Rick Tobias "Henri's Response to Justice" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri to audiences around the world. Each week, we endeavor to bring you a new interview with someone who’s been deeply influenced by the writings of Henri Nouwen, or perhaps even a recording of Henri himself. We invite you to share the daily meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them, we can continue to reach others with Henri Nouwen’s writings, his encouragement, and of course, his reminder that each of us is a beloved child of God.
Now, let me take a moment to introduce you to today’s guest. Today, I’m talking with well-known advocate for the poor and marginalized, Dr. Rick Tobias. As head of the Yonge Street Mission in Toronto, Rick has sought to promote the wellbeing of the poor and vulnerable within the mission’s community, and within the wider society. Rick is a good person to talk with at this moment, when people around the world are seeking social justice, seeking racial justice.
Rick, I’m really glad to have an opportunity to talk with you today. I feel like of all the people I know, you’ve walked a long time in the role of working with and for the poor. And so therefore, I feel like this is an interesting moment to invite you into a conversation that’s happening all over the world. But particularly in North America, there is a sense in which it’s a time for injustice to be acknowledged and to be changed. And so, I really am interested in talking with you and hearing your perspective on what we are living in right now. I’d love to just begin right from the broader issues of poverty and injustice, and then you can take us wherever you like.
Rick Tobias: Okay, well, first off, it’s very good for me to be here with you. I’m a huge fan and have been a huge fan for many years of Henri Nouwen. And I think his life also models the very stuff we are talking about. As you know, way back in the Sixties, Henri was marching for peace and for justice and for the end of segregation and for human rights and equal rights and so on and so forth. And towards the end of his life, he aligned very closely with people in Canada who were working on the streets and who were invested in the wellbeing of the poor and marginalized peoples. His life is a testimony that spirituality and activism are not separate. They are, in fact, very, very connected. And I like a quote from him that says, “In a world torn apart by rivalry and anger and hatred, we have the privileged vocation to be living signs of a love that can bridge all divisions and heal all wounds.” And if I add to that, the fact that you can’t pick up any of Henri Nouwen’s books, you can’t listen to many of his messages, without hearing the word compassion, compassion, compassion come up again and again and again. So, to talk about what’s going on in our society, in the context of Henri and his spirituality, seems very appropriate. And I am very honored to be part of the show.
Karen Pascal: Thank you. I appreciate that. And you’re right. You got it. One of the deep, central, core things for Henri was that he longed that people would know that they are beloved by God, every single one. And that’s a start-point for justice: once you recognize that every single human being is loved by God equally, you’re on ground on which we can create from.
Rick Tobias: Exactly. And beyond that, I suspect I may be wrong, but I suspect that many of the people who would normally be listening to your podcast are generally interested in spirituality and spiritual formation and the gifts that come along with that. And it strikes me that one of the gifts that Henri manifested was the capacity to listen and listen well and listen deep. And in this age that we live in right now, that is torn by so many divisions, to embrace and develop and cultivate that capacity to listen, not just in the one-on-one, spiritual direction sense, or counseling sense, but to listen to communities. So, in Canada, to listen to First Nations communities, to listen to black communities, to listen to communities of new immigrants and the marginalized and the poor. I think in Henri’s language, this is a spiritual gift. And we’re invited to listen, not just superficially, but deeply, so that we hear the heart and soul of others.
And often what I think is missing in all of our current dialogues and why I think we often are so divided, is that we actually don’t listen enough to capture the soul, to capture the heart of others. And because we don’t capture that, we kind of tolerate injustice. And even if we don’t consider ourselves personally to be people who are marked by injustice, we seem quite tolerant to have it happen around us. And I think it’s because we’ve not listened to the heartfelt cries of people. And we would be better if we could somehow figure how to listen to souls.
Karen Pascal: This is interesting, because I feel like right now, I feel like in so many ways people are shouting. And you only shout when you feel like you didn’t hear me before. You didn’t hear when I just spoke in a natural voice. So, now I’ve got to shout at you. Now I’ve got to call your attention to something that you’ve been ignoring. Watching people pour out onto the streets, not just across America, in response to George Floyd, but in Europe, in Canada, watching it happen around the world has been an amazing moment. A moment I don’t want to see pass. How are you finding, how do you feel right now in terms of that listening, and what to do next?
Rick Tobias: Well, I think you’re right. What happens if I’m now shouting and you are still not listening, or you’re still not hearing me? Where do we go from there? Where do I express that frustration? The truth is these are not new problems. When I was child growing up in Atlantic Canada, racism was the order of the day. And I can remember how nasty things would get in Halifax on occasion. And I can remember even in Saint John, where I grew up, times when racism was pretty much in your face. We forget parts of our history, like in the 1930s, between the First and Second World War, we had the Ku Klux Klan in Canada. That’s not so very long ago. There was a residential school in Shubenacadie, until I was in my teenage years. These issues are not new. And I have a friend out west who says to me on occasion that First Nations people in Canada have never got any right, without having to go to court. What does that say about your citizenship and your status, when everything you have has been a hard-fought court battle? And this has gone on for years, decades, centuries. And so, the question becomes, if we don’t listen now, what next? Where do we go from here? I’m not sure. It doesn’t seem pretty to me.
Karen Pascal: Well, you’ve said to me that we live in a culture right now that markets mistrust, racism and cultural intolerance. I want to know how you feel we do this, and then how we can change.
Rick Tobias: Again, that’s not so very new. Some of the quotes over the years from our prime ministers, as they have spoken about visible minority people, are scary. What’s going on in the U.S. right now is terrifying, but we thrive on an entertainment industry, in a media industry that markets division and mistrust. The battle in the U.S. between CNN and Fox is designed to just keep a nation divided. And I don’t care what side of the coin you’re on; both market a very high level of mistrust and animosity towards those who “aren’t like you.” Like many of the police shows that are supposedly reality shows, where you see person after person arrested and they are all visible minority or black people. We are teaching people to be fearful. And that can’t be good for us as a society.
Karen Pascal: No, no, it can’t. It can’t possibly be good. You mentioned to me that Martin Luther King’s theologian was James M. Lawson, Jr., and that he came up with a phrase, the Great Lie. What was that all about?
Rick Tobias: Yes. One of the problems is that in order to market something like slavery or racism or cultural discrimination, you have to give at least a superficial sense that this is more than economics. I would like to think that as a people, we would not have tolerated slavery if it was only about economics. We would’ve gone, “How dare you treat another person that way?” However, to make it work, you have to have something else. And Lawson was Martin Luther King’s theologian of nonviolence. And in the early days of the civil rights movement, he invited leaders to come together and try and sort out why were things the way they were in the U.S.? How had they got to this place? And they talked about segregation and poor opportunities and all kinds of different things. And finally, they decided that the root of the racism and segregation that existed in the United States was something they called the Great Lie.
And they said that the Great Lie, essentially, was that you defined one group of people as having less value or worth than another group of people. And once you decided that they were not of equal worth or equal value, then you could start talking about things like they’re inferior, they’re dirty, they’re untrustworthy, you can’t depend on them to do good work, et cetera, et cetera. But you could also then justify everything from residential schools to terrible orphanages to lynchings, to virtually anything you wanted, because this group of people wasn’t fully human anyway. And that’s what we have done. And that’s what Lawson argued that we have done.
And we did it in Canada. It was our prime minister who said, “You have to take children out of their homes and raise them in residential schools, because if you leave them in their homes, you’re leaving them with savages, and all you’ll have is savages who can read and write. And so, you have to get them out.” Once you market that kind of inferiority, the mistreatment of people becomes very, very easy. And, in essence, that’s what we’ve done.
And unfortunately… let me back up, I’m making an assumption here. My assumption is that most of the people who are listening to your podcast are not only interested in Henri, but they’re people of faith and that they have ties to their church. And unfortunately, in this whole dialogue, the church hasn’t always come out on the right side. I mean, we often have. We were at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the U.S., and there has always been a strong cadre of people who out of their faith have been involved in justice issues. But the truth is, often the church has just slept through what is going on. And in truth, we’ve often been so engaged in our own battles and our own divisions that we’ve not had an awful lot to offer the society around us.
Jesus said at the end of his life, that “by this will all people know you’re my disciples, that you love one another.” Never mind loving the world or loving across cultural or racial lines or loving across class lines. We haven’t often loved each other across denominational and church lines. And some of the things we’ve done to each other in the past are barbaric and brutal and shameful. What we don’t pay so much attention to is the fact that Jesus also said, in that same prayer, that it would be in our unity that the world would know that God sent him. And in our disunity, we destroy the credibility of Jesus and we destroy our own credibility, so that when we speak about the racial divide or cultural divide or economic divide, we don’t have the credibility that we might have, because the wider society looks at us and says, “Sorry, guys, you guys spend all your time fighting among yourself. What do you actually have to offer us?” And when we speak about reconciliation, there’s kind of this sense of, “well, why don’t you guys just be reconciled with yourself before you start telling us what right and wrong is.”
And so, the church has a way to go on this stuff. And one of the great things about Henri is he didn’t believe that you could be a spiritual person and not invest yourself in others. That it was just his assumption that the closer you walked with Jesus, the more likely that you would walk closely with other people across racial, cultural, economic lines, across philosophical differences and theological differences. And Henri becomes a prophetic voice. Both to the church, to kind of pull its socks up and kind of get about the business of the kingdom. And he becomes a voice that models the love of the kingdom to people who have often been excluded from earthly kingdoms.
Karen Pascal: As I listen to you talk about that, I realize there’s great truth in it. How do we go forward from this moment? I think COVID has given us a kind of gift. It’s a grand, big pause. We are all forced to reevaluate what we’re doing with our daily life, not to mention what we’re doing with our church lives or our spiritual lives or our play, whatever, our families. Everything is being reevaluated in that light. What do you feel can be the blessing that comes out of this?
Rick Tobias: Well, I think one of the blessings, if we call it that, of COVID has been that it has given people space to speak their voice. I don’t know that we would be having all of the social protest that we’re having right now, if people didn’t have time away from work, away from school, away from the other things that make their lives busy. They actually stop and say, “You know what? What’s happening to my people is not nice, is not good. There’s injustice here.”
And I think COVID has given rise to voice. And I think that’s always important. For those of us who claim any type of spirituality or claim to be church people, one could, I suspect, pick all kinds of different places to start. And one could probably not really come to the end of the list of things to do. But it strikes me: If I’m using this time to touch base a little with Henri, again, the first thing it would seem to me that we would need to do is listen. Listen first to God. And maybe as we are bringing our intentions and our petitions to the Creator, we can ask God to make us more open to hear and learn from others, to make us more open to hear new things from God, Godself. And tied very closely to that is we need to hear from indigenous voices and black voices and the voices of the poor and the voices of recent immigrants, and the voices of people who have felt excluded. We need to listen and listen long and listen hard. We’re as a people inclined to always want to fix things. And often we are fixing before we listen, and therefore we become counterproductive and do wrong things. We need to listen and listen deeply.
Karen Pascal: What do you think good news is going to look like to that community that you’re talking about? Because we’ve been told that Jesus said, it’s good news. What do you think it’s going to look like when you say that we need to listen to the indigenous people, the black people, to people that feel marginalized, to people that are refugees, who are new to our country, or who feel in any way marginalized by the realities of our world? What’s the good news going to look like?
Rick Tobias: Well, I think among other things, it looks like justice. We in the Western church, we’ve become very focused on salvation. And perhaps, maybe if I dare say so, overly focused on salvation. Salvation only is the beginning. And to stay focused on salvation is like staying a baby forever. We’re supposed to grow into something. And central to what we’re to grow into is justice. There are probably a couple of thousand versus of Scripture that speak about the plight of the poor and slaves and the oppressed. There are probably a thousand verses of Scripture that speak about justice by itself. There are several hundred versus of Scripture that speak about injustice. And so, it’s a massive body of biblical literature. And so, I expect if I take that literature very seriously, being heard results in justice – or should result in justice. The Old Testament, the Torah, calls us to justice.
The prophets often reminded us that we were unjust and called us to be just, and often the way they phrased it is they defined injustice. And they assumed that justice was the opposite of what injustice was. And so, if injustice is a denial of rights to citizens of our countries, then justice looks like an establishment of rights for all the citizens of our country. If injustice looks like wages that are not livable, then justice looks like livable wages. If injustice looks like exclusion and systematic oppression and systematic racism, then injustice looks at like the end of all of that stuff. It looks like inclusion. It looks like being invited into the family. It looks like a hug. I actually happen to think – and this is nothing more than my own personal belief – I believe that one of the highest expressions of justice is a hug.
Or, to put it simply another way, one of the highest expressions of justice is embrace. It’s not just that I recognize you under the law, because I’ve been forced to, but I actually see you as me and mine and ours, and you’re part of us. And again, Henri talked much about community, and justice has something to do with, “I invite you into my community and I allow you to become an influence and shaper in my community. I don’t simply allow you to come in at the fringes of my community, but I invite you to the center of my community.” I think justice and good news look something like that.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting, because in a world where eloquence is so often honored and gets front and center, it is being able to hear people, really hear people, really hear the heart and not demand that it come from a degree or from anything else. It comes from life; it comes from real people. It’s inviting everybody into the circle and hearing and listening. And as you pointed out, Henri was a good listener. He was good at… It’s interesting, because when I did the documentary on Henri, everybody to a person said, “When Henri was talking with you, you felt like you were the only person in the world at that moment. He was just so focused on you.” What a gift to give people: our focus, our complete attention, to hear them, just to hear them, period. That’s an amazing gift we have within us to give and we have to start there. We have to start just inviting people into the circle and being sure that we want to hear what they bring to the circle. That’s really important.
Rick Tobias: And not simply hearing their words, but also watching their lives. I watched Henri one day stand in front of a very good guitar-player. And I watched him for 10 minutes just watch that guitar-player’s fingers move. And you could tell he was absolutely fascinated with this ability that was certainly not his ability. But it was something worth celebrating. And so, he listened not simply to words but to lives. And we need to listen to lives. And you’re right about what the poor and others bring us. I have for my whole life found that my teachers are the people who I work with. And then I go to a seminarian work or something, and I get paid often to simply reshare the things that no one would pay the people who I work with to speak.
I have never found that, in almost 50 years now of working alongside low-income people, I have never, ever found that they didn’t have wise things to say and lots of wisdom. And you’re right; they often didn’t have elegant eloquence. But they often did have wisdom, if we would stop and listen. And there is much wisdom in our black community and in our black preachers. There’s much wisdom in our First Nations communities and in their elders and in their spokespersons. And we certainly need to hear from them. And if I could add to that, when James Lawson has said that there was this Great Lie, and the great lie was that some people were inferior, the answer to that is grace.
Then when I went to seminary, I learned all about grace. That was very important. And because “we’d been saved by faith and by the grace of God,” and so on and so forth. And so, grace figured very prominently. But grace was very narrowly defined, and it was defined out of what they call a “redemption motif.” We were sinners and Christ died for us and that was grace. And grace became, in quotes, “God’s unmerited favor.” God looked on us with favor, even though we didn’t deserve it.
But there is another side of grace that’s rooted in the creation motif, and that’s not lost even with the Fall. And it’s the understanding that grace sees beauty and worth in us. And so, God looks at us and doesn’t just see failure. God sees beauty. God sees worth.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made. We’re just a little lower than angels. And we, as people of faith, have to discover our grace. Grace to look upon ourselves gently and kindly, but certainly grace to look on others and see their beauty and worth. When I worked on the street in Toronto, it became very clear that as we would hire staff and volunteers, that there were some who could see beauty and worth in the youth we were dealing with. And there were others who just saw needy kids. There were some who saw beauty and there were others who only saw dirt. There were some who saw gifts that could be exercised now, and others who only saw problems. And if we are going to move beyond where we are in the society, we need to learn to see our enemies through graced eyes. We need to learn to see those who we differ with through graced eyes, so that we are always asking the question, “Where is beauty, where is the worth?” And we commit ourselves to finding that beauty and worth. And it’s often there, if we’ll stop to look.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting, because the uniqueness of what Jesus asked of us is that we love our enemies. And that is jaw-droppingly hard. But it’s not hard when you begin to realize that your enemy is so loved by God, and that their flawed-ness and your flawed-ness – and still, God still loves us. I mean, that’s just the most incredible thing. And it’s interesting, because I can admit my sense of shame at the age I’m at. That I didn’t make a bigger difference, that the rights for the indigenous people that live in my world weren’t dramatically changed by me. I feel badly about that. I feel badly about the things that didn’t get accomplished, but I do think we have to start where we are at this very moment. And listen, as you’ve been saying, listen with a great openness to receive. And give space for people to talk. Don’t get tired, give space, let it all get out and then stop doing unjust things, stop it! And as much as we possibly can, be part of the solution.
Rick Tobias: Yeah. And that means we have to speak. The catch phrase right now, “silence is violence,” is true. And we need to speak when people speak evil, we need to call them to something different. When our friends speak in ways that are prejudicial or racist, we need to find gracious and gentle ways to say to them, “Maybe that’s not the way you speak around me or in my house.” When our companies that we work for are not engaged in fair employment practices, maybe we need to use our voice in those companies. When our governments pass laws or maintain laws that stigmatize and exclude people, maybe we need to be the people who are writing letters and emails to our leaders. When there’s no such thing as a living wage for so many people, maybe we need to be the ones who cry out for a living wage.
When the front of our churches look like all white males, maybe we need to cry out for diversity and not simply inclusion in the church, but inclusion in leadership circles. And so maybe the other piece of all this is, “I can’t change what I haven’t done in my life to date; that’s water under the bridge. I can’t change the great mistakes I’ve made, the times when I have been guilty of racism or cultural prejudice or bias. I can’t change all of that. But I can raise my voice now to try and figure out how I do different or how I speak different and how I act different. I can invest my time in the poor and the hurting. I can make time and find time for those kinds of involvements.” So, you’re right. We can’t go back, but we can be different going ahead. And again, to quote Henri, he suggests that every time we take a step in the direction of generosity, that we’re to know that we are moving from fear to love. And so, when we give our lives to just causes, someone has said that justice is just the public expression of love. And so, when we move our lives towards just causes, we are moving in loving ways.
Karen Pascal: Those are good words, Rick. I am so grateful to hear them from you. You bring them with authority, but you also bring them with a wealth, a track record, you know, 40-year track record of walking the walk and talking the talk.
Rick Tobias: Actually, there is one last thing I might like to touch on. That is the whole area of self-education. I’m Canadian, I’m from Atlantic Canada. I’ve been educated in a way that’s been shaped by European thought. I’ve been shaped by what we’ve come to think of as either the thoughts of the colonizers or the settlers. And somebody once said that it’s the victors who write history. And so, we’ve learned history from a very particular perspective. And it’s time, I think, for us to learn other histories. And they’re out there. I come from a Lebanese community, and a number of years ago, a couple of books were published about the history of that Lebanese community. And because that community is important to me, I have those books. But there’s no shortage of books out there written by First Nations people, written by black people in Canada. We should be taking advantage of them. I have a friend who says quite often, “I’m tired of white people asking me what this means. Go read!”
And we maybe need to spend time learning the histories of others. But more than that, we need to raise our voices to change how education happens in our countries. We shouldn’t have Black History Month in Canada; we shouldn’t have Indigenous History Month in Canada as the only times when we talk about black or indigenous history. Those should be permeating our school systems. Children should be learning that they grow up in what is truly a multicultural society. We are not simply French and English. We are much, much more than that. And we indeed live among people with rich histories and rich traditions.
And when you tear down a community like Africville in Halifax, you may tear down the housing, but much of the wisdom from that community still exists, and is available to us if we will listen. So, that’s probably the other thing I would want to add, that we have a responsibility to educate ourselves to the issues. And we have the responsibility to call on, for one of the ways you end systemic racism is you begin in schools and you teach children in a way that’s different, so that they grow up with different expectations about what normal is and what right is. So, I think education is huge.
Karen Pascal: For our audience – which is pretty well an international audience. There’ll be people listening to this in England, in South Africa, certainly across the United States. That’s one of the biggest parts of our audience. It’s good for you to hear us talk from the base of Canada and the reality of what we know is going on here. And it travels. It’s happening everywhere, this kind of reality of injustice. And I so agree with you that our school systems need to transform, our educational systems, our work conditions, all those kinds of things need to reflect a new normal, if there is such a thing. And we need to be part of making that change happen. And I take it back to the circle that you are in, the place you’re in, whether it’s your church or your community, or your workplace or your school: What can you do to be more welcoming? What can you do to honor the reality of God in all others with no exceptions, to honor that God lives there? And he loves that human being as much as he loves you. So, it’s no longer fair or right to practise injustice.
Rick Tobias: You know, I believe it was Dr. King who said that the arc of history is bent towards justice, but the truth is there hasn’t been much justice in history. There haven’t been many, if any, civilizations and cultures that have been marked by justice. Our history is marked by incredible injustice. And to go back to where you started, we live at this moment in time where we have this incredible pause. And I think one of the great things that could come out of this incredible pause is that we could be with Dr. King and we could help bend the arc of history towards justice in a way that perhaps it has never been bent before. That’s our opportunity. That’s our challenge. And that’s our failure, if we don’t do it.
Twenty years ago, 30 years ago in the church, we didn’t talk much about justice. We were still fighting the battle for compassion. We were still trying to get Christians to think compassionately. And it’s only been since Henri died, that justice has become a big word. And so, if you go through Henri’s stuff looking for “justice,” I’m sure you’ll find it, but you won’t find it as often, but you will find “compassion” over and over again. And you’ll find “community” over and over again. And community for him is all- encompassing. And in one of the quotes I found, he says essentially along the lines of, “we can’t be judging because if we’re judging, we actually can’t be open to accept people, and we can’t bring them into our communities.” And so, the stuff is there. And I have no doubt; I’m with you. I think if Henri were alive today, he would probably be marching in the Black Lives Matter events. He would probably be with the missing and murdered indigenous women. He would have things to say.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting for me, because it’s very important for our audience to get the fact that if Henri was alive today, he would be taking a knee. He would be marching with the Black Lives Matter. He’d be in the forefront, because he got it when he was here. It absolutely fascinated him when he came to North America, the whole Martin Luther King, he got it. And he wanted to be part of it. And when Martin called for the pastors to come, he came. That’s what was a reality: he heard that call and he was one of those people who said, “If I’m a follower of Jesus, I’m going to be there.”
Rick Tobias: And 99% of the people who I know who think about Henri, only think about spiritual formation, you know, and yet I think about his involvement just with the street-level community in Canada. And I couldn’t tell you how he made himself available to people all across Canada who were working with the poor. And they would ask, they would phone. When we did the Street Level conferences, when other people were doing workshops, Henri and Sister Sue [Mosteller] would simply sit in a room and people would come and pour their hearts out. And they did that for the whole conference. They just sat there and people came and poured their hearts out. And I suspect that very, very, very many Protestants who had no idea what confessions were, made their confession to Henri and Sue.
Karen Pascal: I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. I really appreciate having this opportunity to talk with you, Rick. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.
Rick Tobias: Well, thank you. And we will talk again. And to anybody who stayed with us all the way through this, thank you so very much for listening. You’re very gracious.
Karen Pascal: We do thank you for listening to today’s podcast. I hope you enjoyed this interview with Rick Tobias. He has challenged us to listen and to act. If you did enjoy it, please share it with friends and family. And we would be grateful if you’d give us a good review or a thumbs-up.
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