Rick Tobias asks grads to build a civil society

Rick Tobias speaking

Rick Tobias has spent most of his working life at the Yonge Street Mission trying to mitigate the impact of violence, poverty and exclusion on the lives of street youth, the homeless, the jobless, the lonely, people in need.

“I do that because I dream of a city, a nation where the inclusion, safety, rights and well-being of the many Rick Tobias speakingsupersedes the will and power of a few,” the urban pastor told graduates of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. The lifelong advocate for low-income and marginalized people received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from York Oct. 11.

Rick Tobias

“I believe that each generation — my generation, your generation — has the responsibility to rediscover what it means to be a civil society, where the good of the people takes precedence over the acquisition of wealth.”

Guided by his Christian faith, Tobias said he has also been influenced by Urban Architect James Rouse, who stated that the only legitimate purpose of a city is to care for the wellbeing of all of its inhabitants, and British business writer Charles Handy, who said the end goal of capitalism is not the acquisition of wealth but the creation of a civil society. Tobias also cited whoever said “we’re not fully adult until we invest our lives in the well-being of others.”

To achieve a civil city requires committing to core values. He highlighted three — grace, gratitude and generosity.

“By grace, I mean the liberty of spirit that enables us to see worth and beauty in all people,” said Tobias.

At the beginning of the civil rights movement, said Tobias, Martin Luther King leaders together and asked why racism was so deeply entrenched in American society. They determined that at the core of American culture and society was a great lie — that some people are worth less than others. This kind of thinking, said Tobias, justifies all manner of mistreatment — slavery, segregation, racism, cultural prejudice. “It allows for the mistreatment of women, children, the disabled, the elderly the weak. It allows for inequality in education and employment opportunity, it allows for many children in our nation to be dependent on food banks, for neighbourhoods to be left without the resources required for its children to prosper. It means that youth in many Toronto communities can join a gang easier than they can join a youth program. In short it allows for the second-rate treatment of citizens.

“That is not the city nor the nation we want to see,” said Tobias. “That others are worth less and deserve less is a lie. It is the great lie.”

Grace is the antidote to that great lie, he said. “When we see beauty and grace in people, it is harder to treat them with anything other than the respect they deserve.” A grace relationship demands embrace and inclusion. “Grace extends a hand of welcome.”

Gratitude is far more than the capacity to say thank you, said Tobias. “It is the capacity to look at a needy world and to understand the good fortune that has come our way. Yes, we’ve worked hard, we’ve studied hard, but in truth we have little control over the things that shape our life — our place of birth, our family, our economic context, our basic abilities and capacities. Were we nurtured as children?” Remove those gifts and how different our futures become, he said.

Generosity is grace turned outward. “Individuals and communities living in poverty have been the very models of generosity in my life,” said Tobias. “If grace sees beauty, generosity defines, invests in that beauty. If grace sees worth, generosity names it, protects it and grows it.”

Too many studies, said Tobias, point to a city and a nation that’s increasingly segregated along class and cultural lines. “That is not the mark of a great city. A civil society does not divide itself along economic and cultural lines. A great city is populated by people who are invested in the well-being of their neighbours and neighbourhoods.”

“We cannot create Rouse’s city of inclusion nor can we build Handy’s civil society without the grace to see value and beauty in others, without the ability to recognize the good that has befriended us, without the generosity of spirit that enables us to invest our lives in the good of many.”

A Canadian of Lebanese Irish descent, Tobias ended with a quote from Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran: “Come and tell me who you are. Are you one who asks what your country can do for you or are you one who asks what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite. If you are the second, then you are an oasis in the desert. York grads, may we be that oasis. May we be the grace ones who lead our city to be a more inclusive, more civil and more generous society.”

York University’s convocation ceremonies are streamed live and then archived online. To view Tobias’s convocation address, visit the Convocation website.