Catch A Fire shines a light on Murray MacAdam’s life as a prominent social activist for 50 years, with stories set in Nicaragua, Cuba, the Philippines and other countries, as well as Canada, covering poverty, vegetarianism, Christian faith and much more.
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Read this excerpt:
From Catch A Fire:
A Faith Community Re-imagined
It could win an award for world’s dullest church building.
A drab, squat grey brick building, easy to miss while driving down Monaghan Road. Did the architect do an internship in Stalin’s Soviet Union? Inside, bland still rules. A high-ceilinged hall, with a modest stage flanking one wall, and another at the end. Plain stained-glass windows are all that break up the monochrome pale blue walls. No cross, no altar, no religious trappings or art at all. Hard to believe this once was an Anglican parish. That parish died and was closed. Now God’s Spirit has found abundant life within these walls, and stretching far beyond them.
I pay no attention to the building as I step inside the door. The raucous hubbub of toddlers and kids floats up from the basement. Young families are arriving at the same time as me, smiling to me in greeting. I step into the meeting space and take my place in one of the rows of chairs, nodding to people around me. While some folks here are in their Sixties like me, most are under 40—the reverse demographic of a typical Anglican or other mainline denomination’s congregation. A few metres in front of me a three-person band sets up on the small stage. Guitars and drums ready, they kick into several lively praise songs about God staying with us, loving us, no matter what life throws our way. It’s a reminder I never tire of hearing, one that never fails to lift me up.
After a brief welcome, we’re invited to The Big Table. Besides its strikingly low-key appearance, this congregation, simply called The Parish, turns a lot of other churchy things upside down. Instead of relegating coffee hour to the end of the service, enabling all the introverts to flee — 80 percent of those at your typical Anglican parish —fellowship time is built right into the service, early on. A cornucopia of real food—fresh fruit, vegetables, hummus, cheese, fruit juice, crackers, and much more is laid out on The Big Table, a far cry from the cookies and bland coffee offered at most church coffee hours. Almost all of the 80 or 90 people here take part.
Under the leadership of our dynamic minister Aaron Holbrough, worship at The Parish focuses on real life, on the issues people actually face in their lives and how faith connects with how we live our lives. And we’re repeatedly encouraged to find our own answers about what God means for each of us. The Parish deserves its motto: a faith community re-imagined.
Today’s service is different. With Aaron away, we have a guest preacher, Kemi Akapo, the only person of colour in the congregation. She comes up to the podium, sets her speaking notes down on it, and apologizes for not being used to preaching and being nervous. No one bats an eye. Kemi begins by sketching her church upbringing in West Africa.
She pauses, then reorders her notes on the podium. “I don’t have a car, so I walk around a lot,” she says. “People yell things out of their cars at me a lot. Pretty much every week someone calls out something, some racial slur, that I don’t want to hear. It’s part of my life in Peterborough.”
“I used to accept it and not respond. Sometimes a group would walk past me and mutter something as they go by and I wouldn’t say anything. No more. Now I will turn around and ask, “Why did you say that?” or “What do you mean by that?” They sometimes mumble something in response and keep walking away from me.”
Kemi has remained fairly calm while speaking, but her face and the flutterings of her hands over her notes as she moves deeper into the minefield of racism portray deep feelings wakened up. She looks down and reorders her notes once more.
“I’ve been called the N- word.”
Amidst the silent, spellbound congregation here and there someone is quietly weeping.
“This isn’t just my problem,” Kemi tells us forcefully. “It’s all our problem. We all have to own it. If you see something happening you don’t like, like somebody saying something offensive, don’t just stand there. Don’t take it. Do something. Speak up. That’s the only way things will change.”
“The whole church needs to open its eyes and ears to what is going on around it, continues Kemi. It almost seems like the church is oblivious to the lived reality of many people. So before it can speak up against injustices, specifically with indigenous people and people of colour, the church needs to become a lot more aware than it is now. At this point it seems like the church is willfully ignoring this situation.”
Her comments have shaken me, even if they don’t completely surprise me. Charmaine, a local activist and member of The Open Circle service at St. John’s, is outspoken that Peterborough is not an easy place for people of colour. Our friend Jacquie, who is black, told us that when she went to the food bank a few months back, a staffperson followed her around, told her she earned too much money as a minimum-wage worker to receive free food, then kicked her out. When she was a child growing up in Peterborough, none of the other kids invited Jacquie to their birthday parties. Our friend Miriam, with two adopted black boys, moved from Peterborough to Toronto a decade ago because the boys kept getting beaten up at school. But I didn’t realize things were as bad as Kemi has revealed.
Kemi wraps up her reflection, and takes a few questions. How should we respond? Again, Kemi says that we need to raise our voices when we see discrimination or insults taking place. As the service ends, a few people gather around Kemi to offer support and talk further about action ideas.
As I put on my coat, I can’t get one of the nuggets of wisdom from Aaron shown on the screen in a recent service out of my head. Never has it sounded more compelling. “What happens at the Parish can’t stay at the Parish. You can leave here, go home and do nothing. Or you can leave here and listen to what God is calling you, in your heart, to do.”
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Praise for Catch A Fire:
“A master storyteller”
- David Walsh, Toronto
“Seeing the world through Murray’s eyes is a gift.”
- Christian Harvey, Peterborough
“It’s easy to Catch A Fire when reading Murray MacAdam’s exciting memoirs.”
- Joe Gunn, Ottawa