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Tom White, the Toronto Transit Commission, Gideon’s Bibles and the Public Square

By Don Hutchinson

Tom White died on Wednesday. Perhaps, many of you don’t know who Tom was – I only met him once, having several conversations over a few days together – so let me introduce the 25-year leader of Voice of the Martyrs USA with a true story that tells you something of his character:

When the black hood was placed over Tom White’s head, he didn’t know if he would see the light again. “Where are you taking me?” he asked the Cuban guards. The guards said nothing.

Tom had been secretly delivering Christian literature to Cuba for seven years. He and others had dropped gospel tracts out of planes into the ocean around the Communist island. But he had never heard from a single Christian in Cuba that the materials had arrived.

“Please, God,” Tom had prayed, “give us some confirmation that our work is helping.”
Now, six weeks later, he was taken to meet a Cuban intelligence officer, Captain Santos. Their plane had crashed in Cuba, and Tom and the pilot, Mel Bailey, had been captured and charged with compromising the stability of the nation.

“Our people have found thousands of these on the beaches and in the fields!” Captain Santos shouted, holding one of the sea packages that had been dropped years before.

Tom tried not to smile. “Thank you, Lord,” he prayed, “for answering my prayer. Thank you that our work has not been in vain.”

The answer to Tom’s prayer was costly. He spent twenty-one months in Cuban prisons. But in Castro’s prison, he met many members of the church and learned that even under Castro, Christ’s body was prospering. God answered his prayer.

Tom was about sharing the love of Christ and caring for those who suffered for doing the same. He will be deeply missed and his family will benefit from our prayers.

This deep desire – the apostle Paul referred to it as a compulsion (1 Corinthians 9:16) – is one of the traits that marks the Evangelical Christian. We are called to share the love and life of Jesus. As Paul discovered at Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17:16-34), we needn’t exclude the voices of others, but simply desire to have our voice included. This place where the discourse about religion takes place is commonly referred to as “the public square.”

Tom carried his message into the public square in a country where the government had decreed it illegal to do so, and he paid the price … willingly.

We Canadians have the privilege of living in a country where our Constitution decrees that it is both legal and a guaranteed right for Christians – and others – to engage in the discourse about religion, like the apostle Paul did in his day. The public square, constitutionally, includes any place that is regulated by government; government including federal, provincial, municipal and school boards and their agencies.  Recent media coverage reflects that some democratically elected officials either don’t understand Canada’s constitutional guarantees or are afraid of offending some one or group(s) if they act on them.

Public transit authorities are agents of government. Bus posters are part of the public square.  I wrote more on this point in 2009 when it was atheist bus ads that were being protested rather than Muslim or Christian ads (Atheist Bus Ads – Religion in the Public Square). Essentially, the current furor over advertising by Muslim and Christian organizations on the Toronto Transit Commission – which has featured Christian complaints, atheist complaints and complaints from others – is a point settled in Canadian law by the Supreme Court of Canada. The door for having the conversation about religion on public transit was flung open by the court’s decision in Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority v. Canadian Federation of Students when it was determined the Charter of Rights and Freedoms applied to this government body.

In another example of this principle, the democratically elected trustees who sit on a local school board may do so only because the provincial government has established school boards. They are equally subject to the public square requirements of Canada’s constitution, a.k.a. the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The recent controversy around Gideon’s Bible distribution is ill informed when it relies on the decisions of the Ontario Court of Appeal in Zylberberg v. Ontario (1988) and Canadian Civil Liberties Association v. Minister of Education (a.k.a. Elgin County) (1990). Those decisions dealt with mandatory religious exercises in the public school system. A better point of reference might be the 2012 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in S.L. v. Commission Scolaire des Chênes. In that case the court noted that the role of the state was to be neutral (or as neutral as it can be) concerning religion in the sphere of education. The court also affirmed the right of parents to make the decision in regard to the religious education of their children. One can reasonably conclude that sending permission slips home for parental approval is the right approach to distribution of sacred texts in the public education system; a significant part of Canada’s public square.

Tom White was willing to go to prison to keep the conversation about religion alive in a Communist public square. One would hope that respect for Canada’s constitution, historic religious freedoms and the decision making capacity of parents would suffice to keep the conversation alive in the public square of a free and democratic society.




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