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Hope's story

a faith that demands action

By Donna Sinclair

At 22, he might seem young to be advising officials in Canada's largest city and chatting with its Governor General. But Kofi Hope is wise beyond his years. His passionate battle against gun violence in Toronto has caught the imagination of his peers in the black community and civic leaders alike. Galvanized by recent shoot-outs and negative media portrayals of black youth, Hope has fashioned a powerful new coalition -- mainly black, mainly young -- that brings a whole new set of voices into the debate. He is, in his own phrase, "wildly busy," studying political science, president of the University of Toronto's black student association and much in demand for speeches and media appearances.

And he remains an active member at Erin Mills United in Mississauga, Ont., where this reporter is heading by taxi to interview him. The driver doesn't need directions. He drops people here all the time; he can't stop talking about this church's great programs for youth and children and how "this is what all churches should be like."

In fact, it is impossible to separate Hope's story from that of the congregation that helped shape him, even as he and other children shaped it. Now this serious, fiercely intelligent black activist has something to teach the entire United Church -- about social justice and accountability, racism and privilege -- and above all, about faith.

Faith, for Kofi Hope, is thoroughly grounded in action. But he never really envisioned himself empowering a whole community of volunteers, organizing a black youth summit, mentoring black high school students and persuading media to listen to them as "part of the solution, not part of the problem." Fuelled by the broad social justice he had learned at Erin Mills and from his family and the Bible, he was drawn to international development work, maybe in Africa, "not this issue in this situation."

But then came last year's sharp spike in gun violence in the Toronto region. And there he was, the child of a ninth-generation white Canadian and an Antiguan mother, both highly educated professionals. The child also of a congregation that decided, when skateboarders appeared on its parking lot a decade ago, to add some basketball nets and make them welcome. Hope had spent three summers as director of a hugely successful children's program that extends the congregation's outreach into nearby apartment complexes. So he felt he had no choice: "God presents you with something and asks, `What are you going to do?'" he says. "I'm going to act." So he brought the Ryerson and York University black students associations, and then others ("a whole slew of them"), into a coalition aimed at giving a voice to black youth -- both in the media and to officials, fighting for new and strengthened programs, mentoring, teaching, inspiring them to stand up against gun violence. The Black Youth Coalition Against Violence became its name, and it's been BYCAV ever since.

. . .

It's still all about faith. He is "surrounded" in the coalition by others propelled by spirituality -- Muslim women wearing hijab for example -- who threw themselves into an ambitious project called B.L.I.N.G (Bring in Love Not Guns), an ambitious campaign that brought hundreds of black youth into a hugely successful forum last January. With them, Hope feels "in the tradition of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi," whose work was "an extension of their faith." He leans forward, intent on clarity. "The Bible says there is no faith without acts." He really believes, he says, "more than anything else, that evil follows when good men and women stand idle as others suffer."

. . .

Hope has been anything but idle. But despite the ensuing media attention, his spirituality remains humble and "grounded," says Kathy Toivanen, his minister at Erin Mills. "Kofi is very intense, has a very fine mind. He wants to go deeper, reads a lot, asks questions."

As the gun violence issue sharpened, one question was how to hold the powerful accountable to those who seldom speak. While people such as himself, "from the suburban areas" are being heard, he says, "the youth most at risk, in the inner city, aren't." So BYCAV set up a committee to "train younger youth, who are living in Toronto housing communities, to be advocates; to take their own experience and apply real pressure on government" to re-invest in social programs and face the problem of systemic racism.

This doesn't mean that other help isn't welcome. Hope is clear that everyone has a role in fighting the racism that is always coiled, somewhere, under the violence. At a recent church meeting where he spoke, an elderly white woman confessed that she had never had any relationship with someone who was not white. "Tell us how to become friends," she said. Hope honours her good intentions. Part of the solution to racism, he says, "is coming into relationship with someone who is different from you." If people "made an attempt to broaden their base of friends, that would be a move in the right direction."

But we have to do it with as clear a mind and as open a heart as we can. You can't form a friendship "out of guilt," Hope continues, but out of "honest and open intentions." That means understanding precisely the privilege -- white, perhaps, or middle- class or male -- that separates us from those we would befriend. He offers his own history as an example: language skills that "someone new to the country" might not have; social status; relatively light skin. "It's important that everyone be aware of what they bring to the table."

. . .

In Mississauga, Erin Mills brings a great deal to the table, just as the taxi driver noted. For example, Oasis, the summer drop-in program for 10- to 15-year-olds where Hope was first mentored, and where he then mentored others; a summer literacy program for six- to nine- year- olds; a breakfast program at the nearby apartment complex every single day of the school year; the community gardens that grow vegetables for the food bank -- in all of this welcoming service groups or ordinary people from the community who offer help.

That's the firm ground Hope stands on, as he calls the larger church to live out the Gospel in this "spiritually dangerous time." There is, he says, "so much need for the United Church in the world. We need to really look hard at the great things we are doing, at our identity, and not be afraid to put it forward." He's clearly proud of what the United Church is -- "progressive and left-leaning. We are inclusive of other faiths, but we still have a firm identity."

But -- from his own solid identity and the vantage point of his 22 years -- he is blunt about the future. The church "seems to be in decline, as far as numbers," and yet, "After the baby boomers aren't here, we still want people to be in this church." If that's going to happen, it's going to have to change some: "include people of diverse backgrounds," for instance. "And if we are going to get blacks in, we can't have the same dull slow hymns."

At every event, he meets "people who want to make a change," who want to work toward "the Kingdom of God on earth." It's impossible to do alone, but "in community with others, dreams can be achieved." We have issues to work on in common, like gun violence, which is not "just a Toronto issue." Hope receives phone calls from all over the country, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, where the same problem -- fed by poverty and the racism that freezes non-whites out of jobs-- lies waiting. Even if that weren't the case, though, "gun violence still is a national issue. These are Canadian citizens."

. . .

It's reading week at the University of Toronto, and Hope is getting ready to get back to his books. He stops on the way out to go over some forms with outreach minister Nancy Stevenson and talk with Kathy Toivanen and office administrator Peter Kiteley. They take obvious pleasure in his meeting with Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean and in his professor's advice to consider a Rhodes Scholarship.

Later Toivanen looks out over the parking lot and observes that fine weather will bring back "the skateboarders like the birds." She recalls the young Hope as an enthusiastic player in the drama group, a youth group participant on a work project in Jamaica, and an interlocutor in serious theological discussions with her then-colleague, Rev. Harry Oussoren.

Toivanen remembers the time when Hope, at age 16 or 17, asked to preach a sermon. It was important to him then to speak out. And he is still doing it, declaring our collective responsibility to those who have no voice: "Jesus calls us to the community of the human family," Hope says. "Exactly what I saw at Oasis. The Bible calls us to walk with the disenfranchised." *

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