Note: I want to acknowledge that I grew up on the traditional lands of the Anishnaabe Mississauga, the Haudenosaunee, Ojibway/Chippewa, and Huron-Wendat peoples. This territory was the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, and is also covered by the Upper Canada Treaties. As a person of settler heritage, I strive to help heal the wounds of our past and our present, in the essential and ongoing work of reconciliation.
A fifth-generation Unitarian Universalist, I was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, the first of two children (my delightful, though sometimes annoying, little sister, Kristen). I got the name Christopher because my father really wanted a boy with the spirit of Christopher Robin from A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories. Throughout my childhood and teen years we spent much of each year away at Cloud Mountain, the sort-of hippie, sort-of commune that my father and his draft-dodging musician buddies founded on 300 acres in the Ottawa Valley. We spent lots of time going back and forth between an idyllic woodland with a small community of friends and our vibrant, multicultural community in a struggling downtown neighbourhood. Together they fostered my conviction that beauty, hope and vitality are always present with us when we are inclined to look.
Through my school years you couldn’t drag me off the ice, the pitch, the diamond and the court, playing hockey, baseball, tennis, badminton and soccer competitively and later focusing on speed and figure skating. Through athletics I learned a lot about teamwork and perseverance, about success and failure, and how, when shared, our sorrows are halved and our joys are doubled. I went to school in french immersion and read voraciously (maybe even compulsively, as I read the manual to our old GMC Suburban while waiting for a tow-truck — twice).
I was active in the church throughout my childhood, attending most often with my grandparents, who had laid cornerstones in several churches at that point. My Unitarian roots go back to my grandmother’s grandmother in Montreal, attending the Church of the Messiah (yep, that was the name of the Unitarian Church), because apparently that’s where all the edgy music and drama people were in the late 1800s (is this a reputation we could resurrect?). While I don’t remember the earliest years all that well, I’ll never forget the Sundays when I was a teen who sometimes didn’t participate in youth group, instead sitting in the service listening to Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed preach about his experiences, his hopes and his sorrows, and waiting for him to tear up. Invariably, my grandfather would be beside me wiping his tears with his tie. They were both beautiful models for me of strong, wise, loving men whose emotions weren’t something they had to hide, and I remain grateful for that (and keep their legacy going).
In high school I helped to found the Student Environmental Network which brought together environmental committees of the city high schools and served on the Metro Youth Council, an advisory body of young peoples voices for the Greater Toronto Area. Both of these experiences helped to develop and recognize my own call to working in community on public advocacy. I also worked for East Metro Toronto Health, doing peer surveying of knowledge about STIs and contraception. I lied about my age to get the job, and wound up starting as a thirteen-year-old talking to teens in the park and schoolyards about healthy sexuality. Not something I think would ever happen now, but it sparked in me a lifelong commitment to comprehensive sexuality education.
During the last few summers of high school and into university, I spent my summers as a park ranger, sequestered away in far off provincial parks, maintaining remote trails that might be visited by a couple dozen people each year. I spent so many summer nights camping alone or in pairs, staring at the stars and contemplating Carl Sagan’s star stuff and the undeniable truth of our interdependence. These were times when I found my still, small voice inside and the places where I first really connected to community formed around a campfire, to songs taught by call and response, and talks that went the whole night through. Memories of those times inspired my work with UU Youth and YRUU, leading retreats in the woods and church basements both, as well as finding my own call amongst UU Young Adults gathered similarly.
Originally intending to go to university in environmental sciences followed by law, I wound up following a girl I was enamoured of to Queen’s University, and becoming a media theory major with a minor in women’s studies. Ultimately, those years proved to be a very hard time for me as I struggled with severe depression and my attention deficit disorder became a much more significant issue. That said, I loved the justice community there and worked with a multitude of groups on campus on projects big and small. I made some friends who are still dear to me today, and found my way into work as a purchaser for a chain of bookstores. I also took up alternative process photography, gutted and renovated a hundred-year-old house, and launched a letterpress printing studio out of my basement.
It was around this time that I returned to the church and got hired by the local immigrant services agency, which dovetailed quite nicely. I returned to the church in the wake of 9/11 as I realized that the community I had built around myself had too narrow a response, and I needed to belong to a community that was broader than what I could assemble for myself. I found a warm, welcoming fellowship with a brand new minister, the Rev. Kathy Sage, who became and remains a dear mentor to me. I also found a place to be of service, taking on the newsletter and the denominational affairs committees in my first year, while getting trained in and leading their first OWL program. Two years later I would be congregational President, serving on three national committees, two continental ones, on staff at General Assembly and working with the International Association for Religious Freedom on young adult network projects after spending some time with Unitarians in Transylvania. It was amidst all of this work that I first heard my call to ministry, but I wasn’t ready to answer yet.
My professional work leading community engagement around newcomer issues (a term used in Canada to gather immigrants, refugees and migrant labourers) connected me to the ~2400 Kosovar refugees living on the local military base, and the burgeoning South Asian and Southeast Asian communities in Kingston. We worked to build up the capacity of local organizations and institutions to better serve the needs of newcomers, and forge partnerships with churches to provide worship space and to become sponsors of families. At the urging of the Attorney General’s office, I co-founded an affiliated interpreting and translation service that served local hospitals and the domestic violence courts, training people to work with non-English speaking victims of relationship violence, and advocating for these services.
I eventually moved on to working for the provincial advocacy organization and designed and implemented programs for professional standards, board development and strategic planning, refugee youth networks and an LGBTQ Positive Space program (that borrowed liberally from our own Welcoming Congregations curriculum). I spent eight years working in interfaith and intercultural communities of immigrants and refugees and it was some of the most rewarding and challenging work I’ve done, with communities that sometimes had to call me back into relationship as I learned to really see my privileged identities, as a white, straight, able-bodied, cis-male. I remain inspired by their example and continue to follow their leadership in how to hold people with whom we are in relationship both accountable and in love.
I subsequently spent two years working in poverty reduction advocacy, working with a team on communications and strategies for supporting early years centres, on increasing the social assistance rates, and getting a legislative commitment to reducing childhood poverty by 25% over five years. We succeeded in many of our priorities and were defeated in others, and then the recession hit and many of our advances were put on hold, which felt like so much justice delayed (and thus denied). During this work I was connected to the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition, who were one of the founders of the Colour of Poverty, a group working on intersectional issues of poverty, race and citizenship status, and heard in the model of the clergy there my own call again very clearly. To bring a progressive, religious voice into the public sphere (countering the more regressive ones); to bring concerns of the world into our congregations for action and reflection; to know that we are called to act in solidarity with our kindred siblings. But I needed more time still.
In an effort to get myself recentered, I needed more flexibility, so I launched a consultancy in communications and technology for nonprofits and social change leaders, which served a wide-variety of organizations including a muslim youth partnership at the United Nations, a network of environment-focused social enterprises and author Don Tapscott, whose books Growing Up Digital and Wikinomics were New York Times bestsellers. I also authored chapters for two books on building communities online and gave workshops and trainings throughout Canada. By setting my own project schedules and contracting with other consultants and freelancers, I was able to make time in those years to spend a couple of months hiking on the Appalachian Trail, working as the cook at a UU retreat centre, and living in a small converted bus in New Zealand while studying apiaries and orchards. Some might say that I did my mid-20s searching in my early-30s instead. At the end of this period of searching I returned to Toronto, ready finally to answer the call that I had felt for so long.
In the fall of 2011 I began singing in the Univox choir, launched into part-time seminary at Emmanuel College, and started dating my now-wife Ariel. I kept the business going, but cut back on the number of clients as I started doing more Sunday preaching and became a lay chaplain (a Canadian Unitarian Council program of celebrants/officiants of rites of passage). Over my seminary years I did about three dozen weddings, a dozen memorials, one child dedication and preached about forty times in southern Ontario congregations, two of which booked me for monthly services. I grew up in a large congregation (500+), returned to UUism in a small congregation (~100), and did my internship in a mid-size congregation (~300). The size differences, the theological differences, the origin stories and histories of all of these congregations that I got to spend time with (one as small as a dozen people) has made me appreciative of meeting congregations where they are with humility, grace and curiousity.
They were busy years in which Ariel and I were involved with many aspects of church life and spent most weekends at one event or another including Allies for Racial Equity, UUA General Assembly, CUC Annual Conference and Meeting and more. I was on the founding steering committee for the Continental Gathering of UU Seminarians, which was especially helpful for folks who weren’t attending UU seminaries and wanted to make more collegial connections. We were blessed in those first years with programs led by Thandeka and Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons, and it was a very valuable network for me. Being only one of only four UUs in my seminary, I appreciated the connections and the opportunities to learn both from esteemed colleagues and my peers. I also became a trainer of trainers for the OWL program, and in 2014, I worked with the UUA’s Growth Office to plan, design, code, distribute and support a WordPress theme which more than 200 congregations are now using as their virtual front-door.
By the beginning of 2016, I really wanted to be finished seminary and moving the process forward, so wound up with a very ill-advised schedule of four months of CPE in a hospital an hour away (which was outstanding and transformative and heartbreaking and joy-making in every way), completing my last three seminary courses in the evenings, and starting a new part-time position with the Pacific Western Region as the Communications Specialist serving the region’s staff and the ~200 member congregations. Oh, and Ariel was pregnant in her last trimester. On my fourth to last day of CPE, Rowan was born. I graduated a month later, and Ariel and I were married a month after that. Two months later we moved cross-country to start a two-year half-time internship in Victoria that summer (now working 2/3 time for the PWR).
I’m exhausted just reading about that time – and I know that it coloured so much of the two years that followed, and which I think I’m just now starting to feel recovered from. It was a profound lesson in overwhelm and overextension and the costs of not taking particularly good care of myself, which I understand more viscerally now.
I am now making space for the things that bring me joy, that inspire my curiousity, that feed my sense of feeling deeply connected to friends, family and community. Walking and singing meditation, exploring Science World and the natural world with Rowan, spending time with family and friends, writing, snapping pictures, and doing more creating. I’ve also gotten to participate and lead covenant groups for men, and white folks, and settler people, and each of them have been filled with recognition of the ways in which the harm of patriarchy, of white supremacy, of colonialism are destructive for all of us, and also the hope that in each other we can find strength and companions to carry on the work.
I’ve been practicing taking time for life, reminded that I am a be-ing, not a do-ing. And now, looking forward to being with you.