Michiko Bown-Kai is an artist drawn to the way theatre, dance, and poetry can create community, educate, and heal. Currently, they are a Masters of Divinity student at Emmanuel College. Michiko’s current ministry involves working at the General Council Office of the United Church of Canada as Program Coordinator for Racial Justice, Gender Justice, and LGBTQ Justice.
This article is part of a series of interviews with advocates, legal thinkers, community organizers and academics on issues related to Canadian civil liberties produced by CCLA volunteers. All responses are the interview subject’s own, and do not necessarily represent the viewpoint or positions of the CCLA.
CCLA: What drew you to the ministry?
MBK: I was drawn to ministry because I wanted to work for justice in a way where I could be creative, rooted in community, and make deep connections with people on a spiritual level.
How do the arts interact with the pursuit of social justice in your own work?
MBK: So much of ministry is about creating opportunities for people to build relationships that enable to grow and heal spiritually. Art plays such a fundamental role as something that can unite community and can enable people to express themselves fully. For me, ritual is at the heart of religion, which in itself is a sacred form of performance art.
CCLA: What, from your perspective, are the most challenging legal and political changes facing LGBTQI youth in Canada today?
MBK: The most challenging legal/political chances would have to be how easily passing legislation to support the rights of trans people can end up being amended in ways which end up policing and harming the trans community. Bill C-279 is a prime example of this issue in regards to bathroom access. Other political issues include the inconsistent coverage of medical transitioning costs from province to province and issues in regards to arresting and detaining trans people based on their assigned sex at birth rather than their gender.
CCLA: In what ways are religious institutions involved in the fight for social justice? What role does the United Church of Canada specifically play?
MBK: In many ways, because religious institutions are at the core of many societies they hold great transformational power. They offer communities a place to bring their grief so that it can be explored in healthy ways and turned into a passion for justice. Christian churches, through Jesus’ teachings, remind society that justice involves commitment, patience, and a willingness to do hard emotional work with ourselves and even those we consider enemies. The United Church of Canada is a fairly young church, formed through a union in 1925, which has a history of engaging in a variety of social justice work. The United Church is committed to helping its members learn about social justice issues from a theological perspective while also calling its members to work for change in the broader society. In particular, the United Church has been a leader in regards to Christian support of same gender marriage and reconciliation work with Indigenous people in regards to residential schools. A lot more information about this work can be found here.
CCLA: How can religious institutions, other civil-society groups and the state best cooperate to pursue social justice?
MBK: As the church continues to change, having established networks are more important than ever. I think being able to create networks that can be easily mobilized to address common issues is important.
CCLA: Does the government have a role in furthering social justice through policies such as hate-speech legislation? What is the relationship between these policies and the need for freedom of expression?
MBK: As a Christian, I commit myself to doing work that will allow for the kin-dom of God to be seen and felt as much as possible on Earth. I think that the government can play an important role in setting societal standards that protect vulnerable communities and individuals, as well as ensure that power is shared as justly as possible. However, I base my justice work on a Christian framework rather than a liberal rights-based framework (although there are some wonderful theologians such as Ada-Maria Isazi-Diaz who do wonderful work on the intersections of these frameworks).
CCLA: Do the pursuit of racial justice, gender justice, and LGBTQ justice sometimes work at cross-purposes? How do you resolve these issues if and when they appear?
MBK: I think that racial justice, gender justice, and LGBTQ justice are inherently interconnected pieces of work that cannot be complete without each being fully realized. Systems of oppression such as patriarchy, capitalism, racism, and cissexism all work in partnership with each other. In the same sense, a person holds many identities can never separate themselves from the reality that they participate in all of these systems either to their benefit or oppression. The only time when these issues work at cross-purposes in when one is prioritized above the other such as an LGBTQ movement which fails to address the impact racism has on understandings of gender and sexuality.