By Licia Corbella, Calgary Herald
While a small army of city bylaw officers was handing out tickets to Occupy Calgary squatters at Olympic Plaza Tuesday, a local church group that has historically been heavily persecuted and prosecuted by City Hall took advantage of the precedent set by the Occupy protesters and the cowardice of city politicians.
After being arrested eight times and hauled away in handcuffs as well as being ticketed more than 80 times for feeding the hungry and preaching the gospel in public, Street Church Rev. Artur Pawlowski was involved in something completely novel for him – he took part in a church service right INSIDE City Hall just outside council chambers in almost the same spot where some Occupy protesters held a Buddhist prayer circle one week ago. What made this event so unique for Pawlowski was he wasn’t arrested or hassled at all.
It was the Buddhist event that emboldened Pawlowski and Jim Blake, national chairman of Concerned Christians Canada, to see if they will now be afforded the same rights that the Occupy worshippers were offered.
The gatherers started their worship service softly singing Amazing Grace and a few other classic hymns.
Then Blake sermonized a bit explaining how "Canada was founded on JudeoChristian values" and that the "scripture that says: ‘His Dominion shall reign from sea to sea,’ is actually carved into our Parliament buildings." Therefore, he said, it makes ample sense for people of faith to be involved in politics and places of politics not to shut out people of faith.
Then Blake offered blessings to city councillors, the mayor and the citizens of Calgary and he gave thanks that the city "has a new heart for religious expression and tolerance for Christians."
"I think it’s wonderful that we can be here openly practicing our faith. Maybe this is because Mayor Nenshi is opening things up. Historically there has been a lot of opposition to Christians praying in public places," said Blake. "so I’m very excited about the new climate of openness at city hall."
That may be stretching things a lot. The lack of backbone shown by the mayor and council toward upholding our laws where these squatters are concerned has set all kinds of precedents that will now be difficult to overturn without in fact having to admit that some protesters or gatherings are more equal than others.
In essence, city officials made their bed and now they are forced to lay in a rather messy one.
A city hall employee who did not want to be named wondered what would happen if a native elder wants to hold a smudge ceremony, in which sweetgrass is burned. What if voodoo adherents want to hold a seance in the lobby and stick pins into effigies of the mayor and council. As long as they don’t make too much noise or hand out literature, now all religious groups have every right to "occupy" a portion of the municipal building and conduct their religious ceremonies there whenever they feel like it.
Is that a good thing? It’s certainly open to debate.
If equality is really to be practised, now religious revival meetings can just set up tents in Olympic Plaza – no permits required – for one month before the city starts handing out tickets. They can say it’s their charter right, even though nowhere in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms does it say people can pitch a tent anywhere they want.
However, that precedent has now been set. You get one-month’s grace period. Or was that Amazing Grace only for Occupy protesters? Last October, Pawlowski was arrested and kicked out of the municipal building for handing out literature that simply urged Calgarians to vote in the upcoming municipal election. There was no political message contained in the literature, no endorsement of any one political person or point of view, just some history about Christianity’s role in the establishment of our laws and liberty.
City hall had a distinctively circus-like atmosphere Tuesday. A flu vaccine clinic was held in the lobby, so there were more people and spectators than usual milling about. While the Street Church prayed, sang and sermonized, about two dozen students from Bishop Grandin High School’s choral department assembled on the nearby stairwell and sang a couple of Christian songs, and their angelic singing got a rousing round of applause from the Street Church.
The students were rehearsing for today’s Muslim Eid event that they were invited to participate in by Amyn Vassanji, one of the annual event’s organizers. They had called in advance to be there, as is usually the way.
While all of this was going on, Tavis Ford, a stalwart at the Occupy camp, wrapped in blankets and thick coats with his beard and a walking stick, looked oddly Biblical. It was all strangely surreal.
"The Occupy Calgary movement has helped open City Hall to prayer and to faith," said Pawlowski. "I am very grateful to them and to Mayor Nenshi and the officials for allowing us to be here," added Pawlowski. "This is a very good change."
Ultimately, city hall is reaping what it sowed. The lobby Tuesday was certainly more fun and inspiring than usual but time will tell whether this whatevergoes kind of openness is a lasting change or, more importantly, a good one.
Licia Corbella is a columnist and editorial page editor.