By Dennis Gruending
Hundreds of people participated in the National Prayer Breakfast in Ottawa on May 15th. Last year, the featured speaker Serge LeClerc described his personal journey from the depths of despair to personal salvation. He said that he was born to a teenaged single-parent, aboriginal mother, drifted into years of drugs, crime and incarceration, then had a religious conversion in prison that led to a career as a motivational speaker and the director of a teen addiction program in Saskatchewan.
It was a moving story but also one that fits a template that focuses on individual fall and redemption. As we filed out of the room following the speech one MP said to me quietly, â€œIâ€™m waiting for the day when our speaker is a corporate polluter who stands up and repents for his sin.â€ The breakfastâ€™s message in recent years has tended to fit within a religious tradition that focuses upon an individualistic view of faith. The event has done less to reflect the more communal thrust that has that has been central to both the social gospel and social Catholicism, to name just two Christian movements.
The invitedÂ speaker at this yearâ€™s breakfast, however, may represent that more communal dimension. Judy Graves has worked with the poor and the homeless in downtown Vancouver since 1974.
David Anderson, chair for the 2008 breakfast, is a Conservative MP from Saskatchewan. In a newspaper interview he described the breakfast as â€œnon-partisanâ€, â€œnon-politicalâ€, and â€œChrist-centred.â€ Letâ€™s consider those in order. Just a few months after Serge LeClerc was the featured speaker in 2007, he was nominated as a candidate (and later elected) for the Saskatchewan Party, a provincial cousin of the federal Conservatives. The optical frame here approaches partisanship.
The breakfast in 2007 also featured a closing prayer from Lt. General Walt Natynczyk of the Canadian armed forces. He invoked Godâ€™s care for the troops in Afghanistan, who he said were â€œprotecting Canada.â€ Praying for the safety of Canadian troops is fine but to say that the troops in Afghanistan are protecting Canada is a contested comment in the debate surrounding the Afghan mission, and one with which many Canadians and MPs would disagree. The Lt. Generalâ€™s words go beyond a frame that is non-political at a time when the Afghan debate was very much alive in Canada.
MP Anderson says the breakfast is a â€œChrist-centred eventâ€ and it is. There were no individuals at the podium from any other of the worldâ€™s religions to offer commentary, prayers or readings from their holy books at either the 2006 or 2007 breakfasts. This is an odd omission when a number of MPs and Senators are drawn from those religions and serve in a country that is increasingly diverse. This frame canâ€™t help but convey an exclusionary message. This is the more puzzling since smaller multi-faith prayer meetings do occur among parliamentarians throughout the year. Why, then, are individuals of other faiths not represented at the podium at the annual gala?
The prayer breakfast literature makes no comment on gender but appearances are difficult to ignore. Of the 24 individuals who came to the podium in 2006 and 2007 only two were female. MP Karen Redman offered a prayer in each of those years and in 2007 Melanie Hart sang a gospel song. It should not be difficult to include female parliamentarians more prominently in the event since there are 96 of them serving in the House of Commons and the Senate. The choice of this yearâ€™s speaker offered a welcome antidote to the paucity of women at the podium.
There are other outstanding Canadians associated with religion who would be excellent choices to speak or offer prayers at the breakfast in future years. Here is my short list: The Most Reverend Dr. Lois Wilson, who served as the moderator of the United Church of Canada, and was also an independent member of the Senate. Dr. Tyseer Aboulnasr is a former dean of engineering at the University of Ottawa, and a respected Canadian commentator on Islam. Mary Jo Leddy is a former a former Catholic sister and the founder of Romero House in Toronto, which became a home and a haven for refugees. Ernie Regehr, who was a founder of the inter-church peace group Project Ploughshares and continues to serve the organization as a senior advisor. Former MP Douglas Roche was Canadaâ€™s ambassador for disarmament to the United Nations. James Loney served on the front lines with the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq, where he was kidnapped and held for months prior to his release.
Members of Parliament, including Bill Blaikie, Karen Redman and others have lamented that for many people the very word religion conjures the image of social and moral conservatism. That is only one side of the religious frame and in future the National Prayer Breakfast could play an important role in balancing the picture.