Devon and the Divine

By Dr. James Christie, Ambassador-at-Large, Canadian Multifaith Federation

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Once upon a not so long ago, a little boy was busy growing up in the beautiful but often turbulent Caribbean Island of Jamaica, so movingly enshrined in Harry Belafonte’s ‘Island in the Sun.’

This little boy – Devon – was of African descent, raised mainly by his mother; a strong woman and a devoutly faithful Christian of an evangelical bent. When he was still very young, no doubt for a range of complex reasons, his mother relocated her little family to Canada. Eventually, Devon made his home in Winnipeg: the heart of Canada, and the very heart of the continent.

The City with Three Archbishops

Winnipeg, the capitol of the midwestern Canadian province of Manitoba, is a remarkable city. I have been a senior member of The University of Winnipeg for seventeen years, and have come to know and love the community well. Located in the Great Plains, about an hour from the border with the United States, it feels, to many, isolated. That is hardly an unreasonable response to the place. At the close of the 19th century, Canadians imagined that Winnipeg would become the Chicago of the North. Until the opening of the Panama Canal, it was. Then, with the additional advances in air travel, Winnipeg was reduced for decades to a fly-over city.

And yet . . . Winnipeg and her people are truly remarkable in myriad ways. Isolated? I suppose. Nevertheless, as I have often said and written, Winnipeg is self contained, but not self-absorbed. At 750,000 residents, Winnipeg is hardly a cosmopolis, and yet is richly cosmopolitan. Her citizens have origins that span the globe, from England, Estonia and Ethiopia; Ireland, India and Iceland; Scotland, Serbia and Siberia; pan-African, Latin America, Andalusian and Oceanian. She is polyglot and polymorphous. In a brief conversation with the late John Paul II, he noted “Ah, yes, Winnipeg: the city with the three Archbishops.” Still are: French Roman; English; and Ukrainian.

Winnipeg remains a city of many and diverse faiths and cultures. It has the largest urban Indigenous population in Canada. Though this was, for long dreary years, a sad story of racism and abuse, even that is changing, and in most circles our Indigenous neighbours are finally being recognized as among the greatest contributors to the richness of both the capitol and the country.

Some think of Winnipeg as rife with violent crime. In my experience, no more so than Toronto, Vancouver, or my own beloved home town of Montreal. “Soyez sage,” as we say in Quebec.

Winnipeg is is no hinterland: Multifaith, multicultural, a city of world-class art, music, museums, ballet, symphony, professional athletics, and multiple and excellent universities. It is the home of progressive politics and advanced science (the ebola vaccine was developed just up the street from my house, and the justly world-acclaimed Canadian Museum of Human Rights is the only national museum outside the federal capitol of Ottawa, Ontario).

Winnipeg’s New Chief of Police

Enough of this tribute to my adopted home. Save to say that this is the context in which Devon Clunis came of age and pursued his chosen trade. Devon’s life mission was to serve his neighbours. For him, this was a Gospel imperative.

Devon became a cop.

He started in the ranks. He is handsome, imposing, yet always approachable. He is unabashedly Christian. He is also very, very smart.

He moved through the ranks, from the beat to community relations to Chaplain of the Winnipeg Police Service. Then, in 2012, he was named Chief of Police, the first African Canadian ever to hold such a position anywhere in Canada. Those who met him, and had the privilege of knowing him, came swiftly to love him.

Church and State

But, almost by definition, the road is always rough for trailblazers. On the day he was installed as Chief, Devon, true to his core, asked all the people of Winnipeg, of whatever faith tradition, to pray for him and for the city.

And as my late Father would have said, “The fertilizer hit the windmill.”

Madre de Dios! There ensued one of the most annoying displays of public misperception and ignorance it has ever been my unhappy experience to witness. Devon was accused of breaching the quasi-sacred divide between church and state.

Except he hadn’t.

True to himself, he’d invited all people of all faiths to pray for him. He’d given preference to no tradition, even his own.

Freedom of religion and respect for religion is woven into the social fabric of Canada.

On top of that, we have no constitutional requirement for separation of church and state in Canada. With due respect, that is a concept enshrined in the 1787 US constitution. And in both countries, the concern has not been to protect civil authority from religious encroachment; quite the contrary. Even in the US, the clause is intended to protect religion from the risk of civil interference.

To Caesar and to God

To illustrate my point, permit me to note that income tax season has just concluded here in the Great White North. (Snow is our dominant colour scheme much of the year.) As every year, I consulted on a number of fine points of income tax law with my CA. She reminded me of the importance of charitable giving as it affects personal income tax.

It works like this. Registered charities, from religious communities to the Grand Ballet, are supported by private citizens, whose values, beliefs and passions are expressed by their gifts.

Let us suppose a fortunate and generous Canadian resident makes contributions totalling $5000 to their cherished causes. By a complicated formula, a rather modest amount is retained to serve the needs required by the Income Tax Act. The lion’s share goes to the citizen’s choice, and the citizen receives a tax credit. In other words, by giving to designated charities, the individual is able to choose where her or his resources are deployed, rather than entrust that amount to the discretion of Federal and/or Provincial governments.

What can I say? It’s taxes. It’s arcane.

But it provides a measure of free choice. It is democratic.

Like Devon and his relationship with the Divine, it gives a contemporary context to Jesus of Nazareth’s happily obscure response to a trick question posed by a group of his antagonists:

“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and render unto God the things that are God’s.”

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Dr. James Christie is the inaugural Ambassador-at-Large for the Canadian Multifaith Federation and part of the G20 Interfaith Forum Board of Directors. For 15 years, Christie served at the University of Winnipeg as Dean of Theology, Dean of the Global College, and Director of the Ridd Institute for Religion and Global Policy.