UCC general secretary would like to see African-Canadian theology grants

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UCC general secretary would like to see African-Canadian theology grants
Blair: “We need to commit ourselves to rebuilding a strong Black church tradition [that is Canadian].” Photo: Screen capture by Tali Folkins

The United Church of Canada’s recently named general secretary says he hopes to see the creation of an educational institution for African-Canadian theology, funded at least partly by payments of reparation for the colonization of African peoples.

“We need reparation that will begin to create scholarships for theological education for people of African descent in this country,” the Rev. Michael Blair said in an Oct. 21 online roundtable hosted by Black Anglicans of Canada (BlAC). “I want to challenge us, and this is something I’m personally invested in, and would like to see: we need to develop an African-descendant institute for theological reflection and praxis, and we need to be writing a Canadian Black theology experience.”

Blair began as general secretary of the United Church—supervising its day-to-day operations—Nov. 1, succeeding Nora Sanders, who retired after almost 14 years in the role. According to a news release from the United Church, Blair came to Canada from his native Jamaica as a young adult and began his spiritual formation in the Anglican church. He was ordained in the Convention Baptist Church before becoming a minister with the United Church of Canada in 2010. He had been serving as executive minister for the Church in Mission Unit of the United Church’s national office when he was named general secretary.

Blair’s roundtable, entitled “Our Lives Matter,” was one of a series of talks on racism presented by BlAC since July. It was moderated by National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop Mark MacDonald—who voiced enthusiastic support for Blair’s idea.

“I have felt that there’s no healthy future for our planet unless Indigenous rights are respected—but I also think there’s no healthy future for Canada unless the Black Canadian story is told and understood and embraced. I don’t think people have any sense of how important that is to the health of Canada,” MacDonald said.

“The story that you’re telling is, to me, essential—essential to the future, and the institute you were talking about, I think, is an urgent matter,” he added. “So I would say, where do we go from here?”

In response, Blair seemed to suggest the institution could be funded jointly through private contributions and reparations payments from the church.

“I think a bunch of us just need to get together and say, ‘You know, if not now, when?’” he said. “An institute like that is going to cost money, and resources will be needed. I think some of us have resources we can contribute, and part of the reparation process for the wider church is, how does it invest in this?”

Blair began his talk by saying the process of decolonization would involve peoples who have been colonized as well as those who have colonized.

“If we’re going to see a long-term change … then I think we need to understand that we as Black folks, people of colour, and white folks, and Indigenous communities, have a task to do, and the task is to decolonize ourselves,” he said. “Often in the conversation we’ve talked about the need for white folks to decolonize themselves…. And that’s important. But I also want to say that it’s become very, very clear to me that colonization is like Kool-Aid which we all drink…. And each community has their particular work to do in decolonizing themselves.”

Part of the damage colonialism wrought on colonized Black people, Blair said, was that it defined them from outside—and has continued to do so.

“We had no say in who we understand ourselves to be—we were defined by others,” he said. “And part of the challenge is that we continue to hold those definitions that others have defined us with, as opposed to reclaiming and renaming who we are.”

Blair cited this colonial-era depiction of a white medical missionary attending to a sick African, aided by a white Jesus. Photo: Wellcome Library

As an example of how this definition from outside worked on a theological level, Blair showed a colonial-era illustration, from a London Missionary Society publication, of a white missionary, clad in pith helmet, administering medicine to an ailing Black child in a tropical forest. Behind the missionary, as though directing him, stands a shimmering and white Jesus.

“In many ways, this notion that Jesus mediates God’s care and love through white folks to Black folks is part of what I think has captured our imagination,” he said. “In many ways, and for many years, many of us didn’t even blink twice when we saw a picture of a white Jesus, because we came to understand the whiteness of Jesus and we just lived with it. And those of us who were challenging the notion of a white Jesus were not warmly received on either side.”

One of the things decolonization will require, Blair said, is for people of African descent to reclaim their own sense of who they are. But it will also require work on the part of the descendants of colonizing people.

“You need to be in a space of lament and a conversation about repentance because of how you have controlled our lives,” he said.

To reclaim their identity, people of African descent in Canada need to build communities of storytellers and elders who can serve as mentors, he said. They also need a much stronger Black church.

“The Black church tradition in the Canadian context is very weak—it’s very disconnected and discordant,” he said. “We need to commit ourselves to rebuilding a strong Black church tradition…. In fact, often what we do is we borrow from the U.S. stories, and one of the things I find myself asking is, ‘Where are the Black preachers like Martin Luther King Jr. in the Canadian context?’” Black Christianity in Canada, he said, needs to reclaim a tradition of preachers like King, who “understood the prophetic call to liberation and spoke boldly to their community and others.”

Blair also said he thought Black Canadian communities could partner with Indigenous communities to create “truth-telling spaces,” because the truth about the Black experience has not yet been fully told. “Within the Canadian context, there’s still a denial of the reality of the slave trade, and that doesn’t help any of us,” he said.

They could also learn from the way Indigenous peoples are holding members of the dominant culture in Canada to not just apologize but take concrete action, he said.

“The Indigenous communities have a patience that we in the Black community don’t have, in a sense,” he said. “I think sometimes those of us in the Black community want quick fixes, and we sell ourselves easily and we let the dominant culture off the hook from doing the hard work. I think the gift of the Indigenous experience at the moment is to say … ‘White system, you don’t get a bye, you’ve got to do the work. We’re here to support you, but you’ve got to do the work.’”

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Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the <em>Law Times</em> and the <em>New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal</em>. His writing has appeared in <em>The Globe and Mail</em> and <em>The United Church Observer</em>.

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