From a small Toronto living-room, 'The Original 8' launched a revolution
Incubators of first Black Adventist church in Canada, catalysts for growth that went from five churches to now more than 70 in the GTA alone.
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Coming out of a dark period when Canada’s immigration policy slammed the door on Black newcomers, the young woman from Rio Claro in southeast Trinidad had no reason to believe she could land in Toronto six decades ago.
But as mourners buried her husband, Milton, in a Don Mills cemetery at the start of another Black History Month this year, Iva Saunders sat erect in a wheelchair, an extraordinary testament to what the mourners call “The Original 8” — an unheralded group of spiritual revolutionaries whose legacy reverberates far beyond the GTA.
“We must remember,” Pastor Errol Lawrence told the mourners.
How could they forget?
Their Adventist heritage dates back to meetings in the Saunders’ living room on Delaware Ave. in the early 1960s. These are the incubators of the first Black Adventist church in Canada, advocates to hire the first Black pastor, Rudy James, pioneers among the 38 charter members in the rented BME church on Shaw St, catalysts of the volcanic growth from five churches to now more than 70 in the GTA alone and the founders of the Toronto West Seventh-day Adventist Church, listed in church documents last summer as the denomination’s largest congregation in Ontario. Membership: 1,399.
“This congregation, as an epicentre for Caribbean integration and influence in Canada’s largest metropolitan area, is a monumental achievement and an inspiring tale,” says member Greg Birkett, a Toronto public school teacher and guidance counsellor, playwright and one of the church’s historians.
“The story is fit for the big screen.”
Most importantly, it’s a Canadian story about the will and power of immigrants, a narrative effused with drama, intrigue, struggle, church politics, social and racial conflict. It’s about the power of faith to push beyond any obstacle and not just survive, but thrive. The reach of the descendants of members of that church is a Canadian success story.
Following strident criticism of Canada’s immigration policies from Caribbean leaders, both regions embarked on the West Indian domestic workers’ scheme. This is how Iva Saunders experienced it in Trinidad.
“In 1956 the Canadian and Trinidadian governments entered into an agreement inviting young women between the ages of 21 and 30 to be employed in Canada as domestic workers. The contract was for one year. After that period of service, permanent residency would then be granted. In addition, they had the option of inviting family members to join them in Canada.”
Ten thousand women applied. Only 25 were chosen. Iva was one of those who hit the immigration jackpot. Or, as she put it, “God’s hand was already at work in my life.”
Within days of landing outside Quebec City, Iva was on a bus to Unionville in Markham to work for the family of a Bay Street financier. She stayed three months longer than the minimum requirement to gain her landed status. And she was off.
Iva met an irresistible, debonair fella from Mandeville, Jamaica named Milton Saunders and in June 1958 they were married.
Iva sent for her brother, Neville Smith. He, in turn, sponsored his love, Sheila. Together they sponsored Sheila’s brother, Urich Ferdinand and his wife, Eulice. They hooked up with two Guyanese, the Sulkers, Roy and Lurline, and before long they were grousing about how different the worship style was here, how cold the service, how disengaged the Caribbean folks were at the Pauline Ave. church, one of five Adventist churches in the city.
When Iva Saunders arrived in Toronto she could not have imagined a Black police chief or city councillor or superior court justice. Some Torontonians openly practiced discrimination in housing, employment and daily life.
Young Black immigrants belonging to a tiny, conservative religion had arrived in Canada at the leading edge of the multitude to follow. It would be their task to grease the path.
This was before Selma and the freedom riders and lunch counter sit-ins in the American south. Jim Crow still had currency. James Brown had not yet sang, “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.” Cassius Clay had not yet returned from the Olympics to defiantly confront racist America.
As late as the 1950s, Canada’s immigration policy was tightly restricted and designed so that Blacks would not populate this fair land. The immigration act of 1910 denied acceptance to “any race deemed unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada.”
Edmonton city council banned Blacks from entering the city in 1911. Prior to the 1960s, Blacks in Canada witnessed segregated schools, restaurants and social clubs, housing and even cemeteries.
Now, the U.S. civil rights movement was turning the tide. Here, Donald Moore, Bromley Armstrong and others presented stiff opposition to discrimination on several fronts. The Original 8 and their shepherdless flock watched and prayed. They wanted to start their own Black-focused congregation but such an action was seen as a revolutionary importation of Black power politics, almost un-Christian. Then, in 1959, a public relations disaster for the church cemented their resolve.
A recent graduate of the church’s theology program in Alberta was to be married at the local Adventist church on a Saturday afternoon. His fiancée was white. Milton Saunders was set to give away the bride. But the pastor left them at the altar, gripped, he said, by his own conscientious objection to marrying an interracial couple. (A Baptist minister rescued the couple, after a mad scramble.)
The exclusion was not Adventist church policy, but the CBC and newspapers picked up the story. The damage was done. It would only be a matter of time. The group met officially as a church congregation for the first time on Dec. 16, 1961. They have not missed a week since then.
Though church leaders refused to hire Rudy James (no relation) as their pastor for more than two years, the congregation persisted and pressured headquarters in Oshawa. In February 1964, James became the SDA’s first Black pastor in Canada.
The history of Black folk finds voice in the pews of the Black church. But “church” is such a narrow construct when viewed through privileged, majority eyes.
Consider this congregation in Toronto, 1963. More than 200,000 West Indians would arrive in Canada between 1960 and 1980. Like other Black churches, Toronto West SDA was settlement and immigration counsellor, information centre, social convenor, spiritual guide and comfort, community resource and go-to hub. For a people with multiple marginalizations — race, class, newcomer, immigrant and peculiar religion — that church, raised on the backs of the quiet revolutionaries, holds a special place in Toronto’s history.
By the 1990s, people of Caribbean descent made up 70 per cent of the Adventist population in Toronto. A survey in 2011 showed that 40 per cent of Adventists in Canada were of Caribbean descent. So, in less than 60 years the young Black immigrants went from virtual invisible non-status Adventists to “running t’ings.” In the church and in society.
Next: Who are they and why did they thrive?
Royson James’s column appears weekly. email@example.com
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