Imagine balloons and banners, streamers and pompoms. Imagine dancers waving flags and rattling tambourines. Imagine parading down a main street, singing songs about Jesus, to the beat of rock and reggae blasting from speakers on flatbed trucks. It’s flamboyant, exuberant and such a public display—certainly not a typical Christian worship service. Last year, 12 million Christians in 185 countries, including more than 110,000 Canadians, took to the streets for the lively, noisy celebration of their faith known as March for Jesus. Organizers expect that just as many will turn out on May 30 for the annual event, which has grown exponentially since its beginnings in the late ’80s.
“We have Roman Catholics marching alongside Baptists and Pentacostalists, the Salvation Army and Mennonites,” says Eric Phinney, an Anglican minister from Saint John, N.B., and president of the national committee.
“Our purpose is to worship God outside the walls of the church building.”
David Hallstead, a 17-year-old highschool student from Winnipeg, and one of 35,000 marchers in that city last year, plans to skateboard the threekilometre route with his friends next week. “People often see Christianity as a boring Sunday service,” he says.
“This is a side they don’t often see— it’s a big walking party.”
For several decades, mainstream religion appeared to be fading into obscurity, if not oblivion. In the 1950s and ’60s, church attendance tumbled to a low of approximately 30 per cent of the population—a number that remains stable, although more than 80 per cent of Canadians still call themselves Christian. “People stopped going to
church,” says Andrew Grenville, senior vice-president in Toronto for the Winnipeg-based Angus Reid Group polling firm. “But faith did not disappear, it just went underground.” And so did many public processions, a religious tradition that began in biblical times and continued into the late ’60s in Quebec, where most Catholics celebrated the feast of Corpus Christi by walking through their neighborhoods, stopping to pray at shrines set up in front of parishioners’ homes. The growing popularity of the March for Jesus suggests that many Christians may now be willing to profess their beliefs more visibly. “Our purpose is to celebrate our faith publicly,” says Pierre LeBel, organizer of the Montreal march,
Christians stage a public celebration
which attracts about 5,000 people. “We are dropping the embarrassment about religion.”
Why now? “These folks feel embattled,” says John Stackhouse, a University of Manitoba religion professor. He and other observers believe it is no accident that enthusiasm for public, contemporary worship is rising at a time when an increasing number of Christians perceive that the culture is becoming anti-Christian. “Christian values were the values of the nation,” says Gerry Bowler, director of Calgary’s Centre for the Study of Christianity and Contemporary Culture. “That is no longer true. WTiat we have seen in the past 20 years is not just a secularization of society, but a series of attacks on religion.” Pollster Grenville reports that 40 per cent of Canadians think religion does not get fair treatment in the press. And Bowler notes “a continuing trend to anti-Catholic humor in Canada, particularly in comedy groups out of the Maritimes, like Codeo, which uses Catholic priests as a stock figure.”
But Michael Markwick, executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League believes that the problem goes much deeper. “Being
called the most criminal organization outside the mafia—as Michael Enright did—has a sting to it,” he says.
Even worse, he argues, is the chill on Catholic values and beliefs in schools, the workplace and government institutions. “On Sundays, you are allowed to go and be a Christian,” he allows.
“But when it comes time to go to the office—it happens to everybody I know—you have to put all that aside, otherwise you are a threat.” Markwick is attempting to mobilize a lay movement against what he calls “a systemic barrier to the participation of Catholics in Canadian society today.”
High on their agenda is the introduction of legislation to allow hospital workers the freedom to refuse to participate in abortion and other procedures forbidden by their faith.
March for Jesus arose spontaneously, out of a spiritual vision, not a political motivation. Four friends, all charismatic Protestants, were clowning around during a tea break at London’s Westminster Chapel in 1988. When one complained that, despite a rigorous fitness program, he was gaining weight, another quipped that God probably wanted him to do a long prayer walk. That offhand remark blossomed a few months later into the 1987 March for Jesus through central London. The foursome, including British composer Graham Kendrick who writes the music for the marches, expected 5,000—and 15,000 turned up. Over the next decade, with little publicity or media attention, the march spread around the world, even to remote communities in the Arctic, Japan and Mongolia. “It is still run on kitchen tables, financed on a wing and a prayer,” says Lorna Dueck, co-host of the Christian TV show 100 Huntley Street and a former director of March for Jesus Canada. “Expenses have gone on people’s personal Visa cards— that’s how grassroots this is.” Dueck became “a biased fan” when she covered the Winnipeg march as a freelance writer a few years ago. The attraction, she says, is “passion, energy and a feeling that we are not alone. The whole focus is on an audience of one: us to God. It was never intended to be political.”
But the conservative Markwick believes that Christians must take direct political action to protect their dwindling rights. He points out that on May 31, the day after the march, some 30,000 people—Catholics and leaders of several other denominations—will attend a special service led by Vancouver Archbishop Adam Exner in BC Place Stadium. “It’s all very well to walk in marches for this wonderful faith, and it’s all very well to gather in these wonderful assemblies,” says Markwick. “But the necessary next step is to find ways to live that faith more completely in one’s life.”
Grenville believes that most Christians are content with the status quo. “If everyone who was Christian went out marching, the roads would have to be closed down,” he says. Still, he suggests that it may be a hint of what is to come: “I think you’ll see a reassertion of a discernably Christian attitude. They are saying: Why have we not contributed to the public discourse for all these years? Why have we been silent?” Stackhouse agrees that the marchers are only a small minority. “But it takes only 5,000 books to make an authentic bestseller in Canada,” he argues. “A small minority, galvanized and well
directed, can make a huge difference. When you get 35,000 people doing anything together in Winnipeg—that is an awful lot of people.”
March for Jesus organizers are much less ambitious about the impact. “It’s a one-day event,” says LeBel. ‘We’re not going to change the face of the world overnight.” Apart from a few catcalls, water bombs and plenty of stares, reaction to the event has been quite benign. Last year, however, some residents of London, Ont., decided that the event was not appropriately multicultural and staged a march for Mohammed the following week.
Perhaps most importantly, March for Jesus triggers an open debate about the place of religion in Canada. With complaints about so-called Christian bashing on the rise, reaction is clearly divided. Suresh Kurl, a 57-year-old Hindu civil servant from Richmond, B.C., says he deplores the “political correctness” that keeps prayer and references to Christmas out of schools and assumes that “it would not be respectful to talk about God in front of a diverse group of students, as though diversity and intolerance are mutually intolerable.” Kurl adds: “I get nervous because maybe somebody will stand up and say, ‘You can’t celebrate Diwali.’ ”
The issues seem clearer in the stark, confined space of a prison. In 1995, a group of 18 prisoners at Stony Mountain Institution took balloons, taped music and banners into the exercise yard and, with the encouragement of the Catholic chaplain, Sister Carol Peloquin, held their own March for Jesus. “It was kind of tense,” recalls Terry Repula, a 42-year-old inmate at the prison, north of Winnipeg. “The attitude in prison is: if you’ re a Christian you’re no good. That is why so many are afraid to attend chapel.” Most of the men stopped and stared at the marchers. “It was a powerful experience,” recalls Peloquin. “They took the whole yard by surprise. There may have been the odd comment, but it was really cheerful. I think the balloons and the music disarmed people.” Still, Repula, who “turned to the Lord” after he received a life sentence, says that a few weeks later there was a minor incident when another inmate threw rocks at him and the other marchers. But Repula continued to march, and this year expects about 50 inmates to join him. “It is exhilarating,” he says. “The march is a chance to share my faith.” □
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