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A Few Thoughts on Conferences…

[T]he new order of the kingdom does not arise from within existing power relationships but quite independently of them, at the margins of society.
~ Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 122.
I recently presented a few seminars at a conference in Toronto that explored some (more or less) Christian perspectives on social justice. The conference was well attended (750+ people) and I greatly enjoyed the dialogue that I had with both the other seminar leaders (or whatever you call people who give seminars) and with old and new friends that were in attendance.
However, there were a few things that seemed a little odd about the conference.
To begin with, I thought that it was a little odd that that the conference was hosted in a church that had allocated around $12 million dollars to the church building, while only simultaneously allocating approximately $1.5 million dollars to “social justice” related issues. Now, if you dig into this a bit (which, I have discovered, some others have), you will discover that this church had all sorts of “good reasons” for building a a multi-million dollar compound… but, of course, how “good” those reasons are all depends on the paradigm through which we understand things like “Church,” “community,” “love,” and, of course, “justice.” Indeed, I might be inclined to suggest that this is but another example of the way in which growth actually makes it impossible for us to fulfill our vocation as Christians (I've watched this happen over and over with Christian institutions: be those social service agencies, churches, or colleges). Church “growth” is most definitely not an unequivocally good thing, and sometimes I think churches need to put an end to growth and send their people elsewhere — like to a church that is walking distance from home, you know, a church that is actually a part of the community in which a person lives.
Which, by the way, is the second thing I found a little odd about the community in which the conference occurred. The church where the conference was held is located in a city outside of Toronto — although it is still a part of the “Greater Toronto Area” — a city that just happens to be the wealthiest city in Ontario (and one of the top ten wealthiest cities in Canada [at least according to the 2001 Canada Census — all the results aren't in from the 2006 Canada Census]). So, one might wonder, why is it that we are holding a conference that stresses the theme of solidarity with the marginalised in an extremely wealthy community that is notorious for forcing out its poor? Well, some have suggested that it is precisely this community that needs to attend to this conference. Perhaps that is true… although the opening quote that I pulled from Myers' book might cause us to begin to rethink this approach. To root such a conference in this city suggests to me that we might still be attached to models that pursue transformation from the centre to the peripheries — from the powerful to the powerless. However, to attach oneself to models that believe that transformation moves from the peripheries to the centre — thereby questioning our general understanding of power and power relations — might suggest that another location may have been more suitable.
The third major thing that bothered me about the conference was the price. Depending on when one registered, and depending on whether or not one registered as part of a group of ten or more, one ended up paying between $69 and $89. Now, in my books, that's quite a bit of money and, although there were some big name speakers (Ron Sider, Jim Wallis, and Shane Claiborne being the big three), I would of thought twice about attending if I was paying to be there. Indeed, I think that such high prices probably prevented quite a few people from attending the conference. However, seeing as it was held in such a wealthy city/church, this might not have been that big of a deal. Regardless, it strikes me as unfortunate that a conference on social justice would, from the get-go, exclude those who don't have that sort of money to throw around for a one day event (oh, and meals were not included in that price… or transportation for that matter — the church was located in an industrial complex so it seemed that one needed access to a car in order to be able to attend).
So, what do we do with all this? If we are to be critical, how can we also find a positive way forward? Well, I've got a few ideas but I would be interested to hear what others think. Are these significant concerns? If they are, where would be a good place to go with all this?
Oh, and there was one final point that caught me off-guard a little — probably more due to poor communication than anything. It was this: nobody told me that what I said would be recorded and then sold (maybe I was just supposed to assume that that would occur?). That's right, for $10 you can own your very own copy of my seminar. However, since I'm a little uncomfortable with that (i.e. with being unknowingly commodified), you could also just email me and I'll burn you a copy of the CD that I'm receiving and I'll mail it to you (although if you wanted to pay for postage that would be nice… but not mandatory).

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