West Point Grey United Church
Mar 03, 2024

Meditations on Allyship

Matthew 28:16-20, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27

Today, in the spirit of Lent, we’re going to spend some time in meditative reflection. Every so often I will pause and ring this singing bowl, and we’ll ponder what has just been said before continuing on our journey. Now let us begin.

I recently read Ducks, the award-winning autobiography of Kate Beaton’s 2 years working in the Albertan oil sands as a young woman, fresh out of university, paying off her student loans. Although it’s an approachable and worthwhile read, it’s not a happy one. It documents the near-constant sexual harassment that Kate experienced while there. It shows how her reports to management fell on deaf ears. The only people she could safely talk to were her fellow women, who knew the struggle working somewhere where they were outnumbered 50-to-1 by men.

In Ducks, Kate shows an astounding amount of empathy towards the men of the oil sands. She repeatedly points out that the men who aren’t harassing her vastly outnumber the few who do. They’re bystanders. They’re not the problem, but they aren’t helping either. But how could they help, anyway?


Today’s service is about Allyship. It’s about how to go beyond being a bystander and become a force for good. But what does that actually mean? And what can I do, anyway; I’m just one person amongst many? But… What if we look at a specific situation? If you’re at a restaurant in a group of five, your voice in support is a big difference to the person outnumbered 4-to-1. Or, in a boardroom, your voice as a middle-level employee is taken more to heart than the voice of a junior.

This is where the concept of “privilege” comes in. Privilege describes the amount of power you have, the amount of trust people place in you, in any given context. Sometimes you gain privilege through your own hard work. But the trust people place in you, particularly if you’re a stranger, often has more to do with stereotypes. “The elderly are stuck in the past.” “Women are emotional, so they can’t be trusted to be objective.” “First Nations and Black people are poor, so they’ll steal things.” But stereotypes can also be to your advantage. “Age begets wisdom.” “You have a degree, you must be smart.” Think of stereotypes that apply to you. Which ones make people trust you less? Which ones make people trust you more?


Braille, the writing system for the blind, was invented in 1821 by a blind, 15-year-old teenager based on a military code. In the US, a competing writing system was invented in 1835 by Samuel Howe, a sighted person. This system, called Boston Line Type, uses embossed Roman-style letters. It’s legible to sighted people and can, with practice, be read by touch. But not so well as Braille. Howe spent a good deal of time and effort marketing his invention, and used his celebrity as its inventor to block Braille from entering the US. It was not until after his death that Braille could finally begin its path to wide-scale adoption on this side of the Pacific.

Disability advocates often use the phrase “nothing about us without us”. As an ally, it is not your job to do things FOR people with less privilege. It is your job to do things WITH people with less privilege. To amplify THEIR voices. The Quebec government recently put together a panel to examine “issues of gender identity in Quebec schools”. They included no trans or non-binary people on that panel. How can they possibly be trusted to make decisions about the rights and freedoms of trans and non-binary people when trans and non-binary people aren’t even at the table? Should the hand make decisions about walking? Should the mouth make decisions about seeing? 


Every week, when we light the reconciliation candle and say we will “listen, learn, and work towards justice and reconciliation”. Listen and learn; then work. To do elsewise would be folly.

To listen, we have to make a space where people feel safe, particularly those with less privilege. That space should be as wide reaching as possible. We are all God’s children, one body! The hands and feet, the heart and lungs, the nose and ears and neck and tongue! We each deserve to be safe wherever we tread on God’s green earth! Each person’s lived experience should be given value, not just the rich ones’, or the white ones’, or the adults’, or the people living in developed countries’.

Not everywhere is safe. In fact, it can often feel like nowhere is. There is a concept in Diversity and Inclusion education called “microagressions”. It’s not a great term. I don’t like it much, myself. For one, “aggression” makes it sound intentional, which these typically aren’t. And “micro” makes them sound small – which I guess these are, but it’s in the way a single crack in a shattered window is small. Microagressions are things like off-colour jokes or insensitive questions that, when piled on top of each other over time, create an environment of chronic toxicity. A born-and-raised Canadian being asked “where are you really from” may feel a bit like they don’t belong here. A woman who is asked “where’s your husband” by every person at an event might think twice about introducing her wife. What things do other people say that make you feel less like you belong? What things do you you do that might be considered microagressions to someone else?


Making a safe space includes supporting less privileged voices, but it also means setting a good example. Humility and recognizing where we can grow are key to Allyship.

To make a safe space, we need introspection to identify and address our own trespasses. We know that changing bad habits is hard. It’s hard to think of a trans person as the correct gender, particularly if you knew them before their transition or if they haven’t spent thousands of dollars on corrective surgery. I misgender people, too. 

When we catch ourselves saying the wrong thing we have to spend time on introspection. We have to think “What did I say? Why did I say it? How was it interpreted? And what can I do to avoid this happening again?” It’ll get easier with practice. And, by doing so, it will become easier for someone with less privilege to turn to you when they need help. 

Our second reading this week was the great commissioning: Jesus’ directive to go out and spread his teachings. His teachings of love for our neighbours. His teachings of lifting up the underprivileged. Allyship at its best. In our lenten meditation this week, let’s ask ourselves: how can we be the best allies, too?