Back in the late 1940s, Father Henk Huijbers and other young Oblate missionaries made their way to the Yukon from places then as far afield as war-torn Holland. A brother Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate, Bishop Jean-Louis Coudert, originally from France himself, literally welcomed them here with a tool box and a charge to “go build the church.” They would do just that and much, much more.
In the summer of 1967 a youth team from Project Christopher, committed to practical Christian service and living on a dollar a day per person, somehow made it all the way from Montreal to Burwash Landing on their tight budget. There they found plenty of work to do under the Father Henk. One of them told me that he spent a lot of time straightening salvaged nails, which would end up recycled into yet another one of Fr. Huijbers’s building projects.
Father John Brayley, a Roman Catholic priest from Montreal, founded Project Christopher with simple mandate to “Be Christ-bearers wherever you go.” He fundamentally believed that youth had to be challenged. I recall him saying if you demand nothing of our youth that is precisely what you will get. However if you demanded great things while they might not achieve their goal, in striving towards it they will accomplish far more that they could have otherwise imagined. His youth teams spread out across North America that summer. He charged me, an 18-year-old, with leading a team that summer in Pointe St. Charles, a poor, working class district of Montreal.
Brayley and Huijbers never met each other but they had much in common. Both fought Nazism, Huijbers as a member of the Dutch resistance and Brayley as a young Canadian Army officer. King George VI decorated Brayley for bravery in battle as one of the first Canadian officers to cross the Rhine River. Both men’s lives provided a powerful witness to their faith by confronting societal challenges head on and in doing so empowered people and built just communities.
In light of their work what would Huijbers and Brayley have said and done about the ‘culture wars’ swirling around global society and religions today? Earlier this month, a report entitled “Be Not Afraid?; Guilt by Association, Catholic McCarthyism and growing threats to the U.S. Bishops Anti-Poverty Mission” released by a group called Faith in Public Life captures a sense of this struggle. It opens with this statement: “Over the past four decades, conservative Catholic activists and their ideological allies on the political right have worked to undermine the U.S. Catholic bishops’ most successful antipoverty initiative – the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.”
It sees that “a small, but well-financed network has emerged as a relentless opponent of the bishops’ social justice campaign … Using guilt by association and other tactics from the McCarthy-era playbook, these activists are part of an increasingly aggressive movement of Catholic culture warriors who view themselves as fighting for a smaller, ‘purer’ church.”
Archbishop Emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza, former president, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and key endorser of the report, states: “At a time when poverty is growing and people are hurting we should not withdraw from our commitment to helping the poor. Catholic identity is far broader than opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Catholic identity is a commitment to living the Gospel as Jesus proclaimed it, and this must include a commitment to those in poverty.”
The report’s author, John Gehring, warns: “Threats to anti-poverty work are part of a toxic climate of fear in which efforts to narrow Catholic identity to a few hot-button issues distort the debate over Catholic values in public life, and social justice advocates face character assassination.
“Empowering low-income citizens to advocate for living wages, quality health care, immigrant rights and responsible land stewardship is central to fulfilling a Catholic vision for the common good.”
We see similar struggles in Islamic countries like Turkey or in Burma with the recent Buddhist Muslim conflict. Neither Canada nor the Yukon is immune from these ideological struggles often masked in religious language. Those promoting a culture of fear and hatred must not be allowed to sidetrack the pursuit of the common good.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.