As part of a panel discussion helping to mark the 50th anniversary of the Centre for Public Dialogue, Kathy Vandergrift spoke about how being raised in the Christian Reformed Church helped her to realize that faith in God relates to all of life.
This belief helped to shape the direction of her life.
“I look for the bigger picture of what it means to be a Christian,” she said in an interview. “Joining the work of the center was a way to fulfill my calling. Working for justice most expresses that larger vision of the gospel.”
The Centre for Public Dialogue — along with its supporting committee, the Committee for Contact with the Government — celebrated 50 years of ministry among the Christian Reformed churches in Canada at a gathering Thurs., Nov. 8, at the Anglican Church of St. John the Evangelist in Ottawa, Ont.
Mike Hogeterp, director of the center, opened the event by offering some of the history and a look at the advocacy work in which the group has been involved. After that, a panel titled “Just Women” took place.
The panel served as a way to celebrate the gifts of women in helping to lead the charge in fighting for social justice, both inside and outside the CRC, for five decades.
“My first task here is to celebrate, commemorate, and mark a history,” said Hogeterp.
Fifty years ago in November, he said, a small immigrant Reformed Christian community gathered to organize a national presence for the CRC in Canada. They called it an effort to “assume their full responsibility within national life as quickly as possible” (Acts of Synod 1966, p. 144).
One of the first acts of this national organization was the establishment of a standing Committee for Contact with the Government, out of which was born the Centre for Public Dialogue.
“It’s impossible to summarize those 50 years in a few minutes,” Hogeterp explained. “But the real truth is that justice and reconciliation work is as messy and imperfect as the people and institutions it springs from. I think we can say that the center has worked with depth on a wide spectrum of issues and has done so from a good heart.”
Through theological reflection and dialogue, research, nonpartisan advocacy and citizen empowerment, the center has addressed major issues of justice and reconciliation in Canada.
These include issues of life and death, immigration and refugees, gambling, pluralism and religious freedom, pornography, marriage and family, poverty and affordable housing, environment and climate change, peace and development, human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, assisted human reproduction, Indigenous self-determination, and more.
“In addition to this breadth of issues, we have a history of encouraging our denomination’s participation in interchurch cooperation for justice,” said Hogeterp.
Although the center hasn’t always been perfect in how it worked on on every issue, he said, it has approached its work with sensitive listening, discernment, faithfulness, and humility.
“Part of the messy and beautiful journey of justice is gratitude,” Hogeterp added. “And I’m grateful for people who have shaped our work for these 50 years. Many of the people connected to the work of the committee and the center have been key leaders in the CRC in Canada.”
Hogterp mentioned a few leaders who brought their God-given gifts to help in justice work. There were such early members as Remkes Kooistra and Christina Pleizier; visionaries such as Arie VanEek and Gerald Vandezande; discerning thinkers like Kathy Vandergrift, Mark Vandervennen, and Stephanie Baker Collins.
Then, said Hogeterp, there have been those such Diana Boot and Bill Veenstra, who helped the center to navigate through the political system; leaders such a Louisa Bruinsma and Barb VanKoot, who didn’t shy from taking on tough issues; and those such as Ray Elgersma, Thyra VanKeeken, and Curtis Korver, who provided welcome pastoral leadership.
“Each of these people — and many more — have played key roles in CCG’s work to discern and act according with the spirit of the times,” he said.
Hogeterp wrapped up his presentation by speaking about the evening’s panel of women leaders. As organizers were planning the event, the #metoo movement was gaining momentum, and coordinators decided it would be important to highlight the work and challenges women have faced over the years.
“Polarization, populism, and systemic injustice can cause us to despair for gender and social justice. But history shows us that despair is not an option that women of courage have taken,” he said. “In faith-based justice work . . . women have been central and faithful leaders.”
Besides Vandergrift, the panel included former Centre for Public Dialogue intern Anna Vogt, current member Samia Saad, and Deborah Mebude, communications coordinator at Citizens for Public Justice. Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan, justice communications team coordinator for the CRC, helped to facilitate the panel.
“They have all agreed to speak from their experience tonight as we discern the spirit of the times together,” said Hogeterp.
Vandergrift made several points, among them that women have long been able to do justice work — as they can also offer ministry in the church — but they often face the issue of male authority.
For instance, she said, one year she wrote a series of brochures that were well received by churches, but she could not present the work publicly. That had to be done by man.
“Within that space, I learned to think strategically about which issues to take on,” she said.
She also has had to realize the importance of working on issues through secular organizations since, she said, “the church is often silent on justice issues that affect the real lives of women, such as domestic violence or recognizing the value of women’s work.”
All along, she has been involved in social justice work both in and outside the church.
“When I hear that the church is God’s tool for changing the world, I believe God uses his first creation – the world – to teach his people as much as his people teaching the world.”
Former Centre for Public Dialogue intern Anna Vogt said that for her it was inspiring to be on the panel and listen to others “share from diverse life experiences and to learn from their work about all the different avenues through which social change can happen.”
“As each person shared,” she said, “I was reminded of the importance of these spaces as a way of encouraging others to join in with the work of justice. There is so much that we can learn from each other, both around challenges and successes. I’m grateful for the work of the Centre for Public Dialogue and the change to learn and work together.”
Panelist Deborah Mebude, communications coordinator for Citizens for Public Justice, said she has long been impressed by and grateful for the ways in which the CRCNA has advocated for justice over the years.
“It was a pleasure to sit down with women who have dedicated their lives to loving their neighbor well,” she said. “As a young person, reflecting on the past with other ‘Just Women’ gave me hope about what’s possible. The future is bright.”
Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan said she was moved by hearing the history of the work women have done over the years to promote justice. It gave her a better sense of how she can continue in her own work.
“It was healing for me to be there,” she said. “I grew up in the midst of the women-in-office debate, which was difficult for me as a woman with leadership skills in the church. It was powerful for these four women to be highlighted and to hear all of the amazing things they had to say.”
She came away reminded that “seeking justice has been part of the church's work for a long time—since the beginning! Listening to these leaders' wisdom and experience provided encouragement to keep ‘seeking the good of the city’ for the long haul."
A major theme the panelists raised included how to work for justice in a way that allows us to stay committed for the long term. Here is a look at some of their advice:
- Choose one issue and commit.
- Tap out when you need to.
- Stay connected to nonchurch justice work opportunities as well, if those are energizing spaces for you.
- Celebrate the small victories.
- Pay attention to whose voice is not present, and use your influence to make sure those people have a place at the table.
- Justice work is a dance! Lean into the give and take. You will make mistakes, and that's okay.