For the Sake of the Common Good, an essay collection celebrating Very Rev. Lois Wilson’s life and work, recently hit the bookshelves. Now 95, The United Church of Canada’s first female moderator — who is also a former senator and past president of both the World Council of Churches and the Canadian Council of Churches — talks legacy.
On her favourite part of the book: There are many. I’m thankful for Allan Saunders’ chapter on my faith, “Witness to God’s Lament and Laughter.” He got it all right. Usually when people write about me, they don’t get it right.
He included the strong influence of my parental home in Winnipeg, and the influence of my early family canoe trips on my view of ecology, which are usually omitted. He recognized how my experiences shaped my theology, and the interaction between scripture and my own life. He got right my growth from a solely United Church to an ecumenical framework.
On the legacy of her generation of United Church activists: It’s our eagerness for social justice, which is based on the prophets (Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus). In the Senate, people say politics and religion don’t mix. But faith has to influence public policy. In terms of legacy, I hope we establish a good record on climate change. It’s the biggest crisis of our time.
On colonialism: Former moderator Stan McKay’s chapter shows that the land and children were stolen and that Indigenous Canada was thrown into complete chaos. There are more children in foster care than were in residential schools. Separating children from parents is a tragedy.
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On land acknowledgments: Words only go so far. Then there has to be action, restitution, leading to possible reconciliation. The current fashion of land acknowledgment trips off the tongue easily, without any obligations — financial, political or other.
On feminism: When I was in the World Council of Churches, I helped launch the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women in 1988. One minister stood up and said, “Well, I have no trouble with my wife, so…” And another one said, “I’ll give you one year, not 10.” I remember thinking, “Uh, I wasn’t asking you to ‘give’ me anything. But I know it’ll take you a full 10 years to figure that out.”
On the war in Ukraine: I was in university when the Second World War started. I never thought my kids would have to watch another world war starting. It really pains me to see it.
On the secularization of activism: God is at work all over the world. Whether it’s recognized or not is beside the point. I recognize it. Whether people do or don’t have a faith, the question is, what can we do together?
On what she’s most proud of: My children, my 12 grandchildren, my nine great-grandchildren.
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On what she’s least proud of: All the things I should have done but didn’t. As you get older, you review your life constantly — things you should have done or said. That’s what faith is about, what forgiveness is about. The confession of sin and absolution are crucial to my faith. Things we’ve done and left undone: that’s what we confess. It’s the core of the Christian faith.
On where she hears God’s lament: In Ukraine. People who suffered under COVID. Indigenous people who have lost their identity, lands and governments. Those are some of the laments. The whole refugee situation, which is getting worse with climate change. There’s so much to lament. If you lament too much, you drown.
On where she hears God’s laughter: In people recovering their communities after COVID. Anyone restoring community is God’s laughter.
On her life now: I’m living in a seniors’ home in Toronto, puttering around. Half of the retired University of Toronto is here. There’s a lot of international experience among the residents. I’ve never heard of another place like this. The staff support us, but we do the programs. There’s an Amnesty group, an Indigenous group, a climate change group. There’s a lot of expertise here.
On her advice to younger women:
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. It first appeared in Broadview’s July/August 2022 issue with the title “Faith has to influence public policy.”
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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