Toronto’s Metropolitan Community Church wants to take its social justice work to the next level with a human rights center project

Reverend Jeff Rock at the Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto on May 5.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Inclusiveness isn’t just a buzzword at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto. It’s evident everywhere in the century-old building on Simpson Avenue in the east of the city, from the diverse faces of its congregation to the statue of the Buddha’s head perched atop a shelf in the pastor’s office.

On this spring afternoon, Reverend Jeff Rock prepares for a Sunday service that touches on Asian Heritage Month, Jewish Heritage Month, Mother’s Day and film Everything everywhere all at once.

“It’s this weird mix of everything together,” Mr. Rock says, referring as much to the church he’s been with since 2017 as to his service. While MCC Toronto has the traditional elements of a Christian church, including communion and the Lord’s Prayer, it has also been known to play show tunes during the service.

Now MCC Toronto is adding to its eclectic mix. Late last month, the church launched its Uplift Campaign, aiming to raise funds to reach the $5 million needed to open the Paul Austin Human Rights Center. (He’s already raised $4.75 million through private donations over the past few years, and since the public launch he’s received $50,000 in additional funds, aiming to reach his goal by the end of the year. year.) The goal is to take his human-rights work to the next level, Mr. Rock says, transforming the church into a gathering place to educate and empower people around issues such as Islamophobia , anti-Semitism and ableism.

“We have always been a human rights church. This campaign forces us to be bold enough to declare it a little louder,” says Mr. Rock.

He speaks of the church’s long legacy of social justice in the LGBTQ community: protesting against police violence during the Toronto bathhouse raids in the early 1980s, advocacy and support for HIV/AIDS, and recognition as as the site of the world’s first same-sex weddings in 2001.

MCC Toronto is entering the human rights space at a difficult time for organized religion. In Canada, the Catholic and Anglican churches face judgment for wrongs committed against Indigenous peoples, and religious affiliation is on the decline. Canadians who identify as having a religious affiliation fell to 68% in 2019, from 90% in 1985, according to Statistics Canada data from 2021.

At the same time, hate crimes are on the rise. Statscan notes that 2,669 hate-motivated criminal incidents were reported to Canadian police in 2020, a 37% increase from the previous year. While hate crimes based on race and ethnicity topped the 2020 list, particularly against blacks and Jews, 10% of victims were targeted because of their sexual orientation.

Mr. Rock is aware of these troubling trends, as MCC Toronto seeks to build on its legacy of social justice work established by its predecessor, Brent Hawkes, by establishing a human rights center.

MCC Toronto aims to hire a director for the human rights center this summer and launch a youth empowerment program this fall, where, he says, the vision is to unite LGBTQ, Indigenous, racialized youth and disabled to learn the ropes of activism. , such as writing a petition, organizing a demonstration and how to make a deputation at city hall.

“That’s how you fight for your rights and how you fight for everyone’s rights and how you engage your peers,” says Mr. Rock.

In addition to educational initiatives and building repairs, the campaign would also help the church leverage technology to amplify its message globally, he said, adding that IP addresses from more than 160 countries have connected to online church offerings.

Currently, Rock says, more than 500 parishioners attend MCC Toronto services (online and in-person) each week, about a quarter of the membership. While some worshipers still fear in-person gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he feels the human rights center will aid recovery.

Going beyond the walls is a way for some denominations to regain popularity, but if churches want to attract younger members, they need to be inclusive, Rock says. “If you’re not an inclusive church, why would someone who’s a millennial go?”

In such a polarized time, what remains universal is the human struggle for meaning and a sense of belonging, he says.

Reverend Jeff Rock is a senior pastor at the church, which recently launched its Elevation campaign to raise the remaining $225,000 needed to meet its $5 million goal to establish the Paul Austin Human Rights Center.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Sheryl Pollock has been at MCC Toronto for three decades. Throughout this time, the church has rolled out initiatives such as the LGBTQ Refugee Program and the Triangle Program, where LGBTQ students attend high school outside of the church.

“I love that the human rights center we’re working on is so much bigger than my life,” says Ms Pollock, a part-time worship logistics manager at the church.

The energetic mix of tradition and progressiveness is what draws people in, she says, adding, “We are all genders, ages, races.

Congregation and volunteer André Langlois is captivated by the music during services, but the sermons hit in a way that previous experiences had not delivered. “Here, I feel the connection…and, also, of course, the shame is put aside.”

Elevation campaign co-chair Anne Brayley has been a congregation for about 35 years. She also served as chair of the board from 2014 to 2017, when Mr Hawkes retired.

She traces the church’s social justice work back to Mr. Hawkes’ advocacy for equal rights. However, she says, given the current climate of rising hate crimes and inequality, the role of human rights activism is only increasing.

“We can play a bigger role at the local level to bring many communities together to address these issues.”

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Norma P. Rex