Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

More ominous issue underlies Youth for Christ flap

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I was taking my daughter to lunch at the Fort Garry Hotel Tuesday when we ran into a frantic-looking Justin Swandel who was going as we were coming.

Suddenly, the chairman of city council's downtown development committee began spewing angst, like The Little Engine That Could, steaming up a hill.

Obviously, he was a man on a mission.

He told us he was trying to close a deal on an inner-city recreation complex involving millions of dollars in grants from the federal and city governments. But the provincial government was refusing to ante up.

Naturally, having written before about the desperate need for more recreation services in the street-gang-infested inner city, I offered to write something supportive.

Swandel looked startled.

No wonder. But then the man on a mission hadn't told me everything about the mission he was on.

 

"ö "ö "ö

Just like Swandel's private briefing with me, the next day's public announcement sounded -- at first -- like a huge win for the primarily aboriginal kids and families who live in the impoverished city core.

Youth for Christ, an evangelical organization with a missionary-centred mission statement, was proposing to create a $12-million youth-centred recreation project on a derelict lot at Higgins Avenue and Main Street.

A Youth for Christ news release summarized it this way: "A Centre For Youth Excellence envisions services that promote sport and recreation, character development, community health services for all youth (especially for low-income and high-risk youth) and spiritual formation opportunities from a Christian world view."

It's that carefully cloaked phrase "spiritual formation opportunities" that suggests Youth for Christ's underlying raison d'être.

They are out to convert aboriginal youth to Christianity.

Their website flatly says so.

"Youth for Christ Canada exists to impact every young person in Canada with the person, work and teachings of Jesus Christ and discipling them into the church."

The website goes on to get more specific about one youth group in particular.

"The aboriginal youth community is a prime area for development."

When a Free Press editorial writer asked Youth for Christ if that meant young people would be required to listen to a Christian lesson in order to participate, they emailed an answer that started this way: "All participation in faith-related activities is voluntary and motivated by the interests of the participants and/or parents/guardians."

A telephone conversation with local Youth for Christ boss John Courtney late Friday afternoon yielded a more direct answer. I suggested to Courtney that Youth for Christ workers operate similarly to those young Mormon missionaries. The ones with the signature white shirts and ties who, when I was a kid, befriended and played touch football with us in Assiniboine Park.

And then sat around on the grass casually talking about another friend they wanted us to meet: Jesus Christ.

"For sure," Courtney agreed, "there are occasions when that happens."

By "occasions," of course, he meant when the "occasion" was right.

What Youth for Christ is doing in helping kids is basically good work and their methods of converting them to Christianity are relatively soft sell.

My fundamental problem is the discordant echo I hear.

Systematic conversion -- and resulting subjugation of First Nations culture and religion -- by Ottawa-backed Christian organizations has a painful history in this country.

Ironically, it was Prime Minister Stephen Harper who stood in Parliament and issued an official apology for the horrors the residential school program still visits on the children of survivors.

That Grand Chief Ron Evans of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs would support the Youth for Christ project is even more baffling.

Inner-city youth desperately need alternatives to street gangs.

But those alternatives should not be delivered by people who want their souls in return.

There's another, even bigger issue suggested by the Youth for Christ project. And it goes beyond using federal and city taxpayers' money to fund proselytizing, no matter how well intentioned.

It's the concern Harper, given a majority government, would try to overlay his religious values on the laws of the land, in the process blurring the line that is supposed to separate church and state.

When funded by government, projects such as the Youth for Christ centre step right over that line.

All of which suggests what is of even more concern than this taxpayer-backed, faith-based youth centre.

A faith-based Canadian government.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 20, 2010 B1

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