the political system tends to work with the companies and is largely unresponsive to the grievances of Indigenous people, he says, protests emerge in opposition to the idea of placing profits before people and the environment.  

Lickers, in his workshop, emphasized the idea of solidarity and support for the people who are protesting and listening to their wants and desires, which he describes as a major part of reconciliation. Yet he also focused on the notion of critical support, in which one may support the people and their movements without entirely supporting the outcomes. 

“In the example of, say, Clayoquot Sound, where the people protested against clearcutting of old-growth forests, instead of the clearcutting stopping, the rights were given to a company run by the reserve, which [is] not what people wanted,” Lickers says. “They were protesting for an end to clearcutting…. Just because it was a native company doesn’t mean that any resolution was really achieved.”  

“We as Christians are called to be stewards of the environment and to love one another, so the idea of being in solidarity is inherently tied into that,” he adds. “Supporting the people protesting, even if it’s just vocally supporting, is incredibly important. I think it’s something the church could probably do more of, is vocal support for these movements.”  

Other workshops on the first day explored topics such as social enterprise and community development, sexual consent and racial justice. The latter featured a panel led by the London chapter of the Congress of Black Women in Canada, which included Anglican member Norma Lyttle Chicoine.  

Activities for younger participants included shelter-building and screenprinting, while the evening gave all ages a chance to share their talents at the open mike night.  

Justice for migrant workers 

The second full day of Cahoots began once more with morning worship. A period of prayerful contemplation encouraged participants to look back on the previous year and consider when they had most felt God’s presence. Such exercises nurtured a sense of spiritual healing throughout the festival.  

The agenda on this sunny morning included a session on justice for migrant workers facilitated by Connie Sorio, migrant justice coordinator for KAIROS Canada. Sorio explained the history of live-in caregivers in Canada going back to the early 1900s. During the first part of the century, many European women immigrated to Canada to work as caregivers and were able to become permanent residents with full rights. 

Conversely, it was only in the 1950s and ’60s, when women from regions such as Latin America and Asia began to immigrate to Canada in larger numbers, that government policy changed to giving these women temporary work permits. Sorio described this policy change as an example of systemic racism. Protests to give such immigrants permanent residency status began during this period and continue to this day. 

Two women who had come to Canada from the Philippines to work as live-in caregivers spoke during the workshop. Each had been induced to immigrate to Canada based on false promises.  

One had worked in business in the Philippines but gave it up to come to Canada, only to find herself working as a mushroom picker on a farm for long hours and low wages. The other had worked at a hospital in the Philippines and moved to Canada to work as a caregiver, yet was paid an allowance far less than the wages she had been promised. Both described struggling to support their families and to stay in Canada amidst a labyrinth of bureaucratic red tape. 

Connie Sorio listens to discussion while facilitating a workshop on justice for migrant workers. Photo by Matt Gardner

Sorio describes such cases as human trafficking, and points to the need to expand definitions of trafficking beyond that for sex purposes to include migrant workers. Both women on the panel, she says, “were brought here painting a very rosy picture of what their lives would look like coming to Canada. They were brought here on the premise that they would be getting high wages, housing, and so forth, protection of their rights, and the opportunity to become permanent residents, only to find out that when they finally arrive, those are just promises. 

“The hourly wage that they were promised was not honoured. They were cramped in a room with six other people, with one bathroom. They worked from dawn to dusk, not being paid overtime or anything. They don’t have access to health and safety, and they’re expected to work and they cannot leave the employer because their status is tied to their employer.” 

In February 2019, the Government of Canada announced that it would replace its Caregiver Pilot Program with two five-year pilot programs that would provide a pathway to permanent residence status after working in Canada for two years. KAIROS Canada called the change “an important step in the right direction,” but continues to advocate for the rights of all migrant workers to become permanent residents.  

Civil disobedience and direct action 

Afternoon sessions on the second day included the workshop on nonviolent direct action presented by Andrea Budgey and Maggie Helwig, both from Toronto. Budgey is currently Trinity College chaplain, priest-in-charge at St. Theodore of Canterbury Anglican Church and chair of the advisory board for the University of Toronto SCM chapter, while Helwig is rector of the Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, an author and nonviolence trainer. 

Maggie Helwig (left) and Andrea Budgey (centre) facilitate a workshop on nonviolent direct action. Photo by Matt Gardner

Drawing upon their experience in protests and activism, Budgey and Helwig explained the basic concepts behind direct action and civil disobedience. While the former tends to have a more elastic definition, the latter specifically refers to a deliberate act that violates the law. Noting that historical atrocities such as slavery and the Holocaust were legal, the two priests described direct action and civil disobediencas grassroots methods that attempt to put a stop to harmful yet legal acts. 

Their workshop explored details of how to best carry out nonviolent direct action, starting with clarifying exactly what activists hope to achieve. Typical goals might include media coverage to get the message out; maximum disruption to shut down or impede the thing they desire to stop; enacting the future they are trying to create (such as the sit-ins of the civil rights movement, when activists sat at segregated lunch counters with the expectation that restaurant owners would serve a racially mixed group); and touching the hearts and minds of passers-by or people actively involved to create change. 

Helwig, who grew up during the anti-Vietnam War movement, began participating in nonviolent direct action at 16, when she was first arrested while attempting to stop construction of the Darlington nuclear plant in Clarington, Ont. For a decade starting in the late 1980s, she was active in the East Timor solidarity movement. 

In her commitment to direct action and social justice as an expression of Christianity, Helwig is highly influenced by the ideas of Gregory of Nyssa, in whom she found “a theology that had been mine in an unformed way for a long time, and he was where I found it most clearly articulated: the idea that the body of Christ in its fullness involves all human bodies; that the incarnation means that all bodies and their needs and their problems and their sufferings and their injuries are part of the body of Christ.  

“Any human being who is injured is an injury to the body of Christ. Any human being who is excluded is a maiming of the body of Christ…. Building a world of justice and inclusion is required by a commitment to the body of Christ, required by a theology of the incarnation and the sacrament.”  

In the view of Budgey, whose main entry into activism came through Indigenous solidarity, efforts to create a better world through direct action reflect a commitment to “living the kingdom” by standing in solidarity with oppressed and marginalized people from a position of relative privilege. 

“If I’m going to stand behind an altar, then I need to stand in other places as well, and try to enact what it is that I’m preaching about, what it is that we convey in the sacramentsthat if you don’t engage politically, then you actually are engaging politically on behalf of the status quo.” 

Open places, safe spaces 

Though the topics of workshops at Cahoots can be intense, the prevailing atmosphere at the festival is comparatively relaxed. Amidst activities based on contemplative prayer on the second day were craft activities, an impromptu mud fight shortly after dinner and an evening dance party. On both Friday and Saturday nights, participants closed out the night by bringing guitars to a bonfire to lead spirited singalongs. 

A contemplative prayer exercise asked participants to write on paper leaves where they saw God healing the world. Photo courtesy of Cahoots Festival via Flickr

For participants of Cahoots who have been coming to the event since they were children, the variety of the festival’s activities encapsulates much of its appeal. Hannah Lyon, 15, and Astrid Erb, 17, both attend Next Church in Kingston, Ont., and are veterans of Cahoots, with Lyon having attended every year and Erb for all but two years. 

“There are a lot of discussions that happen here that don’t happen or people are afraid to talk about in other places,” Lyon says of the festival and its workshops. “It’s a really incredible place to have open places and safe spaces…. The first step for solving problems is talking about issues and trying to talk about why things are problems.” 

“I think it’s good to talk about what you want in the world and if you can do things to make the world a better place,” Erb says. “Then talking about it and figuring out how to do that in a good and productive and helpful way…. I think that’s what people do here, or try to do.”  

On the final morning of Cahoots, participants gathered again in the chapel, where musicians led everyone once more in the singing of hymns that included “O Healing River.” Once again they sang for the waters to come down, and for the seed of freedom to awaken and flourish. 

Afterward, all present ate lunch together and prepared for their departure from Pearce Williams, taking with them lessons learned in their time at the festivalthseeds that had been planted and nourished. 

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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.

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