It’s a question that is as timeless as it is timely: how do we love our neighbours even when we really disagree with their beliefs and their actions?
That question has loomed prominently in the thoughts of St. Albert United Church Reverend Mervin Gallant and community organizer Ufuoma Odebala-Fregene, who is the head of the Reez Community Foundation. Rev. Gallant was recently on sabbatical and spent some time meeting variously with LGBTQ community members, people of various ethnicities and those receiving services from social agencies such as the St. Albert Food Bank and Community Village.
It was upon his return that he started to organize a new and ongoing series of public talks called ‘What Does It Mean To Love Our Neighbour: A Community Exploration,’ to take place on the first and third Wednesdays of every month. The church recently hosted its first presentation on fostering a greater peace and understanding in the world featuring representatives of the LGBTQ2S+ community.
“It's providing a space for community groups to come in to share their story, and to have a conversation about what it means to be supportive and walk in solidarity with one another,” he began.
“Our theological rationale starting point as a church, because that's where we start from, would be the passage from the Gospel of Matthew 22 verses 36 to 40, where it talks about the greatest commandment being loving God with all your heart, your mind and your soul, and your neighbour as yourself. The basic tenets that we're working with there, number one, are respecting the neighbour for whom they understand themselves to be, to respect them non-judgmentally, and secondly, a commitment to getting to know the neighbour and growing and understanding of what walking in mutual, loving solidarity could look like.”
Odebala-Fregene is a legal professional and a Canadian immigration consultant, as well as a registered social worker who worked with the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the United Kingdom. She established the Reez Community Foundation as a non-profit organization dedicated to providing assistance and social advocacy to community members.
Social justice, in other words, is important to her professionally as well as personally.
“Essentially, what we're trying to do is engage people on structures to facilitate in helping the community deal with life challenges and enhance well-being specifically using a race equality lens,” she said. “We engage things like social determinants of health and sustainable development goals. We're specifically targeting those areas where we know disparity already exists from historical and contemporary racism challenges.”
The presentation will see her first share details about her work toward a kinder, more respectful, healthier, and safer community. She will address the theme of managing people’s fight or flight reactions when encountering people performing acts of racism.
She hopes to help people not only better identify such acts but also learn how to deal with them in a progressive and positive manner.
These conversations, she continued, are not necessarily easy ones but they are definitely important even vital ones to have.
“People talk about safe spaces. For me, this is really a brave space. It’s people leaning into their discomfort. It’s not comfortable for me talking about it and it's certainly not comfortable for them listening about it. But if we need to bring a mindfulness as part of what we're doing to facilitate that conversation and just owning it and just recognizing that this is not an easy topic, this is part of each one of us getting a better understanding of who we are as individuals, and how we relate with each other and the world and what we can do to make it better.”
“The theme is ‘love thy neighbour.’ We’re really starting from the place of love. In this place, we are trying to be kind to one another in our attempts to have an honest conversation.”
The presentation and discussion will take place from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Wed., Oct. 16. The St. Albert United Church is located at 20 Green Grove Dr. Attendance is free. Call 780-458-8355 for more information. Visit stalbertunited.ca to check the calendar for upcoming events.