A Faithful Public-Prophetic Witness

Dynamics, Challenges, and Ambiguities of Success in Urban and Community Ministries

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Barry K. Morris
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Wipf & Stock
    , March
     2020.
     198 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532684340.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Barry K. Morris is a legendary figure in the notorious Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, BC. A longtime United Church minister with a passionate commitment to inner-city work amongst the homeless, addicted, hungry, mentally ill, and those living in poverty, Morris (now in his late seventies) has offered his sustained reflections on the challenges and tensions of working with the poor and destitute. In A Faithful, Public-Prophetic Witness: Dynamics, Challenges, and Ambiguities of Success in Urban & Community MinistriesDynamics, two questions preoccupy Morris: the first touches deeply into the meaning of our vocation (how can I measure success?). The second queries how can one meet the ever-pressing needs of people through charitable acts and maintain a prophetic ministry of denouncing systemic power that is, in the last analysis, the deep-rooted cause of the various problems of people with few resources at their disposal. Morris’s reflections indicate that the second task is seldom fulfilled.

Morris’ modus operandi in this book is two-fold. First, digging deep into a wide variety and genres of texts, he searches for a theological vocabulary and companions that can enable him to make sense of the church’s ministry to the poor and vulnerable. Basically, he wants to identify the constituent elements of a stable ministry. Second, he provides us with three case studies of inner-city mission in Toronto (The Christian Resource Centre [CRC]), Victoria (The Open Door [OD], Our Place Society [OPS], and Dandelion Society [DS]) and Vancouver (The Streams of Justice Network [SoJ]).

One of the things the doggedly persistent Morris wants to know is whether inner-city missions can sustain themselves in the face of a variety of heart-rending obstacles (which he labels “caveats” to the success stories). Thus, he mines those theological texts (like Thomas Merton or Reinhold Niebuhr) or selected texts from the prophets Micah or Amos to construct his animating vision. His footnotes are replete with references to bolster his arguments and assertions. Inner-city workers will find these of interest.

Morris offers listening, organizing, place, and stability as the anchor points for successful ministry. In each of his case studies Morris analyzes how the organizations emerge out of specific “contrast-arousing” situations (often originating from charismatic leadership). The CRC, for example, was born from the perceived contrast of affluence in a community such as Rosedale and the city’s urban core (St. Jamestown). The OD, OPS, and DS grew from work with street people who were perceived outside the church walls and ordinary outreach. The SoJ, in contrast to the others, was created to move beyond charity to advocate for social justice. This tension between charity and justice is a theme that preoccupies Morris, and his commentary and reflections weave throughout the text.

The Toronto CRC established its listening space by reviving a dying church into a social housing and office base. The Victoria organizations moved from the drop-in uses of churches to a central building and program and street ministry practices. The SoJ functioned more as an adult education mobilizing centre, hosting regular meetings, support justice causes and animate prophetic alternatives. Creating stable organizations that can hang-in-there with the destitute and vulnerable is a foundational task. The CRC sought funding from government sources to hire staff and meet the expanding needs of those who came to use its services. The OD, OPS, and DS worked creatively to expand, consolidate, and secularize its services. And the SoJ used the conventional resources of websites, listservs, retreats, and onsite hosting of meetings to educate and mobilize its supporters.

Morris identifies “five caveat temptations and the charity/justice tension” (7) that confront the inner-city missions in Toronto, Victoria and Vancouver. This is one of the strengths of the book: urban ministers can use his reflections as a framework to reflect on their own situations and troubles. The first caveat is well known to all organizations, namely, to slide into being overly preoccupied with numbers participating in various activities to maintain funding. The second caveat is clientelism where persons are transformed into clients as the ministry seeks to be perceived as professional and worthy of respect.

The third caveat touches close to Morris’ heart: the ministries become co-opted by the government (or funding body). To receive Canadian government funds, an organization must eschew advocacy. Morris’s fourth barrier, communalism, needs a nuanced analysis. He raises a warning flag for inner-city missions who adopt the language of “family.” The problem here is that family is an exclusive notion and does not include all persons. His fifth caveat, cowardice, haunts all activists, Christian or other. We simply fear the consequences of prophetic denunciation of state or corporations. Reading Morris’ book reminds me again that moving beyond charity to tackle, dismantle, and rebuild social institutions such as housing or the neoliberal economy could take years.

Morris provides us with a plethora of Christian affirmations that structure the faith and actions of social gospel proponents. His is an incarnational theology. Adamantly, Morris insists that inner-city activists (like Carmel and Anne-Marie Hili, David and Teresa Diewerts, Lawrence Moon and Al Tyick in Victoria and Tim Dickau of Vancouver) have discovered that sustaining outreach to the needy requires a disciplined prayer and spiritual life. Morris finds sustenance in the “new monastic” movements of recent times who often share their living spaces and practice prayer-as-engagement and attention. He has learned much from their thinking and practices. Morris’ strongly affirms the centrality of listening to the practice of being with others in need. Although Morris does not cite Sam Wells’ works, A Nazareth Manifesto: Being with God (Wiley, 2015) and Incarnational Ministry: Being with the Church (Eerdmans, 2017), Wells’ practice of being present with others without any intent on changing them, attending to their capacities and beauty, delighting to be with them, and learning from them, is manifest in the work of the men and women Morris applauds.

Indeed, Dandelion Society founder Al Tyick’s desire to be “present in the places that shelter those who are forgotten” captures beautifully the spirit animating the inner-city workers who are trying mightily to bridge offering cups of water to individuals and the creation of a cooperative society where everyone has what they need to flourish. The challenge for all social justice advocates, Morris teaches us, is to be what you are trying to build. Perhaps all we can achieve are “small, beautiful places” and “centres of light and reflection” in our world of darkening storm clouds.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Welton is a lecturer at Athabasca University, Alberta, Canada.

Date of Review: 
September 24, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Barry K. Morris is a United Church of Canada urban minister of several decades; an independent scholar; social justice and New Green Deal activist; member of the American Academy of Religion, Merton, and Niebuhr societies; and author/coauthor of The Word on the Street (1991) and Hopeful Realism in Urban Ministry (2016).

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