“Disrupt, Heal, and Lead”: An Interview with The Rev. Wilson Akinwale

I sat down to interview The Rev. Wilson Akinwale about his new position as national board chair of the Black Anglicans of Canada. The day before our interview, he also received news of his appointment as the Anglican representative of the board  of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada on the anti-racism task force. In our conversation, we discussed Akinwale’s hopes for his new appointments and his larger hopes for a Black Anglican Church in Canada.

 

RLN: Could you describe your new role with the National Black Anglicans?

 

WA: As the National President and the Board Chair of Black Anglicans, I am the Chief Executive Officer of the organization. All the projects, assignments, and all the descriptions, they have to go through me and I have to ensure that I meet with the board and discuss them. I liaise between the national office [at General Synod], and the board of Black Anglicans of Canada.

We are revamping our website, and revamping many structures. We’re meeting with regional contacts, asking what is going on in their regions and asking if they have feedback and support our vision, mission and goal.

We have to be very respectful of people’s opinions. Jesus would not attack, Jesus would be subtle, Jesus would be kind, even when people would throw things at you. I also have to make sure that my voice is heard loud and clear. Sometimes it’s a voice in the wilderness, and sometimes the voice might not be comfortable but it’s good and healthy to engage in such conversations.

 

RLN: Can you tell me a bit about the history of Black Anglicans of Canada?

 

WA: There were several attempts to organize Black Anglicans in the past. First I’d like to pay a profound tribute to a faithful disciple, the Rev. Dr Romeney Roseley. Though Romney passed through many a fire in Canada, he lit a fire under the Anglican Church of Canada. His brief time in Toronto will long be remembered because of the report submitted to the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada in June 1992. This report, with recommendations, accompanied by a Study Guide, formed the basis for the Church’s Policy on Multiculturalism. Unfortunately, he did not have the opportunity to present the report to General Synod. It was published two years after his death with the title: ‘No Longer Strangers.’ As a result of this work, and with General Synod’s endorsement, many Dioceses in Canada established committees similarly named ‘No Longer Strangers.’  It was the leadership role of those committees to read, study, and pursue the recommendations made in the report.” View a tribute to him here.

There is a common African saying, “A river that forgets its source dries up in no time.” Our history matters because it helps us to take a look at the past with lenses or views of a new future.

In 2018, Richardson Consulting was contracted to discuss with Black Canadians in the Diocese of Toronto. The recommendations from that group were similar to The Union of Black Episcopalians: to advocate for justice and inclusion. The leadership team was selected and the vision, the mission, and mandate were developed in September of 2018 with a mission to expand across Canada. In early 2020, there was the COVID-19 pandemic, and then the George Floyd movement. We lost our brother, which was a wake up call to Black Anglicans and for the church in general. Bishop Peter Fenty, Irene Davis Moore, who is also an instructor at Huron theology, Brother Reginald Crenshaw, Lance Wilson, The Reverend Vernal Savage, Pastor Steve Greene, The Very Reverend Stephen Fields, The Reverend Canon Donald Butler, The Reverend Jacqueline Daley, Anita Gittens, Dolares Lawrence, Yvonne Murray, among others restarted BLAC in 2018. Bishop Peter Fenty, the first Black Bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada is our patron. He’s retired now, but still part of the team to ensure that some of the legacy he started lives on beyond him. Our leadership roles are voluntary roles. Some of us are priests, some are lay people, or professionals in different fields.

The passing of the final resolutions at Synod in 2022 in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land gave the national body a kind of a nod/impetus, that “yes, we can do this as well,” because at that time, the national body has not yet made moves for the passage of any motions at the General Synod.

No matter how small you want to start, you don’t know the impact you’re going to make. Just a few drops of water can make many ripples. You don’t know the people that will tap into that. And that actually helped set a pace for the national body.

I was contacted by the BLAC from Toronto early last year [and was told] “we’ve seen everything you guys are doing, how did you do it? [referring to the Synod resolution].” From there, I gave some insights about our constructive approach which gave helpful information with guidance of sharing  the final copy of our resolutions C2, C3, C4, and C5 with the interim leadership team led by Irene Davis Moore. These motions were then presented at the General Synod last year and these motions were passed. Prior to this after consultation, I became  the Director of Outreach and Partnership [For Black Anglicans of Canada]. And from there I was involved in reaching out to other provinces calling people from different provinces from BC to Quebec and even within Toronto. I was doing that with our current vice chair the Reverend Jacqueline Daley focusing on membership drive from coast-to-coast-to-coast.

As Director of partnership and outreach, I started connecting with older folks here in our Diocese. People that started Black Anglicans in the 90s. [People] like Patsy Grant, who was the first Black women national president of the Black Anglicans in 1982. Her rich and robust ideas helped us tap deep into our Black tapestry as Anglicans in Canada with cultural nuances in this Diocese and with folks at the national level including the Reverend Canon Sonia Hinds now in Barbados who was a former priest and Black Anglican advocate in the Diocese of Toronto.

When I realized all these connections, I started calling the Reverend Dr. Sonia Hinds who was in the Diocese of Toronto and is now in the Diocese of Barbados. I called The Reverend Canon Donald Butler, who started his priestly ministry in the Caribbean, [then moved to] the Diocese of Toronto, and is retired now. These people are alive, but [we need to] let them know that even when they are gone, their legacies live on. The Reverend Canon Donald Butler is now our Director in-charge of Justice and Advocacy.

There is a need for the new generation of Black Anglicans to take up the mantle of leadership. That was when I had conversations with a few folks, including our current vice chair the Reverend Jacqueline Daley. That was when I made my intention known to be elected as the National President and Board Chair. I was elected by acclamation on January 11 this year [2024] as the national president and the Board Chair of Black Anglicans. In the new leadership team we also have as our Board Secretary a member of the ELCIC because of our full communion with the Lutherans. This makes our team very diverse and rich with ideas.

 

RLN: There is a section about goals on the Black Anglicans website. The first one is about belonging and it says: “the goal is to develop and promote a culture change and liturgy policies and processes that will ensure that black culture is experiences in history and lived experiences reflected.” I was wondering if you could talk kind of about what that looks like for you?

 

WA: Recently, I did a presentation at Huron University College faculty of theology  [for a course titled] “Voices in the Wilderness.” I spoke on African languages, culture, and identity. From our perspective, we don’t have enough of that in the northern hemisphere, or in the Anglican Church of Canada. I still remember quite well, Bishop Geoff seems to understand the dynamics of  church culture, language, identity and faithful discipleship that bring everyone together and hence gave me a copy of the Church of Nigeria Anglican Communion liturgy to study which he believes can be very useful at some point here as a member of BLAC. This is a very good start where we can begin with black folks and the diocese and I think at some point, we will be using it. It’s about time we do this.

Remember, this decade was declared the Decade of the People of African Descent by the United Nations. This has to be reflected in every facet of our community and in the church of God as disciples. Thus, the onus is on us  to incorporate the language, the dynamics, the understanding of people of African descent into our liturgy. The liturgy has to be flexible in such a way that we can accommodate all the nuances of people of African descent. One of these motions that was passed [spoke to the need to develop new] policies [in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land]. Before the church makes new policies, we should think outside the box, we should think of people that do not look like them, people that do not speak like them, and people who have accents like me which I strongly believe is part of my identity of who I am and where I come from. We all have accents anyway.

Beyond that, how many Black people do we have? Get them engaged, get them involved, encourage them! [People] say, “Oh, they are not coming,” well maybe you are not encouraging them. We need to ask these questions, at the parish level, how many Black people are part of the vestry? How many Black Anglicans do we encourage at our local levels to chair board meetings?

Since we passed the motion, I must honestly say that I’ve been seeing changes. For example, we are not talking about a particular set of people or a region of Africa or Africans or our brothers and sisters from the Caribbean but in general. From what I heard recently, at St. Mary Magdalene, the treasurer is a Nigerian who is very active in the life of this parish. At St. Bartholomew’s where I am now a Rector/Incumbent, the peoples’ warden is also a Nigerian. And at St. Saviour’s Anglican Church, I understand there are other Africans who are also active in that community. That gladdens my heart! This is to show how discipleship can collectively shape the face of the church to gradually flatten the curves and to engage people of African descent to actively get involved in the church.

Last Saturday, the Bishop and I were at St. Mark’s Anglican Church. The priest there is a friend of mine and we know each other from Nigeria. We did his birthday celebration, the liturgy, and everything in an African way. I preached there and before my sermon, I started with a song. When it was time for thanksgiving, I called him forward and we all danced, we were drumming, we were having fun as we all danced to the altar where our Bishop Geoff blessed us with a prayer. In Africa, maybe you’re having a family celebration, birthday, or chieftaincy title in the community, and you want to celebrate: you come to church, you dance from the back and then you dance forward to the altar with your family members, friends and people in the community. When you get to the altar, either the Bishop, or the officiant, or the minister will then bless you and pray for you. That is how we do our things in  Africa, and fellow Black Anglicans are already asking me questions when we can start doing this. I tell them, just wait and let’s pray for guidance. Everything needs prayers and proper guidance of the Holy Spirit. It’s not about us, it’s about God and His mission in the world; we are just instruments in His hands and how we approach this really matters.

 

RLN: How do you go about changing people’s experience of church?

 

WA: I grew up as a cradle Anglican and a church boy with my dad being a priest who did full time ministry for over 50 years. At one point, my dad was very conservative, he was very strict to the letter of the liturgy because he trained in England, and he later returned as a priest to Nigerian and he was like, “we have to go through it like this, through this process.” But at some point, he started seeing the need for changes, and he wasn’t so far away from helpers who were willing and ready to support him. So from music to praise and worship, things have changed the way African Anglicans now worship. If the Anglican Church of Canada needs to adapt to change and welcome new ideas in worship, we need to open up a little bit to adapt to the cultural nuances of those people who want to worship God as other people do too, and with constructive dynamics that are healthy for the growth of the church.

 

My way of preaching is different. I try to be very dynamic. I don’t like to stay on the pulpit; I feel like I’m on top of everybody. I want to be in the midst of them. I like to move when I preach. My sermons are very interactive, very engaging. [When] I come to St. George’s on Sundays and I [am] in the midst of the church that really, really understands the dynamics of Anglican evangelical/contemporary worship. And from the feedback received from the pews, my interactions during sermons make them feel welcomed and comfortable and be free. It’s warm and fun.

 

About 65% to 70% of Nigerians here in Manitoba are Anglicans. Remember, the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) is among the first five countries where we have up to 8 million Nigerians that identify as Anglicans according to The Pew Research Center, if not more. Among these numbers there are many new immigrants coming to Canada to make their new home. But if they can’t get what they want to assuage their spiritual thirst, they’ll go to the Pentecostal churches or somewhere else. We have Nigerian Pentecostal churches here [in Winnipeg]. And from my experience, when I engage some of them they would say “I got married in an Anglican Church in Nigeria,” [or] “my dad was a priest, “we grew up as Anglicans”, etc.” But when they get to Canada, they go [to Pentecostal churches] because the Anglican Church can’t give them what they need spiritually here. For these excuses, we need to try or do things differently and the way we worship in the Anglican Church of Canada with the classic and contemporary worship. For example, I’d like you to watch the Youtube Channel St Paul’s Bloor Street Toronto and compare it to the way other parishes do church across Anglican Canadian churches. The difference is so clear because I must say that Bishop Jenny Andison, their Rector, understands the dynamics of the church and uses every opportunity to engage everyone to get involved. That’s how a church should be, because you want to always come to church when you experience God in that kind of atmosphere. I believe we all can do this if we are willing and ready to adapt to change.

 

I have had a similar conversation with Bishop Geoff in the past. At some point, he had suggested that it would be a very good idea we could have an African/Nigerian Anglican Church in the Diocese. Honestly speaking, that comment has been part of my inspiration. Right now we have many Nigerians thriving and flourishing and this Province with over 7,000 people, and we have many Africans as well who are ready to ‘key’ into the African way of worship [while] still be involved in the Western/Canadian way of worship in terms of liturgy. My vision is for us to have an African Anglican Church in Canada, all starting from the Diocese of Rupert’s Land with God’s help. I believe that’s possible so that Africans can worship, praise and sing to God the way they are culturally inclined and comfortable without anyone looking at them somehow. We keep saying our pews are draining and scanty due to lack of members, but the question is, is there anything we need to do or try differently to attract new members, especially Africans or people of African descent who are originally Anglican members from their countries? We need change and I believe  the time is now. Respectfully I would say this, The Anglican Church of Canada I see now needs REVIVAL!

 

I’m trying to share this same vision with folks in Toronto and across ecclesiastical provinces where we have Black Anglicans who are ready and willing to make a difference. At some point this year, there’s going to be a national conference of all Black Anglicans Canada to be hosted in our Diocese here, and to be specific, it will happen sometime in August this year at St John’s College, God willing. Thanks to our Warden & Vice-Chancellor, our Diocesan Discipleship Developer, Dean of Residence, the Chaplain and all staff of St John’s College for this outstanding support. We are grateful indeed. My dream for the Black Anglicans is to have an African Anglican Church strategically located in each Diocese or in each province in Canada so that our church can see the beauty and a more culturally diverse way of worship. Thank God, Canada is so multicultural and allows us to worship with our cultural nuances/inclinations in the way we want with being mindful and respectful of our neighbours. I also dream of the new leadership team of Black Anglicans to strategically reposition the structure of the organization’s governance and build an enduring legacy that can help provide history for the new and upcoming generation of Black Anglicans. I envision Black voices from various backgrounds and experiences, interests and skills in shaping Black Anglicans core values: “representation, participation, empowerment, and belongingness.”

I’m living in that reality. Let’s start with the Black Anglicans first, with this new leadership, and what we have, our goals that allow us to reposition in terms of structure, allow the legacy to live on…  because for someone like me I don’t want to think about leaving the Anglican Church. You can’t pressure me to leave and go somewhere else, I’m not going to be converted elsewhere; it’s too late; I am Anglican, period!.

 

RLN: What are the barriers you face in doing this work right now?

 

WA: One of the obstacles right now is stereotypes, including prejudices, misconceptions, and tensions even among ourselves. This is especially true for those who have tried to push things through in the past without any success, not to talk of those who already have biases, negative preconceived notions about Blacks in general and do not want to respect the culture, the identity, and dignity of every human being. They think that the new Black Anglicans In Canada would not succeed. And our opinions would not count. Sad! Perhaps some of them think they would lose control of what they have been enjoying over the years and perhaps also think they have benefited from the systemic racism and think our advocacy would not be a good idea, so they also have to resist change. This is heartbreaking! But it doesn’t stop us from doing what we have to do to make our collective efforts work for the benefit of all regardless of what anyone who differs in terms of change they might feel. When I feel we need to make changes in approach to fit our contexts, some people will say “oh, we don’t do it like this,” “we don’t do things like this…” But I tell them church is evolving, church is changing. Many African Anglicans have left Canadian Anglican churches because they have struggled with all these barriers  with the  way of how our worship works, and feel they could not find any spiritual meaning or purpose to help meet what  they need and go somewhere else so they have to leave. Let me tell you this, the Anglican Church has  a rich and robust spirituality tapestry, but it depends largely on how we can make this work to meet everyone that steps into our church. Many have told me this many and countless times resistance to change that makes them leave us. I’m sorry to say that we talk a lot about a welcoming community for all, inclusion, representation, etc. but unfortunately we don’t walk the talk. It’s just lip service. As Christians we need to often think and reflect on our Baptismal Promises, which I would call the six strategies/principles of Christian living we have to live everyday  and in whatever we do.

When or anytime I attempt to bring change in the way we do church to meet our contexts, I first watch for people’s responses, and I ask questions. I’m not saying you should like my sermons, or like me or that you should like what I do, but I want to know what you think about it. That, to me, is what I believe inclusion is all about our diverse views of seeing or doing things differently, if truly we are disciples of Christ. We need to see things differently and welcome changes where needed to meet the needs of all, not a particular set of people or individuals because they have had control in the past and still want to hold to that; our approach has to be reasonable. Just to clarify this, if I can add this with the Rotary International 4-Way Test, that is, “Is it the truth?; Is it fair to all concerned?; Will it bring Goodwill and Better Friendships?; and Will it be beneficial to all concerned?” Sometimes we need to learn from the way people do things well in our community or society for us to leverage the change we want to see.

 

Let me show you the Declaration of Black Anglicans of Canada:

“We as people of African Descent are commissioned and called to be ambassadors of reconciliation. We are called to create opportunities and space for courage building, healing, fellowship and empowerment. This special calling is both a reminder and a challenge to ourselves and to the whole church that we are no longer destined to just obey, suffer and witness; but to disrupt, heal and lead.”

This has been a challenge. Because we are always obeying, we validate what white folks say because they want us to validate their decision and actions. And we continue to obey at our own expense. [But our declaration reads] “We are no longer destined to just obey, suffer, and witness, but to disrupt, heal, and lead.”

Jesus came to a system to disrupt that system. When Jesus came, he started eating with those considered sinners, with those who the religious leaders didn’t want to associate with, with those who are hungry, those who are poor. Because he came to disrupt the system, the established institutions were not comfortable with it. Disrupting in a good way is for the benefit of all. Because Jesus disrupted the system, we are now beneficiaries of the goodness of our Lord Jesus Christ. And that is what it means to go out and preach the Gospel to everyone: He gave His disciples the commission and the same commission is for us. Are we going to find it easy? No! Is it going to be easy? No! So that commission [means] that sometimes the established systems and institutions have to be disrupted so that there will be change. Of course, we are not going to find it easy; it’s going to be tough to challenge the status quo about the way people have been doing church time immemorial. But the Anglican Church is drastically losing members in Canada; take a look at the Anglican Journal published on January 6, 2020 – Gone by 2040? What does that tell us as a church now? We need to do or try something differently if what we are doing now is not working. That’s the honest truth.

We’re not here only to challenge others, but to challenge ourselves. We are church and the world [so We challenge ourselves by saying] We can do this, we should be part of this, working with everybody, and reconciling with everybody.

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