Inclusivity isn’t just a buzzword at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto. It’s evident everywhere in the century-old Simpson Avenue building in the city’s east end, from the diverse faces of its congregation to the Buddha head statue perched atop a bookshelf in the pastor’s office.
On this spring afternoon, Rev. Jeff Rock is preparing for a Sunday service that touches on Asian Heritage Month, Jewish Heritage Month, Mother’s Day, and the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once.
“It’s this weird mash-up of everything together,” says Mr. Rock, referring as much to the church he’s been with since 2017 as his service. While the MCC Toronto has the traditional elements of a Christian church, including communion and the Lord’s prayer, it’s also known to play show tunes during service.
Now the MCC Toronto is adding to its eclectic mix. Late last month, the church launched its Elevation Campaign, aimed at raising money to reach the $5-million needed to open the Paul Austin Human Rights Centre. (It has already raised $4.75-million through private donations over the past years; and, since the public launch, it received an additional $50,000 in funds, looking to hit their target by end of year.) The goal is to take its human-rights work to the next level, says Mr. Rock, transforming the church into a gathering place to educate and empower people around issues such as Islamophobia, antisemitism and ableism.
“We’ve always been a human-rights church. This campaign is just having us be bold enough to declare it a little bit more loudly,” Mr. Rock says.
He’s talking about the church’s long legacy of social justice in the LGBTQ community: protesting against police violence in the Toronto bathhouse raids in the early 1980s, HIV/AIDS advocacy and support, and recognition as the site of the world’s first same-gender marriages in 2001.
MCC Toronto is moving into the human-rights space at an uneasy time for organized religion. In Canada, Catholic and Anglican churches are facing a reckoning for the wrongs committed against Indigenous people, and religious affiliation is on the wane. Canadians who identify as having a religious affiliation fell to 68 per cent in 2019, down from 90 per cent in 1985, according to Statistics Canada data from 2021.
At the same time, hate crimes are on the rise. Statscan notes 2,669 criminal incidents motivated by hate were reported to Canadian police in 2020 – an increase of 37 per cent from the previous year. While hate crimes based on race and ethnicity topped the 2020 list, particularly against Black and Jewish people, 10 per cent of victims were targeted because of their sexual orientation.
Mr. Rock is aware of these troubling trends, as MCC Toronto looks to build on its legacy of social justice work set out by his predecessor, Brent Hawkes, by establishing a human-rights centre.
MCC Toronto aims to hire a director for the human-rights centre this summer as well as start a youth empowerment program this fall, where, he says, the vision is to unite LGBTQ, Indigenous, racialized and disabled youth to learn the ropes of activism, such as petition writing, organizing a protest and how to make a deputation at city hall.
“This is how you fight for your rights and how you fight for each other’s rights and how you get your peers involved,” Mr. Rock says.
In addition to educational initiatives and building repairs, the campaign would also help the church leverage technology to amplify its message globally, he says, adding that IP addresses from more than 160 countries have tuned into the church’s offerings online.
Currently, Mr. Rock says, upward of 500 parishioners attend MCC Toronto services (online and in-person) each week – about one-quarter of the membership. While some congregates are still apprehensive about in-person gatherings because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he senses the human-rights centre will contribute to the recovery.
Reaching beyond the walls is one way for some denominations to regain popularity, but, if churches are going to attract younger members, they have to be inclusive, Mr. Rock says. “If you’re not an inclusive church, why would anybody who’s a millennial go there?”
In such a polarizing time, what remains universal is the human struggle for meaning and a sense of belonging, he says.
Sheryl Pollock has attended MCC Toronto for three decades. Throughout that time, the church has rolled out initiatives such as the LGBTQ refugee program and the Triangle Program, where LGBTQ students attend high school out of the church.
“I love that the human-rights centre we’re working on is so much broader than my life,” says Ms. Pollock, a part-time worship logistics lead at the church.
The energetic mix of tradition and progressiveness is what draws people in, she says, adding, “We’re all genders, ages, races.”
Congregate and volunteer Andre Langlois is enthralled with the music during services, but the sermons hit home in a way that previous experiences didn’t deliver. “Here, I feel the connection … and, also, of course, shame is put aside.”
Elevation Campaign co-chair Anne Brayley has been a congregate for about 35 years. She also previously served as board chair 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 have a larger role locally to bring many communities together to address these issues.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.