By Dr. Oz Cole-Arnal (far left in photo), former professor emeritus at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary
As a “once upon a time” born-again fundamentalist Lutheran, nurtured and raised in a Pennsylvania steel town near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who bought into that epoch’s anti-Catholicism and anti-Communism, I reflected the standard “White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant—Male” (WASP-M) privilege while being blithely unaware of the advantages this reality provided. My intense discovery of the quintessential Protestant core belief that we are made right with God, through no works of our own but solely though divine love manifested through Christ’s cross and made personal through trust in this radical God of love, combined with my academic love and success, led me to the ordained Lutheran ministry and the hope of teaching New Testament after a stint in parish ministry. Such a dream was turned on its head by a more profound conversion on the evening of April 4, 1968 when the blood of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. poured out on the balcony of Memphis, Tennessee’s Lorraine Motel. At the very moment I heard the news of his death, I feel to my knees and through my tears, vowed never to be silent in the face of injustice. Whether or not I have been true to that pledge remains in God’s loving hands, precisely where it belongs, but I highlight here one glorious moment of a fifty-year pilgrimage that I celebrate to this very day.
Fast-forward to June, 1996, when the Michael Harris Tory government declared war on Ontario’s vulnerable poor and organized labor, marking a provincial portent of things to come in neo-liberalism’s corporate offensive nationally (Canada and the United States) and globally which we see crushing Jesus’ beloved poor, vulnerable and discarded world-wide. Over against this pro-corporate Harris regime was the Ontario Federation of Labor, especially its more militant public sector unions (teachers, hospital workers, etc.) attacked by Harris and his minions, and the Canadian Autoworkers (CAW). Over the first two decades of my seminary teaching at our Waterloo institution I had laid the groundwork with the union movement locally and with Jim Turk, Ontario’s action-oriented labor leader among university educators. Labor activists were introduced to speak to my students, and I joined marches and local pickets with my trade-union brothers and sisters. Also, from my earliest teaching days I connected with progressive Christian groups locally, provincially and nationally.
But to my mind these seeds planted from 1975-1995 came to a powerful head though the interface of my course on Canadian Liberation Theology and the massive marches against the despicable Harris’ regime in four major urban centers, including our own Waterloo Region. In the face of the new government’s massive cuts to social welfare, Carol Schlueter, a friend and colleague, and I began to mobilize an action-oriented group we named the Interfaith Movement for Social Justice (IFMSJ) to protest the Harris’ regime’s assault on the poor. I invited my militant labor brothers and sisters to speak to my classes, and it was, especially in the Liberation Theology Class, built upon an action→reflection→action model, that a core group of students brought their colleagues on board to be a non-violent fighting wedge in both the IFMSJ and in the mass march local Day of Action in June, 1996. Although our IFMSJ counted barely over three hundred activists, we joined the labor union masses to the tune of between 30,000 to 40,000 marchers, easily the largest protest in the history of our locality. I was asked to be part of the core planning committee, based on a combination of the IFMSJ’s demonstrated commitment to the cause and my history of solidarity with the cause of labor. To this day I cherish the privilege of witnessing to Christ’s radical solidarity with “the poor of the land” both by invitation to march with labor leaders at the front of the line and to take the microphone and give a brief justice homily to the gathered thousands.
Yes, it was an exhilarating moment in time, but it did not achieve the general strike we had envisioned. Yet personally it served a decisive step in that continuing pilgrimage of a previous arrest by Ottawa police (1990), Holy Communion taken in the midst of tear gas in Quebec City (2001), shutting down Bay Street (our Wall Street) after 9/11, coalition building provincially (Common Front), and globally (World Forum, Quebec City) and our local Alliance Against Poverty (2008-2018).. In these final days, to my surprise and pleasure I have met a handful of militants of all ages who have thanked me personally for either my book on the French worker-priests or my Canadian liberation theology text. Yes, sometimes the academy finds its way into the streets, and during those moments in my life’s journey it continues to feel like a walk worth continuing, a pilgrimage that involves my debt to Dr, King and to that radical peasant messiah from Galilee that I am called to serve.