When Goliath wins

Who doesn’t like a good underdog story?

American myth and culture are chock full of them – from the humble beginnings of a few rag-tag Pilgrims jumping ship from the religious tyranny of the Church of England to the slightly more contemporary notion that anyone – and I do mean anyone – can be elected President. Most of us root against the Yankees and for the Cubs.

And those who espouse a Christian faith might note the consistent underdog themes ensconced in the Good Book – from the people of Israel fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds with Yahweh on their side to that local-Nazareth-boy-makes-good story that founded a world religion and inspired that evangelical ass-kickin’ Left Behind video game.

We can’t get enough of these kinds of stories – David versus Goliath, the 1980 US Hockey team against Russia in Lake Placid, and of course Rocky versus Apollo, Mr. T, evil Russian guy, Medicare Senior Prescription Plan.

But what happens when Goliath wins?

The ironically-named Jim Profit was in a fight for the better part of ten years with über-retailer Wal-Mart. He, the Jesuit center he heads and an eclectic group of people from the community, the Residents for Sustainable Development (RSD), joined forces in an attempt to keep the monolithic corporation from building in their city.

Still, Wal-Mart won.

Profit is a Jesuit priest and Director of the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph, Ontario, located on 600 pristine acres of farmland, wetland, and walking trails. The Jesuits originally bought the land in 1913, and it is now home to a Community Shared Agriculture program, the Ecology Project and Loyola House Jesuit Retreat and Training Centre.

“We call it a sacred belt of land,” Profit says of the 600 acres and surrounding properties, as it is home not only to the Jesuit Centre but also to three burial grounds – Our Lady Immaculate Mausoleum, the cemetery for the Jesuit Fathers of Upper Canada and Guelph’s 150-yr old Woodlawn Memorial Park. “And now that sacredness has been broken.”

Rapid development
Guelph, a city of 100,000-plus, is located an hour west of Toronto. Like many cities its size, Guelph has experienced rapid economic development in the last several years. And what developing city is complete without a Wal-Mart Supercenter as its retail hub?

Wal-Mart originally applied in 1995 to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) for a change in zoning of the property next to the Jesuits, but their request was rejected. They tried again in 1998, and were again turned away. Like most Goliath-esque entities in this world, the expansive retail giant has seemingly unlimited financial resources, a whole bevy of lawyers and as a result, influence matched only by its will to expand.

In 2003, Guelph elected a new mayor, Kate Quarrie, who was very much in favor of allowing Wal-Mart to build their 125,000 square foot shopping oasis. Under her influence, the OMB finally approved the request for a zoning change in 2005. The store opened its doors in November of 2006, just in time for the din of falling prices during the maddening Christmas rush.

As feared, the big box store is just the beginning of a cascade of new development. Wal-Marts typically and insidiously draw other retail chains. The Wal-Mart folks are looking to expand even further with plans to grow to 200,000 square feet.

David versus Goliath always makes good copy, especially when the adversaries are as polarized as the oft-demonized retail giant and a Jesuit priest. Predictably, the battle drew media scrutiny throughout Canada. Still, Profit says that this issue is much bigger than just Wal-Mart. “These things happen gradually. Our property is split by a highway that seven or eight years ago was expanded from two lanes to four lanes to accommodate the increased volume of traffic brought on by the development in Guelph long before Wal-Mart ever came along. We are a culture defined by development and consumerism, and mega-shopping plazas like Wal-Mart exist as a monument to these forces. Consumerism masks the need we all have to turn inward to encounter God immanent at our core. The call to find satisfaction in acquisitions masks the call of the Spirit to find God within.”

Dramatic changes
Despite the dramatic changes in the landscape, the Jesuit Centre persists with its mission, even convincing Wal-Mart to make some concessions for its construction plans – a twelve foot berm complete with large trees and a living fence was created, separating the store’s parking lot from the Jesuits’ property. The changes are stark, certainly. The splendor of the night sky has been diluted a bit with the increase in artificial lighting. Predictably, there is increased noise from the constant clamor of delivery trucks and a steady flow of discount shoppers.

“We need now, more than ever,” Profit insists, “places of quiet like the retreat centre to experience the spiritual, to experience the divine in the face of this consumerism. We are a sanctuary in the middle of the city. We still have wildlife and quiet areas to offer as an alternative to peoples’ busyness.”

Profit is exceedingly upbeat and gracious in the face of what could easily be perceived of as a failure.

“We were never convinced that we were going to win this thing,” he confesses. “We weren’t doing it to win. We took on the fight simply because it was important to do. If we profess faith in the Gospel, we as people of faith have to be involved in these issues. To divorce the beauty of the Earth from the divine is unconscionable.”

Social issues
These sentiments are in the minority, it appears, when it comes to the Church in the west. Social issues for the majority of Christians are remarkably uninteresting compared to, say, keeping gays from marrying, getting God’s endorsement in crusading wars, or finding culturally-savvy salvation in The Matrix films.

Paulo Freire, famed Brazilian liberation theologian and educator, presciently described the different segments of the Church we experience today. “The ‘traditionalist church’ is owned by the elites and functions as a tool to implement their interests; the ‘modernizing church’ is the church of half measures, designed to appease the craze for development while maintaining the structure of privilege; and the ‘prophetic church,’ is the church serving the interests of transformation and liberation.”

Freire’s philosophy and, more importantly, his literacy work with the poor in the 1950s was a threat to the Brazilian military regime; he was imprisoned and eventually exiled. Jesus’ activity was a threat to empire and the Temple elite that collaborated in social and religious oppression of the poor in first century Palestine; he was hounded and eventually executed.

It is all too facile, but dangerously disingenuous, to jump to the post-Resurrection Christ without the subtext of the pre-Resurrection Jesus. That Jesus was an organizer and subversive of the political and religious exploitation that perpetuated the cycle of poverty existing throughout Judaea.

Had Jesus merely espoused theories of individual spirituality and salvation, he would have been embraced and supported by the Romans. Had he been content with the traditional Temple culture, he would have been lauded by the Pharisees. Instead, he dared to question the power structures, dared to question the political and economic injustice of the social milieu, and how the religious were complicit in maintaining the unjust social order.

The entire premise of this religion we call Christianity is based on an apparent failure, the ultimate paradox of the political Jesus executed by crucifixion between two other “social bandits” while his followers awaited the conquering Christ. It is easy to imagine the disciples sitting around following Jesus’ crucifixion, glancing at each other with panicked visages, muttering “you know, fellas, we’re kind of screwed.”

Thank God that the failure and the death are not the end of the story.

New life
“Losing this fight with Wal-Mart,” Profit admits, “was a death. But in the death have been new opportunities for life. This issue brought the community together – a diverse group of people, religious and secular folks alike – united for the same cause. The divisions just evaporated.” That is something Wal-Mart can’t touch.

Nine members of the OMB who voted to change the zoning that allowed Wal-Mart to build in Guelph have been voted out. Kate Quarrie, the pro-Wal-Mart mayor, lost the subsequent mayoral election to the anti-Wal-Mart candidate she originally defeated.

The dust has cleared. Wal-Mart’s doors are open for business, and the people of Guelph are flocking there. The brothers at the Jesuit Centre have moved on too. They have committed to a 500-year project to restore the 100-acre portion of the property to an old growth forest. The centre is selling square meters of the property as a fundraiser to keep its ministry going. And the public is buying them up, galvanized by the attention that the fight with Wal-Mart inspired.

The idea for the old growth forest originated from a discussion between a “secular” conservationist from the Residents for Sustainable Development and Father Profit – in a pub. Only in a pub, with the collision of the sacred and the profane eased by a few good Canadian lagers, could such a perfect metaphor be birthed.

This is one version of the story when Goliath wins. Out of failure, victory. Out of death, life.


Robert Rowen-Herzog is a writer from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Issue 5

This article first appeared in Geez magazine Issue 5, Spring 2007, Humanity Has Big Issues.

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Issue 5, Spring 2007

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