For the 19th year, the Christian Reformed Church campus ministry at the University of Toronto opened the academic year with an early morning service lamenting the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Using Luke 1:39-56 as his sermon text in the Wycliffe College chapel, Dr. Brian Walsh, director of the campus ministry, linked Mary’s words in the prayer known as the Magnificat to Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a plane crash landed in a farm field in Pennsylvania.
“Where do we find ourselves in the abrasive prayer that Mary (the mother of Jesus) prays as we look to the anniversary of 9/11?” asked Walsh as he stood in front of worshippers arranged in chairs on either side of the altar.
Worship like this takes place on campus every Tuesday morning during the school year. It is known as “Wine Before Breakfast” because of the opportunity offered during the liturgy to partake in communion before joining together for a communal breakfast in the campus ministry offices.
This worship community began 19 years ago, just after Sept.11, 2001, when Walsh and others decided to hold this gathering as a way to offer lament and acknowledge pain while “the smoke was still smouldering … and the world was in a state of deep shock.”
The liturgy begins at 7:22 a.m. and has become a church home for many people, and not just students. Faculty, alumni, ministry workers from across Toronto and others were there this year on Sept. 10, 2019. They were drawn by a special blend of Anglican liturgy and Reformed prayer and preaching in an inclusive community.
In the Magnificat, Walsh pointed out, Mary prays words such as, “He (God) has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.”
Besides Wine Before Breakfast, this campus ministry offers a weekly time of fellowship for graduate students, and a chance for graduate students to train to become leaders in all dimensions of life. It also has a fellowship for faculty.
Although he is director of the campus ministry, Walsh actively involves others, both those in the ministry and beyond, to take on preaching duties.
Wine Before Breakfast always tries to present a gospel that challenges people to expand their understanding of what really is good news, calling them to share and live out their faith authentically and to always challenge those who are in power and oppress others.
Mary was a young woman, said Walsh, who reminds us that God is on the side of those who struggle and have little —- those who have been pushed to the margins of society.
“Mary knows that praise and protest always go together, knows the holiness of God is always about justice,” said Walsh.
“So can we sing the Magnificat on September 10, 2019? Dare we sing the Magnificat at 7:22 in the morning, while the powerful remain in their boardrooms?”
Deb Whalen-Blaize, the music director, has the freedom to choose from a wide range of music genres. That can be rock, jazz, folk or anything else that fits. She also uses many songs out of Lift Up Your Hearts, the CRC hymnal, and the Anglican hymnal.
The key is to express the ideas and prayers running through the liturgy. “We want music that resonates, that has resonance with the theme of the service — such as the Magnificat today,” said Whalen-Blaize after the service.
For the liturgy on Sept. 10, she chose as the prelude “Mothers of the Disappeared,” a song by the popular band U2 about mothers in Argentina who protested before the presidential palace the kidnapping and killing of their children. In part, the lyrics read: “Midnight, our sons and daughters cut down, taken from us. Hear their heartbeat. We hear their heartbeat.”
The next song was “Canticle of the Turning” by Rory Cooney. A song based on the Magnificat, it begins: “My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the God of my heart is great.” The final piece was “Dancing Barefoot” by Patti Smith. Tying in with the theme of the day, one verse reads: “She is the essence of thee. She is concentrating on He who is chosen by thee.”
Also included in the service was a litany of lament, based on the Magnificat and written in free-verse, poetic style. In part, this read: “We are waiting, waiting for those who are called by name, waiting for the poor to receive your Kingdom, waiting on the streets of Toronto, waiting in the refugee camps ….”
Everything in the liturgy leads to communion. This is the 'wine' in Wine Before Breakfast and functions as the heart of the liturgy. In breaking the bread this morning, Anglican priest Rev. Susan Spicer said, “In the face of hunger, you are bread. In the face of deep thirst, you are wine….”
When the service ended, people gathered downstairs for coffee, tea, bread and jam in Walsh’s spacious, book-filled office. Besides serving as chaplain, he has taught for decades at the University of Toronto School of Theology of which Wycliffe College, an Anglican seminary, is part.
He and his wife, Dr. Sylvia Keesmaat, also a theology professor at the Toronto School of Theology, live on a farm a few hours outside Toronto, and when he is in town he sleeps on the couch in his office.
“From the first service of Wine Before Breakfast, things have been invariably heavy. We are a community that is not afraid to lament,” said Walsh, who came to the University of Toronto in 1996. “We were not offering something entertaining to keep you coming back.”
Carmen Schultz is working on a master’s degree in pastoral studies. This had been her first time at Wine Before Breakfast. After meeting with Walsh, she decided to give it a try and she was glad she came.
“I’m looking to express my faith in new ways,” she said. “I respond with the idea of having an active faith. What does it mean to have faith in a world that is ignoring the environment and is all about making money?” she asked. “If my faith is not engaging the world, what does it mean to be saved?”
James Sholl, a pastor at Wellspring Worship Center in Toronto, comes to Wine Before Breakfast when he has the time to find refreshment for a busy ministry that includes working with youth at his church and prisoners in jail. What he heard in the sermon that morning reinforced how he views Scripture.
“I read the Bible as a subversive document,” he said. “Coming to Wine Before Breakfast, you see they aren’t offering a cookie-cutter approach. Often, if someone feels they don’t fit in in other churches, they fit in here.”
Peter Greidanus takes time out of his work at an electronics calibration laboratory to attend Wine Before Breakfast. He grew up in the CRC, but drifted away 10 or so years ago, unhappy with the messages and overall tenor of the services. They just didn’t touch him in the way he wanted.
He was looking around for another church when he heard Brian Walsh speak at Redeemer University College in Ancaster. He stopped by Wine Before Breakfast and almost immediately felt at home.
“This is not the standard campus ministry set up,” he said. “It’s not just about standing alone in your faith…. And I liked how they do music. It’s not usual church music.”
Attracting Gideon Strauss to Wine Before Breakfast is that it offers a mix of rich Reformed theology and a progressive approach to Christianity — for some people, he said, a contraction in terms, given there is a notion that being Reformed requires you to hold to conservative views of the Bible and society.
“My theology is Christian Reformed. I am a Kuyperian (following the thought of Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper),” said Strauss, academic dean of the Institute for Christian Studies, which is on the University of Toronto campus.
“I appreciate Wine Before Breakfast’s rock-solid preaching and I’m startled time and again by how well the songs are deeply integrated in the liturgy.”
Attending the weekly service is emotionally, intellectually and spiritually moving, said Strauss. A spirit moves through the service, creatively opening him to wider vista of God at work and alive in the world. Everything works together, from the prelude, through the Scripture reading and the litany, to the Eucharist, the breaking of the body and pouring out of the blood of Christ.
Strauss said that when he takes the bread and drinks the wine, he is reminded — in a way that is hard to describe — of the example of self-giving love that Jesus showed by facing the violence of the Romans and going willingly to his death. He added that in taking the Eucharist before breakfast, recalling this sacrificial act, he joins in a community that tries every day to live out a full-fledged gospel that speaks to all things.
“Wine Before Breakfast creates a texture and offers a meaningful experience at a time of turmoil for me and culturally. It can be a shelter and give shape to your life. I see this as a pioneering ministry.”