The sudden and unexpected death of Jack Layton produced a wave of public appreciation for the man and his legacy. It’s been a couple of weeks now, but I still keep thinking about the way we as a nation celebrated his life and grieved his passing.
Why is it that only when a person dies do we have this wave of appreciation and this sense of “I wish I had known this about him before’? I was impressed by the humanity of Jack and the consistent work he did on behalf of the excluded, the disenfranchised and the vulnerable in our community. With courage he faced difficult issues and challenged entrenched power. With wisdom and fortitude he tirelessly worked towards the common good through the democratic means available to him. With passion and compassion he addressed the tough political and social issues of our day. And Jack was a team player and builder, supremely skilled at building coalitions and joining cause with people from diverse backgrounds towards a common good. We have lost an able leader in the prime of his life.
I was also reflecting on the funeral ceremony itself. The ceremony was profoundly spiritual, with religious expressions woven throughout the proceedings. Diversity of faith was built into the event, with voices from Judaic, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Aboriginal, and Christian perspectives. Inclusion of difference – cultural, religious, ethnic, physical ability and sexual orientations – was an underlying value that was expressed in a myriad of ways – through the music, the speakers, the singers and even the presiding minister, Brent Hawkes.
Rev. Hawkes is the senior pastor of Toronto’s Metropolitan Community Church, a congregation that affirms ‘the holy integration of spirituality and sexuality’. Jack and his wife Olivia Chow were regular attendees. I was surprised and immensely pleased that Rev. Hawkes, speaking out of his Christian faith, publicly and courageously made reference to his own life-partner as ‘husband’, affirming the love in his own same-sex marriage. In an historical context in which people of many Christian denominations do not welcome same-sex relationships, the Pastor’s words and example were a powerful witness to a love that always seeks to widen the circles of inclusion. It was brilliant that Jack and Olivia invited Brent to preside at the ceremony, and in that choice did more to normalize the mature religious expression of committed love between people of the same sex than any other public event in recent memory. Jack’s profound value for the inclusion of differences in the context of community and his hope in the goodness of people was evident in that choice.
The ceremony also did what good funeral ceremonies always help us to realize: that as we face our loss and live our grief we may at the same time be inspired to embrace life anew and carry on with hope and determination to live with vision, courage and love into the future. The ceremony empowered us to be agents of love in our own relationships and in our community. Jack’s inspired life is a model for all of us, and his funeral ceremony as an expression of hope for a better world which we are all invited to co-create with love.
I invite you to listen to the CBC interview with Jack’s partner in politics and life, Olivia Chow, which offers a window in the spiritual wisdom that inspired Jack’s life:
Originally appeared in the Times Colonist on September 7, 2011.