Allen called me back yesterday afternoon, and we spoke for fifteen minutes. “You’re easy to talk to,” he tells me. “And you’re easy to talk to,” I tell him. We agree to meet at the open-house event that our church is hosting this coming Thursday evening, November 16. He promises to bring me samples of his work, and I promise to make time to look at them. In this phone conversation in which I try getting a quote from Allen to hang alongside his portrait for Thursday’s gallery event, Allen describes himself as the “disability photographer” of the neighborhood. He means, of course, the neighborhood into which our church has just moved. This is why I phoned Allen, why we've taken his picture: we’re neighbors of sorts. For the photography exhibit on Thursday, a team of photographers has scattered on local streets throughout the course of many months to meet people just like Allen — to hear their stories, to capture their faces, and to begin practicing the neighbourliness to which Jesus calls his people.
“I am the photographer of the forgotten,” Allen tells me over the phone. “Because I am one of the forgotten.” He describes being hearing impaired, indicates that he has suffered a traumatic brain injury, admits that he is poor. His art, he says, isn’t a passion but “a way of surviving.” I think of the photograph of Allen that will hang in Thursday’s gallery, how it captures Allen the artist: the camera slung around his neck, the keen eyes. (And if bushy eyebrows make for an artist, those, too.) I think, with great gratitude, how good and right it is to hang a portrait of one of the forgotten in the middle of Christ's church.
On Thursday, Grace Toronto Church throws open its doors for a housewarming party of sorts. We’ve come home, as we like to say — found a more permanent place in the city now that we’ve bought and renovated and moved into the 1878 Old St. Andrew’s Church, which stands at the corner of Jarvis and Carlton streets. There would be all kinds of ways to celebrate this memorable occasion, but we’ve chosen to mark it in the way that we think most honors Jesus. We’ve made the event less about ourselves and more about our neighbors. “Neighbor” is, in fact, the word that will hang over the doors to the photo gallery, hopefully calling to mind the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In that famous story Jesus told, the Lord reminds a young man, so eager to get things right, that the Law and the Prophets is summed up into two commands: love God and love your neighbor.
Or maybe I could even put it this way: love God by loving your neighbor.
Just this morning, I found notes from one of our team meeting's back in the spring. Together we had read and reflected on the parable to orient ourselves toward a vision for this event. “What is neighborliness?” we had asked ourselves. We came to words like compassion, care, notice, initiative, costly, attitude and action, thoughtfulness, long-term investment, relational. “What are obstacles to neighborliness?” Desiring to justify ourselves, capacity, time, fear, the unpredictability of the situation.
“He cared close,” we observed of the Samaritan, noticing our own fears for safety and the complicated nature of human pain. We made some attempts at conclusion.
Neighborliness is central to the gospel. We embody how God in Christ acts toward us. We image him in the world. To understand someone else’s brokenness, we have to own our own. We must build common ground, which makes for long-term, sustainable action.
On Thursday, all the prayer and planning, reading and reflection will be realized in a free event, open to church and community friends. We will have a large photo exhibit, which is a response to the question, “Who is my neighbour?” As our Director of Worship and Arts describes in the artistic statement, “Displayed throughout the gallery are images of people from the communities surrounding Old St Andrew’s. In our hyper, quick-paced city, we rarely take the time to see the people around us. The use of larger-than-life format in this display challenges us to stop and look, even to confront our unwillingness to find the beauty and diversity in the people we meet every day.”
In addition to the photo gallery, we will offer guided architectural tours of the historic church building, designed by the famous Toronto architects Langley, Langley and Burke. And finally, there will be a performance of an original adaptation (by Ian Cusson) of Bach Cantata 164, whose text is taken from the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
My Savior, through the radiance of your love, now melt my heart of steel that I, with Christ-like love, may daily strive to comfort my neighbor in their anguish, whoever they may be, friend or foe, Christian or not, and that I treat his anguish as if it were my own. May my heart be loving, pure and soft, so that in me your likeness might be shown.
As people enter our building, we pray they encounter Christ in the faces of their neighbors. If you’re local, you’re certainly welcome!
Grace Toronto Church 383 Jarvis St. Toronto 7-10pm Concert performances at 7:45pm and 8:45 pm
** As the coordinator of this event, I'd like to credit the book, Slow Church (by John Pattison and Chris Smith), with the inspiration for the Neighbours' project. In their book, Pattison and Smith argue that “we need practices that will reorient our desires to our places.” We should leave off “broad generalities about changing the world” and instead reimagine “in more specific ways the transformation of our own particular places,” (74). This event does this kind of imagining, and I'm grateful for Pattison and Smith's emphasis on rooting ourselves, as churches, deeply in our places.