Recently, Centre for Christian Studies had a Covenanting Service for Alan Lai and Alcris Limongi, as they joined CCS staff as Principal and Program Staff, respectively. In December, Alan and Alcris met with me to discuss their new ministries with the Centre for Christian Studies.
Centre for Christian Studies describes itself as a “national theological school grounded in the tradition of diakonia” which “prepare(s) people for ministries in the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada” and which “offer(s) lifelong learning for anyone who wants to deepen their faith-in-action. Students at the Centre are educated for “justice, compassion and transformation.”
CCS facilitates a variety of educational programs and courses. The school is the only one of its kind in the United Church of Canada, focusing on the training of diaconal ministers and offering a diploma in diaconal ministries. Beyond the diaconal ministry program, CCS also offers “continuing studies” for casual students, as well as various certificate programs.
The Centre offers “Learning on Purpose” (LoP), a 2-week introduction to “learning in community, self-awareness, group skills, conflict, making change, and approaches to theology, scripture, pastoral care, education, worship, and social justice.” The program is particularly geared towards helping discern calls to ministry. Additionally, CCS hosts various “Learning Circles,” “6-day in-person intensives (or 8-10 week online courses), exploring various themes in ministry and faith-based leadership and action.”
Referring to CCS’ history, Limongi says “the institution is 125 years young. Young because it continues to evolve.” She highlights the student-centered approach of the program, which is tailored according to each student’s “vocation, passion or interest.” CCS’ shorter courses are adaptable to the schedules of students who may be juggling school, ministry, employment, or family life.
CCS’ pedagogy is unique in its practical orientation, and for its non-hierarchical approach; everyone—students, teachers, staff—comes to the learning process as equals. “It’s a continuous process of growing,” says Limongi, “not only of learning.” Evaluation is a part of CCS’ programs but is more “conversational,” says Lai, than in other academic settings. “It is about… action and reflection through conversation.”
The Center for Christian Studies is undergoing a period of transition. Lai comments on the “historic” elements of his and Limongi’s appointments to CCS. Both are ordained ministers, and not explicitly deacons, though they both have a passion for diaconal ministry. Both are also members of racialized minorities, as well as immigrants to Canada; Lai was born and raised in Hong Kong, and Limongi in Venezuela.
Limongi discusses the challenges she has faced as a Latino immigrant in ministry in largely white church communities. She reflects on her time with a United Methodist church in the US which asked her to initiate Hispanic ministry amidst an influx of Mexican refugees to the US. Upon embarking on outreach she soon recognized that many families “had to bring their kids to work and didn’t have childcare,” and so she set out to start programming for kids. But to do so, she had to address misguided assumptions held by her church community. She says she told them “If you really want to start the Hispanic ministry, you need first to learn Spanish… To realize that not everybody’s Mexican.” Limongi led members in a learning process involving weekly classes with presentations on different Latin American countries. The Hispanic ministry in turn established with these volunteers, a one-on-one reading mentoring program for children and an ESL class for parents. “At the end” Limongi says, “there were relationships, and that’s what transforms us.”
Limongi has a passion for contextual ministry “I’ve been doing ministry since I was 19 years old, but it has been always community based.” While doing cancer-focused pastoral ministry in Ottawa she says that she “focused on how to create a culture of care,” that brought everyone together in networks of mutual support. She brings this knowledge and education to her work with CCS.
Lai and Limongi share the experience of having been raised in families of teachers. Lai identifies teaching as his main passion in ministry, one which has served him well in pastoral settings, and as a professor with the Vancouver School of Theology, and which is uniquely fitted to his work with CCS.
Both Lai and Limongi speak to the importance not only of diversity, but of truly intercultural communities which make room for a multiplicity of voices to share in power. “This country is diverse” Lai states. “The Christian church in the Canadian context is diverse,” but physical diversity is not enough, says Lai. Next, we must ask whether everyone has opportunities to serve and to teach, and whether they are allowed to speak with different voices or are instead forced to adapt themselves to a singular culture.Limongi, who has done anti-racism work for the General Council Office of the United Church of Canada since 2009 says that we “need to recognize the value of the diversity of perspectives and experiences as an asset.” She says that she has experienced within CCS a real desire for the “redistribution of power in relationships… They’re walking the talk.”
Commenting on CCS’ work going forward, Lai says “the hospitality of openness and welcome is there. Now we’re here, and what is possible needs to be discerned.” He speaks about the importance on building on what CCS has already been doing and notes the particular importance of the organization’s feminist and liberationist roots.
Lai talks about how church ministry and the identity of the church has been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, which he says “exposed a lot of assumptions about ourselves, and about the world… The pandemic showed us a reality that we couldn’t get distracted from.” Here Lai mentions the assassination of George Floyd and surrounding dynamics of “violence and hatred.” He notes that this has also been a time of disconnection and isolation, declining church membership, and multiplying questions surrounding the identity of the church and Christian ministries
“Collectively, we need to be honest to ourselves and able to offer a kind of community building which is open, safe, honouring, and diverse as possible.” He also emphasizes the opportunities presented by the pandemic for ministry. “We are in a world in which everybody is asking for meaning and community.” He stresses that we need “to be humble, to listen,” to the needs and concerns of others.
Limongi echoes this sentiment: “I was at the national gathering for the unmarked graves and especially focusing on trauma. I was very moved by the deep sense of community. It was about listening, with respect, with care, actions to bring healing and justice. To remember the children, to hold the families, to weave actions towards healing and justice. One of the biggest questions for us could be how can we decolonize ourselves? Is that destroying our old self?” Limongi emphasizes instead how a stance of humility might help us “recover the prophetic voice of the church.” “We need to listen to Indigenous people,” she says. There is the “good news of hope, of caring for one another, of God’s prophetic voice making visible what is invisible in society.”
Lai ties this framing of the good news into the season of Advent. The message of the season, “Christmas, Emmanuel. In a nutshell it is God’s promise that God is with us, not leaving us orphaned. God will not let violence and cruelty or injustice be the last word. Be surprised, God is coming. God is with us.”
This good news is relevant to the present- day Anglican and United churches in Canada. Lai states:
“It is hopeless if you think those good old days are gone… you’re mostly right. I am with you. That is hopeless. But what is the good news? Do you see the other way? Do you see that is not the only interpretation? It is not the only manifestation or learning model you can have. .. There is more than one way to do theology”
He harkens again to CCS’ approaches to theology and to Christian ministry, with its fundamental theological conviction based in feminist theology and liberation theology. He recognizes that some may be turned-off by these influences, but at the same time he encourages people to consider that these are grounded in a “community empowering way that has been functioning for ages.” “When you stand in the dominant camp you think that is the only way,” but “Jesus came as a carpenter, as a refugee. Once you open your mind, it is good to be in the minority I think.” “Christianity should never become dominant in one way or another.” “Christianity functions best when we are not in the dominant situation.”
With this in mind, Lai again emphasizes the opportunity presented to Christians. “We need to be courageous enough to imagine something new.” Models used by CCS may be particularly useful for discerning direction for ministry. These models emphasize the practical skills of “conversation, discernment, waiting, anticipating, trial and error.”
Lai is optimistic about using communications to connect with those who have a vested interest in CCS, and to hear from others about how church ministry could serve them. He also suggests there is strength in the partnering of academic theology with the learning models used by CCS “It is not the time to debate which is better. We need both.” He and Limongi both also share an excitement for ministry in non- English languages, and they hope to explore whether there might be a need for CCS to offer learning opportunities in Chinese or Spanish.
Another avenue for growth which Limongi notes CCS is particularly equipped to support is the ministry of all believers. She highlights the desire of lay people to access tools that are relevant and theologically sound for current ecclesial needs and diverse ministry contexts. Anecdotally, she mentions a pastoral care team at one of her previous churches which wanted theological courses on grief as they cared for people with cancer. “I think this is a big potential… the need is so great because times are changing. They have changed.”