Of Mennonites and Powell River

One of life’s most wonderful experiences is enjoying two things that fit perfectly together like romance and a sunset, popcorn and a movie, or a favourite of my wife and I:  summer heat and the Shuswap.  Another one of these perfect combinations is Powell River and MCC (Mennonite Central Committee).

Powell River is my hometown located on the beautiful sunshine coast.  I do not make it over there as often as I would like but the place has a huge piece of my heart—even though I only lived there for the first six years of my life.  The beauty of the town is captivating to me and if any of you have ever watched the sun set in Powell River or spent long summer days at Palm Beach you will know what I am talking about.  Natural beauty aside, the primary reasons why the town of 15,000 remains so dear to me are because it was the place where my brothers, my mother, and I were born and it is the place where my maternal grandparents and many other relatives continue to live.

Even as Powell River holds a piece of my heart, so too does MCC.  The MCC is an international organization involved in many wonderful projects around the world which aim to help the world’s most marginalized people in a sustainable and environmentally responsible way (you can read about some of those projects in a previous blog or on MCC’s website).  My connection to the MCC comes through both my family background and through my personal experience.  My grandmother comes from a Mennonite ethnic background; she was raised in the small town of Yarrow located in the Fraser Valley.  Several of her siblings have volunteered at MCC stores in Vancouver—an opportunity not afforded to her as she has lived almost her entire adult life in Powell River.  As a Mennonite pastor I am very proud of my family’s heritage and I also delight in the obvious benefits of having a Mennonite background—rollkuchen anyone?  My personal connection to MCC is through the two summers I spent working in their thrift shops.  My time in those stores not only gave me the opportunity to learn about what MCC is doing to reach the vulnerable but also gave me an amazing experience of community which has shaped who I am as a pastor today.

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My love for MCC and Powell River therefore has me incredibly excited about tomorrow.  Tomorrow the MCC thrift store will be having its grand opening in Powell River and I have the privilege of travelling there for the day to participate in the grand opening.  Now you must understand that an MCC store opening in Powell River is an incredibly unlikely event for one very obvious reason:  there are virtually no Mennonites in Powell River.  The town does not have a single Mennonite church and although you can find the odd Mennonite last name in the phonebook no one will ever confuse Powell River with Abbotsford, Chilliwack, or Winkler. Nevertheless I am confident that this new store will thrive.  The people of Powell River know a good thing when they see it.  The MCC will offer them a chance to buy items otherwise headed for the landfill and in the process their purchase will be a gift for the world.  This is exactly the type of the thing that a community striving for local and global sustainability will latch on to.  I am also excited that my family gets the opportunity to support MCC first hand.  My grandmother will be helping out in the book department and my aunt will be sitting on the board of directors.  It brings a smile to my face to know that sometimes the most unlikeliest of combinations can go together even one as unlikely as Powell River and MCC.

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Steven Harper the Irrational Evangelical?

At the beginning of last week, Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin wrote a column on Prime Minister Steven Harper which says that his “muzzling of the science community, its [sic] low regard for statistics, its [sic] hard line against environmentalists” has its origins in his Evangelical faith.  For Martin this is the most logical conclusion because no rational person would have such views, and with the exception of his faith, Harper appears to be a “clear-headed rationalist”.  Martin bases his claim in Harper’s membership in the Christian Missionary Alliance Church, a church which according to Martin, “believes the free market is divinely inspired and views science and environmentalism with what might be called scorn”

There are some pretty serious problems with Martin’s analysis. For starters, Martin’s dichotomy of evangelicalism and rationalism is a false one.  Sadly there is a tradition of anti-intellectualism that is prevalent in some Evangelical circles; however the movement also has a strong tradition of developing some very bright academics.  Judging the movement as anti-intellectual would be like judging atheism as communist or Islam as a religion of terrorism.  Such judgments are horribly inaccurate and ignore the overwhelming evidence which does not fit the thesis.

Also problematic is Martin’s belief that Harper’s convictions stem from his membership in the Missionary Alliance church.  This is a problem because it is commonly known that Harper is not a very dedicated churchperson—especially when compared to the former leaders of his party Stockwell Day and Preston Manning.  If Harper is a nominal churchman it seems likely that his policies are also nominally influenced by his church.  Preston Manning on the other hand was and is a highly active member of the Alliance church so certainly we should see even stronger examples in his policies of revering the free market and rampantly abusing the environment right?

 Well, not so fast.  You see Mr. Manning is a very bright, rationalistic individual who is also devoted to conservation.  That is right, Preston Manning is an evangelical who cares about the environment.  In a 2006 interview with a Saskatoon newspaper, Manning talked about how economic conservatism could be linked to ecological conservatism.  One idea he advocated for there was charging companies in the oil sands for the water that they use.  He suggested that doing so would promote conservation since the companies would be motivated to be waste less of a product they were being charged for.  This may not be the type of environmentalism advocated for by the Suzuki-ilk but it certainly does show creativity, a commitment to the environment, and something which falls far short of worshiping the free market.  The clincher, for Manning, is that he has recently been hired by the evangelical school Regent College to work in their Marketplace Institute which is dedicated to developing “new approaches to the intersection of faith with democratic governance, the market economy, pluralism and multiculturalism, science and technology, and environmental stewardship.”

Manning’s decision to work in an evangelical school which is deeply devoted to care for the environment suggests that it is not a mere coincidence that Manning is both an evangelical and a conservationist.  Manning is not an intelligent, conservationist despite his faith but rather sees both of these things as being a critical component of faith.

Martin certainly has the right to question the wisdom of Harper’s moves.  It is however, unfair to try and draw a link between his policies and his faith—especially given a lack of evidence.  Feel free, Mr. Martin to call Harper what you will but please do not suggest that his apparent scorn of science and the environment and his conservative economic policies are rooted in the teachings of Evangelicals.  The reality is that Evangelicalism is much more diverse than all of that.  Some of us Evangelicals love science, work diligently to protect the environment, and God-bless us some of us can even be found left of centre in the realm of politics.