Article: 30 Years of Community Building

As seen in Good Work News, Issue 109, June 2012 - click here for the full issue

Editor’s note: This year’s 25th  Mayors’ Dinner celebrated the 30th year of The Working Centre and recognized the 25 Guests of Honour. Margaret and Bob Nally as Guest Hosts planned a Mayors’ Dinner that reflected the art, spirituality, music and cooperative culture that is at The Working Centre’s core. In this issue of Good Work News, with gratitude, we have printed Margaret and Bob’s Mayors’ Dinner speeches. 

By Margaret Nally

In a fruitful garden under a tree stood two young people.   The two young people had hopes and dreams and they planned them there under the tree of life.  

 Two young people who encouraged a movement, a network of responses to human need.  The rich and plentiful garden is here in K-W.

 A City founded by the farmers and industrialists who lived with the first nation’s people who befriended them.  A place of prosperity from the earliest days and enriched by immigrants and refugees who brought diversity and vigor. 

Young students recently returned from Tanzania, deeply changed by their experience there and with a desire to share that experience with others Joe and Stephanie actively sought out others who shared their concerns and their hopes for a new vision of an engaged and inclusive community.

Arriving at Global Community Centre on Queen Street they found folks who shared their values and they became very involved in many of its activities.  They took the road to Queen Street and, to paraphrase Robert Frost, that has made all the difference. What they found as a model for community engagement at the Global Community Centre was the ethos of respecting gifts of volunteers and their capacity to be active agents for change.

Reflecting on our experiences of the needs of community together at the Global Community Centre brought us to a shared vision of how we wished to respond to social justice issues. 

The responses that we engaged in together, whether it was paying attention to the war in Central America; the Mackenzie valley pipeline, the Ontario Food Commission or the debate around infant formula, had a process.  We shared our experiences, we reflected together before we responded.

For Joe, an ex-seminarian, and Stephanie and others whose frame of reference was religious or spiritual we went to that place where we engaged in theological reflection on the social justice teachings of faith and tradition – the social imperative of the Gospel.  As the community of IONA reminds us “Spirituality is the place where prayer and politics meet.”

We went to that core of possibility and hope.  We recognized the richness of many faith stories and traditions.  Together we began to formulate what it would look like if a community was open to explore what it would mean to move from abstract knowledge to concrete considerations of values, assumptions and commitments of how life ought to be lived. 

The story started in the early 80’s when factories were closing and the economy in K-W was moving from its industrial base and had yet to find its way into the new technological possibilities of today.  Stories of layoffs of middle-aged workers and distress in families were the topic of many conversations.

 Trades and skills were being lost and there was considerable grief.  We talked about a moral framework for an economic system with firm foundations in values of inclusion and participation. We yearned for the community where the common good is a value and criterion as companies were established to live and work in K-W. 

The conversations of those days continued as we sought to address what was possible when you articulate what a community might look like, how it might function if all were valued, where all could belong and participate.  We needed a new paradigm – a new way of evaluating what a new, more just, economy might look like. 

With the assurance of being listened to and encouraged, Stephanie and Joe, Patrice and Anna and others with the gift of time and good will sat around a table and with pots of tea began to dream the dream into reality. 

Jim Wallis of Sojourners reminded us “You can’t start a movement, you can only prepare for one”.  Our preparation for The Working Centre was a gracious space of relationship, of courage and of encouragement.  We had the assurance of friendship, support of local organizations, and the leadership of churches (the $6,000 grant from PLURA was a profound act of faith in founding the centre).

 Someone recently asked when the moment was that the name came about and if these chairs could only talk!!  But I remember the conversation and it was decided that it would be The Working Centre front and centre with the tag line of Self-help Centre for the Unemployed.  We wanted it to be a forcefully positive place. 

It was a time when the spirit of change was moving over the face of the earth and was seen in many parts of the world.

The climate for social change was ripe for new beginnings included the founding of the Centre for Community Based Research; Extend-A-Family, and Independent Living Centres.  Trudeau repatriated the constitution and we celebrated a Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

Base Christian communities in Latin America and the churches of South Africa spoke of God’s desire for the well-being of people.  We held hope for that inclusive future. 

We lived in hope and as if there was political space.  It is a way of living that calls the future into being.  To live imaginatively in the light of the hoped-for future is a prophetic choice.  We chose community, we chose relationship, and we chose inclusion. 

The stories were deeply steeped in values of hospitality, generosity of spirit, and the ability to reflect and to laugh.  Yes, to laugh!  To be able to hold hope for community and people’s capacity to live well is an act of deep faith.  To have the ability to hold hope in the midst of despair marked the beginnings of The Working Centre. 

Dorothy Day, an Anti-Poverty Activist in New York from the 30s and an inspiration to The Working Centre stated “It is not easy always to be joyful, to keep in mind the duty of Delight” but we felt that faith called us to that place.

Daily walking with the realities of human need can steal the joy from the heart, but I encourage you, come to the Commons on Queen Street or St. John’s where you will encounter “delight” in warmth of conversation, good food, music and genuine relationship. 

But tonight, this special night, it is easy to keep in mind the wisdom of Dorothy Day, who calls us to this duty of delight – it is a delightful occasion when our community gathers, - our mayors, our political leaders, those in business, education, social services and industry, healers and all who carry the well-being of our cities – to celebrate, to remember, to continue the journey. 

Back to those young, long-haired, bearded and emboldened who often asked the WHY- why us- young, small in number, why now, why here, why, WHY NOT?  Parker Palmer reminded us   “The Energy behind caring is compassion for others, which in turn, is energized by the knowledge that we are all in this together, that the fate of other beings has implications for our fate.”

We heard the answer that the community’s well-being was also ours and we began to move along a path of compassion to the place where the How would be realized. 

In the pastoral circle of the experience of the unemployed, reflecting on the social environment, bringing all this to prayer, we engaged in action. 

The thinking, talking and deep reflection over pots and pots of tea has stood The Working Centre in good standing.  We had at heart a deep reflective practice.  The centre of the reflection circle had at its very core human dignity and respect.

Joe and Stephanie will tell you stories of going to New York on a bus with many other students from church colleges at the University of Waterloo to the Second Special Session on Disarmament.  Walking the streets of New York with a million people of all faiths and traditions praying for peace and holding vespers at the Catholic Worker House on the impoverished Lower East Side or participating in the community festivals on the streets with great ethnic foods and sensing the great good that was possible - Missa Gaia at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine was food for the body, food for the soul.

Our Good Friday liturgies with Oz Arnal and others took place on the streets and around the locked gates of factories in ours and others’ communities.  Buses were our form of transportation and community building. 

We walked and talked, sang and prayed for ourselves, our planet and our communities.  We always hopped back on the bus. We have stayed rooted in this community with the same concerns.  We had families and worked for the welfare of the city, just as Jeremiah reminds us.  Always, always coming home. 

And home was simple – in apartments in the downtown core, over store fronts, with good simple food at pot-luck suppers, weddings in backyards, playing music and laughing – being home for and with each other. 

And what are the signs of this homecoming?  What is the outcome of deliberate, prayerful attention to the well-being of our cities by the Grand?

We see it in a community where the dream is at work in the daily lives of people.  We see the signs of transformation and belonging in a community where diversity, equality, justice, responsibility, integrity, and hope reside and where people work together to foster imagination, participation, and joy. 

We celebrate the communities of Kitchener-Waterloo as communities that are intelligent; world renowned institutions of education and innovation – CIGI; the PI are among the significant here.   Tonight as we remember and celebrate the founding of The Working Centre 30 years ago we name and claim that we are at heart a compassionate community.

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