After six months of learning in the Vineyard School of Justice, we had the privilege of celebrating our four students this past Monday evening with a moving graduation ceremony. Below you can see the year-end video screened in their honour, read Suhail’s (the director of the school) commencement address, as well as the pieces read for each student prior to their receipt of their graduation certificate. It was a thrilling and celebratory evening, and we finished with photographs, cake, and some delicious punch! Congratulations Shawn, George, Cora, and Brad – the best is yet to come!
YEAR END VIDEO
In 2006, the BBC Natural History Unit premiered an 11-part television series narrated by David Attenborough called “Planet Earth.” The series was five years in the making, was the most expensive ever to be commissioned by the BBC, and was the first of its kind to be filmed in high definition. The result is a truly incomparable cinematic feat – both in terms of its global scope and its unparalleled footage of animals in their natural habitat.
The first episode surveys several locations across the planet, and happens to include my favourite segment in the entire series: the Kalahari desert in Southern Africa. Covering a surface of red sand of almost a million square kilometers in Botswana and Namibia, the Kalahari gets its name from two Tswana words meaning “the great thirst” and “a waterless place.” These descriptions thoroughly characterize the experience of a vast array of animals that inhabit the Kalahari.
During the height of the dry season, thousands of elephants embark on a journey hundreds of miles towards a vast inland area called the Okavango valley. The journey is arduous, exhausting, long, but the animals are propelled by a desperate thirst, as well as by the prospect of water. Water, you see – and all the life it holds – is its own motivation and reward.
But technically, water isn’t in the Okavango. It falls around a thousand miles away in the highlands of Angola and nearly five months later, after coursing, bending, and turning its way through the African landscape, it arrives in the valley, transforming the Kalahari into – as David Attenborough says – “a fertile paradise [and] a lush waterworld.” My favourite scene in the episode, let alone the series, is an underwater perspective of a particular animal moving through a newly formed Okavango lake. It’s an elephant, and all you see is its legs – once so coarse, dry, and cracked from miles of walking through the Kalahari – now paddling, swimming, and playing in billows of bubbles and water.
This year’s Vineyard School of Justice reminds me of this Kalahari tale: of the Okavango becoming an oasis, of deserts becoming pools, of the deepest thirst mingling with a steady stream of hope.
You see our neighbourhood, the North End, though brimming with life of all kinds, is so often also a desert. Economic disadvantage and poverty, coupled with the absence of major grocery stores, profoundly limits access to healthy, affordable, and fresh food. In their lives prior to school and even during their time in school, this year’s students have had to navigate the challenges of this “food desert” in one way or another. They’ve also all experienced their own wastelands of loneliness, suffered the desolations of charred families and relationships, and faced the cold, hard facts of trauma which flung them to the comfort of addiction, only to find it a disappointing mirage. They know, in the very marrow of their bones, the meaning of the Tswana words: they understand great thirst and they’re familiar with a waterless place.
Yet it is precisely in this kind of desert that thirst becomes real. And it was this real thirst – especially for belonging, for justice, for God – paired with some vague hope of satisfaction that drew our four graduates to the School of Justice this year.
You – students of this year’s school – have been the most noble of travelers. You heard the voice of one calling to you in the wilderness, and you responded. This year you have especially journeyed – often through the dirt, dust, and cobwebs of injustice behind, around, and within you – to move closer to this voice because you believe from it springs the words of life. I deeply admire your courage, belief, your faith even – you have demonstrated a stunning certainty about what you hope for and a surprising sureness about what you cannot see.
You have defied the expectations of your own histories – which are in so many ways filled with deserts in their own right – but you have also defied the expectations of our society. You have studied and lived contrary to what people think is possible, recognizing that you were made for more than what your environment claims and, in fact, that God – the creator – made you. And together you have been on a radical journey to recognize Him everywhere and to invite his kingdom into every traveler and desert till His glory covers the earth as waters cover the sea.
But yours is not the only journey to speak of this evening.
A few thousand years ago, in the highlands of Bethlehem, God – the fountain of living water and life itself – trickled into humanity as a baby in an animal feeding trough. This birth inaugurated ripples of a kingdom which would swell and surge around Palestine, and eventually spill into the ends of the earth.
It has been such a joy to see both journeys come together this year: to see the heights of heaven flow to the depths of your thirst; to see Jesus and his kingdom run into and overwhelm your shore, flooding your lives and transforming so many of the dry parts of your hearts into reservoirs of love, faith, and compassion. In so doing, heaven has come to earth; Eden has moved a little more into the North End; and you now know even more what satisfaction feels like. We call all of this justice – one of God’s deepest desires and greatest works – and together we have felt its power, healing, and delightfulness first hand.
I am so proud of you. For not giving up, for coming back when you left, for sharing when it hurt, for taking risks of faith and stepping onto water, for finishing well. And I am proud to have had you as my teachers and guides. My life is fuller because of you, and I thank you for trusting me and sharing yourselves so generously with me. All of us here this evening celebrate you and your achievements – many of which cannot be spoken of, much less listed. Nonetheless, it is obvious that you are different people – you have encountered God and become more like him – and we know that the Spirit has written on each of your hearts in ways that are too deep for words to express.
Tonight we find ourselves in peculiar moment. On one hand, we reflect on several months of excellent learning; on the other hand, we look forward to how all of this will translate into real living. With both hands we thank and praise God, who is and will be faithful to complete the good work that He has started in you. You are finishing one thing, and you are also beginning another. You see there are many more thirsty people out there, waiting to be satisfied – orphans, widows, brothers and sisters who are impoverished, marginalised, abused, addicted, prostituted, homeless, hungry, lonely.
Listen to what Isaiah 41:17-20 says:
“The poor and needy search for water,
but there is none;
their tongues are parched with thirst.
But I the Lord will answer them;
I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.
18 I will make rivers flow on barren heights,
and springs within the valleys.
I will turn the desert into pools of water,
and the parched ground into springs.
19 I will put in the desert
the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive.
I will set junipers in the wasteland,
the fir and the cypress together,
20 so that people may see and know,
may consider and understand,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
that the Holy One of Israel has created it.
This evening we bless you to be God’s answers; his very own rivers of justice sent from the creator to the lowliest and most desolate of places and flowing like a never-ending stream. We bless you to know what is good and what the Lord requires of you: to love mercy and walk humbly with God into the desert, flooding it with the rain of his kingdom and his Spirit. We bless you to especially notice and love parched people, that through you they might taste and see that the Lord is good. And we bless you to go into the unlikeliest of places, even right here into our very own neighbourhood, and to invite as many as you can to drink of living water and, ultimately, to paddle and splash in an impossible pool of God’s joy. Just as you have. Just like elephants in the Okavango.
PRESENTATION OF GRADUATION CERTIFICATES
The prospect of being in the school of justice so captivated this student’s heart that he decided to enrol months prior to the beginning of this year’s program. Even more, each month he would diligently set aside a portion of his Employment Income Assistance money to cover his school fees. He was the first confirmed participant of our program this year. A few weeks before we started, his mother – whom he loves so very dearly – passed away. Understanding his need for safety, support, and family, she encouraged him to continue with school as planned; she sensed that he was in good hands here with us. She was right. But we were in good hands with him too; the school would not have been the same without him. We have been blessed by his selflessness and service – he often prepares coffee before class, rolls cigarettes and shares them with his classmates, and even walks them home. Though understandably tempted to isolate himself, he has remained faithful to God, his classmates, to school, and to his mother’s wishes. And in great courage and bravery he has stepped far outside of his comfort zone, and flourished. Tonight, here and now, all of heaven is celebrating and says: “This is my son, whom I love, in whom I am well pleased.” Thank you for showing us what faithfulness that reaches to the skies looks like. George Matiowsky.
The real value of education is not what one can recite but how one’s life is transformed. The system labelled this student as being unable to process information normally. During our unit called “A Just Vision” on the importance of seeing people not issues, this student walked home and saw a man who was idling on the street. Though he would’ve normally judged the man – thinking he ought to be working rather than simply collecting welfare money – this student took a moment to see deeply, with the eyes of Jesus. He saw that the man was missing a foot and felt compassion and empathy for him. This student’s vision has changed dramatically throughout the course of this year, and he sees God much more clearly. In desperate times he has called out to Jesus and has seen God come through miraculously for him. On one occasion he was praying desperately for provision and at that very moment twenty dollars floated across the pavement. Now he sees the fingerprints of the creator on the lives of others and, perhaps most miraculously, even on his own life. It’s no wonder that he gets lost in worship and prayer, with eyes closed and hands raised in praise and thanksgiving to the God who saves. Thank you for showing us that that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation; the old is gone and the new has come. Bradley Morand.
With a sparkling intelligence, an avid curiosity, and a genuine openness to others, this student’s presence in the school was a true gift. She – and there was only one she this year – made class enjoyable with her consistent participation and enthusiasm about what we were learning. She is one of the most hospitable and transparent people you will ever meet – sharing her thoughts and feelings with great generosity of spirit. She makes others feel like gold because she easily recognizes people’s strengths and goodness, and doesn’t hesitate to affirm, encourage, and celebrate them. She cares. About the world. About justice. About people. About her family. About her children. She cares with a gentle ferocity and though it may not be loud and flashy, she will be with you through thick and thin, in humble companionship. This student has a very deep, profound desire for God, and it has been a joy to watch the Spirit lavishly pour himself upon her and to see how sensitive she is to even his most subtle whispers and movements. She is a woman full of faith in God who will not turn her back on what she knows and believes despite the many obstacles and challenges that may come her way. Thank you for showing us that in quietness and trust there is strength. Coralynn Stevenson.
This student has been a familiar fixture of Winnipeg Centre Vineyard. His hands have many times scrubbed and cleaned the very floor of this room. He has facilitated worship here in more ways than we can express. Even more, he loves and worships God with a rare, precious kind of honesty. He never pretends, he’s real about who he is and what he thinks, and is always honest about what’s going on and how he’s feeling. During the first weekly debrief of the school, he entrusted us with the most vulnerable story of his life and, by example, set the stage for the true community and sharing that has so characterized our school this year. He has consistently faced his demons and let Christ get the better of him, and he has been overtaken with the new life of the kingdom. Though he thought he was unable to feel emotion, his heart has beaten faster and faster to God’s drum. The Spirit came upon him powerfully during school, reducing him to tears, and subsequently motivating him to pray for around 30 people the following Sunday. Two weeks ago, we wrote letters to those persecuted for their faith, and in his letter to a Christian in prison in China, this student wrote “I wish I could trade places with you.” Thank you for showing us what it looks like to be the kind of worshipper the Father is seeking, one who worships in Spirit and in truth. Shawn Wood.