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Encounters with grace

A message for Easter from the moderator

By Jordan Cantwell

Encounters with the risen Christ always catch us off guard. Though they may be fleeting, they are deeply transformative: words that change how we see ourselves and the world; an act of grace that overcomes divisions; the humbling gift of another’s sacrifice; a word, a gesture that reminds us we are not alone and restores our hope. Here are four such encounters that have shaped my own outlook:

‘My name is Tomahawk’

I’ve just started working at Augustine United in Winnipeg. One afternoon, I stop by the Oak Table Ministry, a drop-in program we run. Feeling self-conscious, I walk up to a fellow who is getting a cup of coffee and introduce myself.

“I work at the church,” I tell him. “I just came by to say hello.”

“Yeah?” he answers. “Well, my name’s Tomahawk.” He goes and sits with his friends.

Months later, I’m downtown, walking with a friend. On the corner, there’s a group of rough-looking guys. As we wait for the light to change, they approach and ask us for money. I turn to answer and recognize Tomahawk.

“Hey, Tomahawk,” I say. “Sorry, I really don’t have any money to give you.”

“What did you call me?” he asks.

“Uh . . . Tomahawk. That’s your name, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. How did you know?”

“We met a while ago at the Oak Table, and you told me your name.”

He reaches out and takes my hand. Looking me right in the eye, he says, “You have given me something much better than money. You remembered my name. No one ever bothers to remember our names. God bless you.”

That benediction continues to remind me to honour the dignity and humanity of others, no matter who they are. I will forever be grateful to Tomahawk for teaching me to become more human.

‘I expect you’re hungry’

The parliamentary committee hearings on same-sex marriage are coming to Steinbach, Man. I am among a group of LGBTQ folks who drive out from Winnipeg to be present.

The hall is full. On one side are folks wearing white buttons that read, “Support Traditional Values.” On the other, we’re wearing rainbow buttons. The air is thick with antagonism.

At the lunch break, an elderly gentleman sporting a white button approaches our group. I prepare for the worst. He holds out a bag of grapes and says, “You must have had an early start today. I expect you’re hungry.”

We argue respectfully, our conversation punctuated with smiles and laughter. None of us change our position on same-sex marriage, but I know that I am changed in another, more profound way. His demonstration of courage, compassion and humility makes me want to be more humble, open and courageous. He has shown me what it means to practise love for my enemy. It is a lesson I am still trying to learn.

‘Your rights are respected’

My partner, Laura Fouhse, and I are in the throes of planning our wedding when we receive a phone call from a Winnipeg law firm. “We want you to be part of the court challenge to the marriage laws in Manitoba,” they tell us. Not sure what exactly we are getting ourselves into, we say yes.

The parties meet to set a date for the hearing. Our lawyers tell the judge, “You can ensure this couple’s rights are not denied by committing to hear this case before their wedding day.” Eventually, it is determined that the only day everyone is available before our wedding is Sept. 16. This happens to be Rosh Hashanah. And the judge happens to be Jewish.

After confirming the date, the judge turns to us and says, “I have never missed celebrating Rosh Hashanah with my family. It will be very difficult for me. But this is important, so this year I will honour Rosh Hashanah by ensuring that your rights are respected.”

Laura and I walk from that courtroom with tears in our eyes, so moved by what she is willing to give up for us.

A strange new hope

Two friends are discussing a tragedy that has left them reeling. A stranger wants to know what they’re talking about. “Our friend has been killed,” one of them says. “You must have heard about it. He was an amazing guy. He was going to change the world. I just can’t believe he’s dead.”

To their astonishment, the stranger calls them foolish and clueless. Then he starts weaving together familiar scripture passages in ways they’ve never heard before. New understandings begin to hover just beyond their vision. A strange new hope starts to burn in their hearts.

When they stop for supper, they beg the stranger to stay. He takes a loaf of bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them. At that moment, they realize their friend Jesus is indeed alive and with them, right now.

And then he’s gone. But they are transformed. Filled with new hope, they go out, bursting with good news they just have to share.

I wonder who will next reveal the risen Christ to you, to me. I wonder if we will be ready to allow the encounter to transform us. I hope so.

Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell is the 42nd moderator of The United Church of Canada.

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The author is baptized at Central United in Calgary. (Photo courtesy of Al Coe)

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