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Sharing Our Faith Stories: Joe Gaspar

Faith Story-Rev. Joe Gaspar

September 6, 2020

It’s my turn. It’s only fair that after a number of you shared your faith stories over the last two years that your Ministers would begin to share theirs. Going through the process this week of figuring out what I’m going to say has given me a renewed appreciation for everyone who has shared their story to date. I was overwhelmed, where do I begin? What do I include? Well, I find that what people are most curious about is my journey from the Roman Catholic Church to the United Church. So I’ll begin there.

My ethnic heritage is Portuguese. I came to Canada in the summer of 1973, just before I turned six. Being Portuguese back then meant you were Roman Catholic by default. My family attended mass weekly, I received the sacraments of baptism, first communion, reconciliation and confirmation. I was enrolled in the Catholic school system with its formalized religious education. In my high school years in the 1980’s I attended a Catholic high school in London, Ontario that was very sympathetic to the liberation movements rising up in Central America, liberation movements that were sometimes lead by nuns and priests with a strong Christian social justice ethos. Having been raised up to that point to see church as something you did once a week I was captured by this mobilization of Christianity for justice.

It wasn’t just in Central America but in Eastern Europe as well. It was the time of Pope John Paul II and worker’s revolts against Communist dictatorship in Poland. But this Pope as supportive as he was of liberation movements in Eastern Europe chastised, disciplined and even excommunicated Roman Catholics fighting the same battles in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala. I was already questioning much of my Roman Catholic upbringing, this hypocrisy as I perceived it was the last straw. I stopped attending mass. I went to university and referred to myself as agnostic or atheist at various times and had little time for religion or spirituality.

It wasn’t until my late twenties that both my wife Andrea and I started feeling the spiritual itch. We were out of school, on career paths and questioning what more there was to life beyond working, retiring and dying. We considered the RC church again but didn’t see a way that lay people could have any influence over the direction of the church. I can’t remember how we wound up there, but eventually we dipped our toes back in the spiritual waters by attending the Unitarian church. At first, it was exhilarating to explore religion and spirituality in such an open and inviting atmosphere. It was such a departure from my RC upbringing that preached one way only to salvation. The Unitarians respected the many paths of religions worldwide. After a year or so I began to feel a dissatisfaction I couldn’t quite put my finger on. One Sunday after the service, at a congregational meeting, one of the longer term members said, “What frustrates me about this church is that we’re always expected to be seeking but never to find anything.” That comment crystallized the discomfort I was feeling. It was great to explore but I was really missing the grounding of Jesus’ life and teaching.

My heart was pulling me back into Christianity. The next question was “where?” It was

he early nineties and Andrea and I had a vague memory of news stories from the late eighties of the United Church discussing whether or not openly homosexual candidates for ministry should be ordained. Both of us greatly admired the courage of the UC in daring to make the good news of Jesus relevant to our times. It was quite something for two ex-RCs whose mother church wasn’t even willing to engage the discussion of allowing priests to marry or ordain women. Soon thereafter we walked through the doors of Emmanuel UC at Bridgeport and Albert.

In essence, you could say I was evangelized by the 1988 decision of the UCC to ordain openly homosexual people. When I think about my RC upbringing, the southern European macho culture in which I was raised and my early attitudes towards lgbtq people, that is quite astonishing statement. So, I want to share with you a formative experience in my life that has gone a long way toward my Christian formation.

One thing I didn’t mention is that when my parents came to Canada they didn’t come as landed immigrants. My father, came to Canada on his own earlier in 1973 or 1972 to make some quick money in order to pay off a debt as the economy in Portugal was in terrible shape. He had some cousins in West Lorne, between Chatham and London that could get him some work. He arrived as a tourist and simply stayed. The plan was always that he would return after the debt was payed. But while he was in Canada things deteriorated in Portugal, a long crumbling dictatorship finally collapsed. There was civil unrest, rationing and the economic situation got even worse. At that time the only people who could sponsor you for immigration purposes were direct family members, this did not include cousins. My parents seeing no future for their children in Portugal decided that my then one brother, myself and my mother would join my father in Canada without landed immigrant status and hope that as had happened in the sixties, the federal government would grant an amnesty to illegal immigrants.

The next four years of my life were spent as an outsider. I was keenly aware that my family was living a life different from everyone else even within the Portuguese community. Twice we moved suddenly because of fears that immigration officers would raid my parent’s workplaces. Once based on my mother’s dream, which turned out to be true. I remember often wondering why I couldn’t live in this country but my friends and classmates could.

The only conclusion I could come to is that it simply had to do with the whims of chance. I was no different than anyone else, I just happened to be born in circumstances that disadvantaged me. That experience gave me a visceral empathy for the experience of the outsider. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve always loved Luke’s version of the Jesus story and especially the story of the prodigal son. Luke is full of examples of God being revealed in and through people on the margins. The parable of the prodigal son casts God as the father who twice risks the ridicule and shunning of his community to reach out to his children and bring them back into the fold of the family and the wider community.

I think it’s this experience of being an outsider that allowed me in the case of lgbtq issue to hear and see the presence of God in the lives of these folks despite years of hearing otherwise. So, you could say it’s the experience of being an outsider that eventually led me to the United Church. A Church, that as imperfect as it may be, moreso than most puts love—the essence of Jesus’ teaching—at the forefront of it’s calling.