The first time Father Charlie Gervais came to my front door, he was wearing a wig and a bathrobe. This is not a missionary's usual garb. But then, Charlie is no usual missionary.
He was accompanied by Father Mike Traher (now a missioner in Guyana), who was also weirdly attired. Their goal, as my poor mother opened the door, was to engage this devout woman in a conversation designed to lead to her conversion.
Another friend, Father Greg Chisholm (now a missioner in Peru) and I were hiding in some bushes nearby, trying to conceal ourselves and our laughter. Mom was less than fully impressed by the strange-looking duo at her door, but their gig was up as soon as they tried to sell her a subscription to the Scarboro Missions magazine.
Growing up as I did only miles from the Mission, my family developed a warm appreciation for many of these men who returned from their overseas postings. We were constantly impressed by, and included in, the Scarboro missionaries' devoted practice of international solidarity.
They would be with us on the picket lines when César Chavez's union was boycotting the sale of Californian grapes and lettuce. They housed the first Chilean refugees to be saved from the Pinochet dictatorship.
And anyone who has ever been part of a national Christian social justice movement (like Development and Peace, KAIROS, or meetings of the Canadian Religious Conference) has likely been hosted in the Scarboro Mission Centre.
Often the missioners regaled us with stories of their adventures and exploits – and after the joking paused – with their incredible experiences of sharing the Gospel in very different cultures.
Charlie Gervais is sharing once more, this time in a small book called, The People's Revolution: 24 stories from a Scarboro Missionary's Journal (Novalis, 2014.)
Gervais, who grew up in Manitoba, is well-known in Western Canada. He often spoke in Regina, where his cousin, Charlie Halpin, was archbishop. Gervais also opened an intentional community house in Edmonton in the 1980s, which became a focal point for Christian social justice activists.
Father Charlie was only 27 when he first went to the Philippines. But in 1972, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. It took until February of 1986 for the people of the Philippines to overthrow Marcos in what Gervais describes as "a Church-backed, bloodless coup" using peaceful "People Power."
The most poignant stories in his highly-readable book outline the ministry of defending the poor from the violence and corruption of military rule.
On one occasion, Gervais recounts how, while investigating a massacre of civilians carried out by the military, he was discovered on the scene by the same drunken soldiers who were responsible for the crime.
His fear was that the soldiers would rape the two women that were accompanying him, and murder them all. Some fast thinking, and a cool head, saved the day.
Whereas missionaries in the 1950s and early 1960s focused on building churches, schools and rectories, after Vatican II, the emphasis changed to human development. Lay leadership was promoted, as were credit unions in all of the parishes.
Under martial law in the 1970s, and in the context of the Cold War, the Church's ministry changed again, making the promotion of human rights and liberation a new priority. A 1981 pastoral letter written by his local bishop describes how the dictatorship branded the clergy "as being communists, destroyers of the peace, troublemakers, etc."
The bishop explained this reaction thusly: "The Church had broken out of the narrow confines of sacristy and sanctuary, and had gone to the people where they were. Doing so, it has had to identify with them in the oppressions and injustices imposed on them by our current political and economic system."
It had "become, in fact, a Church of the people, not only a Church of laws and doctrines, or rites and ceremonies and sacraments."
Father Jack Lynch's prologue to the book expresses the view that Father Charlie's experiences, from "a priest who dearly loves both people and justice," were not unique to the Philippines.
Indeed, the Canadian missioners who went to evangelize in various countries were themselves evangelized by the poor and oppressed. This small book holds, then, valuable challenges for the entire Canadian Church even today.
(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)