Unapologetically Canadian Episode 2: Building Community with David Lefneski
If you prefer to read, here is a transcript
[00:00:14] Today I am speaking to one of the leaders behind Southwest United Mission Church and the mission downtown. Also somebody who is on Anglo family council and an alround a great guy.
[00:00:32] Here he is. I'm David Lefneski and I came to Verdun when there was Verdun United Church and Crawford Park United churches in 1998 looking for a bilingual minister because they wanted someone to both serve the congregations English speaking but serve their French neighbors. And it's the only church advertisement I saw that wanted a bilingual person which I was so I came to Verdun. I came from a fundamentalist background. I was raised in a more Pentecostal Baptist model of church and evolved towards the reform and reformation Protestant more mainline church. I was coming out of a French Presbyterian Church in Rosemont. I was coming out of the closet slowly and feeling that my orientation was an issue for some.
[00:01:27] And I really felt when I said here and Verdun "who's not welcome" and they said "What? Everyone's welcome. I thought there might be hope for me to simply be David in this context.
[00:01:42] And that was in 1988 to 1998. I've been here 18 years so I came for a ministry to what was existing at the time a large building on Woodland for Verdun United. Crawford was a smaller building but 225 in regular worship. Between those two congregations.
[00:02:03] Vibrant outreach. Alive to neighborhood a sense of not United Church affiliation as much as just "we serve our neighbors however we can." Marriages. Baptisms. At that time there were efforts at collective kitchen and Christmas baskets but it really was a clear sense that neighbour was at the at the heart of what ministry was about.
[00:02:30] And since then maybe in 18 years the evolution is pretty incredible. We're actually standing in a space in Verdun Elementary where just yesterday there was there was a community lunch. There was a what do you call the Good food family And there was a mini market all in one day.
[00:02:56] And then there was teen cuisine after that in a big long day. So it's a funny it's a crazy evolution actually. It's it's kind of when your heart has to choose the contractions of decline whether you let contractions become.
[00:03:16] How do you call that after the contraction then it's the growth of the heart. It expands. And as painful as the process is we went through many years of questions looking at our ministry at money and building and thinking God's given us with an inheritance from our forefathers and mothers and faith. They've invested in building and we said you know we can do better than just heat a building. We can be more active in our community. It took many years. But in 2007 two congregations joined together, agree to sell the bigger building which costs about thirty seven thousand dollars to heat a year and we felt it was just too too much for a one hour or a limited use. And it wasn't the building that could have adapted easily to community use at that time. So we sold we took money we invested that money and we were without a home for the office and outreach and the principal of the local school said hey we have room. And we went to Lester B. Pearson who said we'll make a partnership with a rental space that you pay. But the partnership will include working with our youth and food needs and clothing needs. We're in a spot that is disadvantaged. The school is like an inner city school with lots of needs of needs at various various levels. And we said yeah we can handle that. So it really we were defining to come into this space by the community. And what are the needs of the community.
[00:04:52] And this is now 2007. This is 2016. So nine years. We gave up an address. We came to a school in the corner of Melrose and redone our official addresses through the school to reach our office with mail. But last week the mailman tried to deliver mail at 6 3 1 which is a totally illegal address so hopefully no one from Polk County is listening you know because that's our number.
[00:05:20] So a taxi could pick up a senior or get something delivered but it's not a real number because there's no address. And what a good model. I like that.
[00:05:36] We kept our smaller of the two churches so Crawford park became a Southwest church building. And this became the mission. And so we're still two locations which has kind of been our tradition for decades.
[00:05:50] The offices out of the school in the former nurse's office. Breakfast Club was one of the first things that happened with the school because the needs of children eating every morning. So it's a tri-partnership Breakfast Clubs in Quebec which is now Breakfast Clubs in Canada the school and the mission so our volunteers who put a kitchen in the Mission Space at our expense. About $30,000 dollars that we put that money in. Always with the blessing of the bschool board and have felt really a good relationship overall with the board because of this and of the Lester B, which is the furthest east the school in their whole territory. And of all the schools I would say as I said earlier kind of an inner city school. So it's not quite the norm of what West Islands about and it's recognized that we better do this together in a community model.
[00:06:46] Right now one of the things you had mentioned is when I've talked to you in previous times that you have a vision for taking this forward to combine the two.
[00:06:58] The two communities because you really have a worship community and a community you serve which includes many of the volunteers actually come from the community you serve. I mean it's I guess it's a really unique. Collection of people. And and you were talking about how moving forward your vision was much more united which is really kind of interesting. That's the name of the organization you work for. And that's both the challenge and the strength. So how do you as one individual one leader. Encompass those two very distinct missions. I mean you could be two organizations if you wanted to
[00:07:44] We could be I mean when we put up two stained glass windows in the school at the mission the Good Samaritan and the lost sheep we kept those because we felt their message was kind of an inclusive message. I mean who's my neighbor? Who is the other in that story of the Good Samaritan helping caring for the lost sheep you know. Who's who's not included who's on the edge of society or who can't read the invitation you're sending. Who's not eating well because he can't get out of their apartment and get to the healthy food choices. Who alone when they die?
[00:08:22] So when we put those stained glass in this building in a public building we are very conscious of it's kind of a juxtoposition of church and people of faith and what social justice or outreach and how those are almost in some way there are paradoxes and yet they are our motivation is to transform. I mean I want to convert everyone to healthy eating to healthy living to healthy choices to a healthy lifestyle. I don't have to speak of that as a religious conversion but yes we want to bring change and transformation of a message that we have lived as transformed formative. So our sense of faith in God and Jesus when we follow as Christians has never prevented us from having the Qur'an on our communion table at the church when people were bashing Muslim brothers and sisters we said hey come to the imam.
[00:09:21] We read from the Qur'an from the Bible we exchanged Qur'an and Bible and we kept our eyes on our communion table and fact when it was stolen last year from someone who said probably what's it doing to the Christian church because Christians have fundamentalists like everywhere else. And our response was to buy a new one through a Muslim family and rededicate it and put it back to remind us we don't possess truth. We're seeking after truth and unless we try to transform our community together with school with CLSC, with mosque with Christian church. Any group and every group willing to take the risk of a generous love and use space for community without it being contingent on faith adhesion or allegiance or adherence. So ours is a very alive faith. Maybe one day we have a church mission in one spot. It could maybe be really some headaches. But in other ways how exciting can you get to be probably the only as we hear it the only school in Canada where a public school has a faith group. That is committed to transformational models and community models working together. That's amazing. So in one sense. Maybe. It's still a good place to be because the energy is there. We have respect of others. Kids today going to manoir 250 Christmas cards homemade recycled singing and giving out those cards and they're looked at me and the kids said 'how do I call you?' And I said Well I'm a minister and Reverend David. I'm a community leader. So I'm David O. He said I'll call you Mr. Davis he said.
[00:11:06] I guess that's what they called teachers. I realize I just thought I was kind of cute right there that you know what do you call leadership. Well if it's transformative leadership it's probably going to change its name over a period of time which has been true for me.
[00:11:23] Well the fact I came as Reverend David and then we opened ourselves to more French ministry. And when I came out as a gay man when I took a Verdun nine year old as a foster son and the mother accused me of being a pedophile and I'm Gay and I guess I better talk to the elders and leaders of the church. I don't want them to hear that at IGA on Barrentine. Right. And I did and the elder ship said "oh you are a minister and we called you here. We believe in your ministry. You're our leader. So you stay. And when 15 people left that's about 2001. So it's quite a few years ago they left for various reasons but the majority of the congregation and to this day has simply been supportive. And I'm just David including my sexual orientation, and including being a foster parent, a musician, a gardener and yes I'm the minister and community leader. So it's the evolution of what kind of adaptive leadership over time. You know we can't stay the same and if our title's the same and same job district for the last 20 years I might be a little worried whether that's a teacher administrator preacher parent--because we should be evolving. We should be changing and growing and rising to new challenges.
[00:12:51] What do you think of when you hear the word Canadian?
[00:12:54] Oh my lord. I'm in Quebec. I came more than 30 years ago from Ontario my first 18 years are all French. Then I went into more bilingual I'd say I use my French here. Probably half of my work is now in French. Anything relating to the public is done in French. Anything we do, we do bilingually in our paperwork and our invitations. We try to do as much in our worship, weddings and baptism still in language of choice. For me I won't tell you how I voted in certain referendums but I would have stayed. No matter the decision as my roots here of these decades are not relating to Quebec Quebec versus Canada but rather I mean I'm a convert. I learned my French I'm Francofile I understand minority status. I understand that as a gay man there was a single parent or a single foster parent and I I understand the fight that it takes and the courage it takes to have a vibrant culture in a sea of English in North America and to be disconnected from Europe sort of its origins. And yet to have such a vibrant rich and different history. So I celebrate it and I think the common language where I live in Quebec is French. So the common language should be always Bpnjour to everyone and then you switch into whatever language including English you might want to speak. And even now I would say in our recent election in Verdun.
[00:14:38] In our recent election that we're done redone the candidates all kind of came by the mission and I'm Anglo family council president so I know they were kind of looking for some English inroads in votes.
[00:14:52] So you talk to everyone and I'm fairly apolitical and I know the 26 for the turkey meal that our new Deputy Liberal deputy just won the election provincially will be coming Mr longlais who is the PQ candidate is probably going to bring some desserts and maybe Veronique who was Quebec Solidaire.
[00:15:36] With English now sitting as the minority in Britain there's a lot of needs and you see us in Quebec. There's so many needs and changes but what's fundamental I feel is we serve we work together we build bridges towards each other we cross pollinate where we can and we don't stand on some political agenda. So my long response is to say I'm Canadian. I'm not even a monarchist. So the queen if that's going to throw up certain people I'm thinking I'm not even a monarchist so I'm kind of going for me being Canadian is the generosity I believe in as a Canadian. As being a Quebecois adopted, I feel such a privileged place really in Quebec very integrated and I want I want the English experience to be integrated into a dynamic Quebed, not excluded from it right but included within. So that's a lot of work and I would say that's probably where I'm at. I don't question.
[00:16:49] You answered with a definition of what you think Canadian is let's get it.
[00:16:54] And I have to think of it more because how I vote really is determined by that.
[00:16:59] The interesting thing is I don't think I mean one of the things I don't think of myself as a Canadian based on how I vote. For me it's because I believe in Canada as a big idea in federalism and the fact that diversity connects and the fact that you actually...Canada is stronger when every separate part of it is stronger. So moving to Quebec was very easy for me because it's not just where my roots are from but for me the idea of a strong Quebec with a strong Canada and a strong Ontario Ontario Northern Ontario would love to separate from Southern Ontario like there's separation movements all over the country and I just don't think it separates anything from the fact that we can all be Canadian anyway.
[00:17:44] I agree with you because fundamentally what I hear you say and that's what we're trying to live in a strong community--a communite de base if the base community is healthy respected alive doing well feeling engaged even if they're not in agreement with policies politics, but if they're feeling invited to the table they're able to eat, find jobs get to school, learn, educate their kids, be bilingual trilingual or hovever many languages, a strong Newfoundland Labrador a strong Quebec strong West. I agree with that that that creates a stronger whole.
[00:18:23] I would still affirm in the history of founding peoples, the First Nation, of British and French. There is something very unique in that history when you look across the country, but when you come into Quebec, you can't deny it. You know that we have some aspects of that history that are very particular and so they should be and just recognize them, celebrate them keep it flowing towards a generosity. And when you have to make a decision if I ever had to make a decision I would be.
[00:18:57] Well we do have to occasionally, but that's a different thing. Anyway thank you very much David we appreciate your time. You're welcome.
[00:19:10] Thank you for listening to unapologetically Canadian.
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About the Author
Tracey Arial helps Canadians grow with notable nonfiction and urban agriculture.