Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

New KAIROS leader has Manitoba roots

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The last time KAIROS made a splash in the news, it was almost a year ago during the infamous "not" affair.

You may recall the story: In 2009, the church-based social justice organization learned its application for $7 million from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) had mysteriously been denied -- despite initially being approved by senior CIDA officials.

That decision led to an uproar in the House of Commons over the reasons for the denial, and over who put the word "not" in the document that overrided the original decision to grant funding to KAIROS. The ensuing controversy pushed the organization into national headlines.

Since that time, not very much has been heard in the media about KAIROS.

The coalition of 11 Canadian church groups has been quietly going about its work of promoting human rights and sustainability around the world.

But now KAIROS is back in the news. This time it's about the appointment of a new executive director -- and there's a Manitoba connection.

It was more than 20 years ago that Jennifer Henry, 44, left for Ontario. But the new head of KAIROS says her commitment to social justice was developed right here in Winnipeg.

"I grew up in a community where there was a strong commitment to the social gospel," says Henry, a former member of St. Paul's Fort Garry Anglican Church.

While in Winnipeg, the University of Manitoba graduate was involved with a number of local groups and causes and also worked in Christian education at St. Alban's Anglican Church and with the United Church in the North End.

"I was influenced by the Mennonite tradition of living out faith and the Catholic idea of working in solidarity with others," she says of her time in Manitoba.

Work in the church also helped her grow as a leader, teaching her how to "reflect theologically on issues and connect my faith to justice in the world."

After leaving Winnipeg in 1990, Henry worked briefly as a social worker in Toronto before joining KAIROS, where she has held a variety of positions -- including being the staff member responsible for the grant application that was turned down by CIDA.

Reflecting on that experience, Henry says "I was really proud of the way we held on to our vision and values in that process. I was awed by the way people and churches across the country rallied to support us."

At the same time, she believes the crisis made the organization stronger.

"It gave us an opportunity to clarify our vision," she says. "We have a stronger sense of who we are and it was an opportunity for more people to learn about us."

The controversy also sparked a Canada-wide discussion about the best way to help people in the developing world.

"It was an important moment of discussion about what is the goal of international development, what we should be trying to promote," she observes.

Despite those positives, the loss of the funding cut deeply.

"We can't overestimate the effect it had on our partners," she says, noting the organization has been able to give them only 30 per cent of what would have been received with the CIDA funding.

The cut also required the organization to reduce staff; a couple of positions were lost through attrition.

One of Henry's first priorities as the new executive director will be fundraising.

The bulk of the organization's budget -- $2.7 million this year -- comes from contributions from member church groups. But many of those groups are experiencing financial challenges of their own, which means KAIROS will need to look for money from other sources.

"It's critical to strengthen our connection to churches, but also be open to seeking other funding," she says.

Henry wants to add more youth to the ranks of the organization's supporters, but in a way that builds bridges between older and younger people.

"We want to strengthen our connection to young adults and also connect them with our older members," she says.

"We want to combine the wisdom of older people with the energy of younger people."

In spite of the challenges, Henry is optimistic about the future.

"Now it's time to build on the momentum we have," she says, adding she doesn't want KAIROS to be known "only in relation to a crisis."

She also wants to "preserve the ecumenical nature of the organization, to continue to be a place where people of faith can show their commitment to social and ecological justice.

"What makes us unique is being rooted in a faith tradition. This is a voice we don't want to lose in the public sphere."

Looking ahead, Henry says KAIROS has "a strong program, dedicated staff, a supportive base of churches and individuals. We are moving forward with confidence and vibrancy."

jdl562000@yahoo.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 17, 2012 J13

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