Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Right Whales and Human Sin

DUXBURY MA - 5/06/2015: A mother and calf side by side. Aerial view of WHALES feeding off the shores of Duxbury Beach. There were groups of the North Atlantic right whales swimming off shore. The critically endangered animals are making a comeback since they were nearly hunted to extinction a century ago. They are also making a habit of appearing off the local coastline in the spring. The whales feed on copepods by opening their mouths as they swim through masses of the tiny, but fat-rich, creatures. (David L Ryan/Globe Staff Photo) SECTION: METRO TOPIC
We have spent time twice on wonderful Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy. During both visits of several days duration we were extremely fortunate with weather. We know folk who spent time there and saw virtually nothing because of the fog. We camped in the Hole in the Wall campground which offers spectacular visits of the ocean from sites situated atop the cliffs. Peregrine falcons raced past at eye level and every day whales were visible as we sat in our camp chairs. One day we were out in our kayaks when porpoises approached, then swam beneath us. At night we could hear whales breathing as they passed by below as well as the sound of the rushing tide. To say that this has been a religious experience for us is not an exaggeration.

During our first stay we went out on a whale and wildlife watching tour during which we saw a rarity, a mother North Atlantic Right whale and her calf. It was obvious that the guide was excited by this sighting and we were as well, even though Right whales are rather ponderous and not acrobatic like Humpback whales. They were an at-risk species and in years to come we paid attention to reports of their recovery and the efforts to allow them to flourish in busy shipping lanes.

Last year was a horror story for Right Whales. Eighteen died in Canadian and American waters, some tangled in fishing gear and others struck by ships. This from a population of about 450. The macabre joke is that there are now more Right whale researchers than there are whales.

A couple of days ago there was a report on the number of Right whale calves spotted during the seven-week birthing season. There are about 100 adult females and they gave birth to a total calves -- none. This is a first for researchers and could be catastrophic for the species.

I am dismayed that we may have seen a miracle of the natural world which may disappear in my lifetime, even though I'm getting fairly long in the tooth. We often imagine species under threat on the savannahs of Africa or the jungles of Asia. We're talking here about the waters of our Atlantic provinces losing a key species, and it saddens me that we have come to this place, largely through human activity.

I am convinced that there is a biblical mandate to protect the complexity of Creation, one which we seem to be failing at every turn. We have been very adept at exploitation and habitat destruction, and this is a sin.  I know we can do better than this, and I pray that it isn't too late for these whales.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Religous Freedom in China

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Through the years I've written about religious persecution in China, particularly of the thirty to sixty million Christians in the country although other spiritual and religious groups suffer as well.  Despite loosening the draconian laws and regulations under the Maoist regime those who practice any form of religion are never sure when the state will crack down. Churches are built, some of them huge, only to be demolished by the government on trumped up charges of sedition. Pastors are jailed, some for long periods of time, and some die.

This past week a human rights lawyer named Li Baguang who has defended Christian pastors was taken to hospital for a stomach ache and never left. He died under mysterious circumstances which haven't been explained by the hospital administration. While supporters in China and abroad have called for a thorough investigation it is unlikely to occur.

As we have become increasingly dependent on China for our consumer goods as well as exports to this burgeoning market we seem less and less willing to challenge the nation's dismal human rights record. And recently the leadership has moved toward reducing democratic freedoms and allowing those in the hierarchy of government to assume indefinite terms. The supposedly powerful United States has a president who seems enamoured of strong-arm leaders and it's doubtful we'll see much in the way of human rights leadership from the White House.

We can pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ whose desire is to live the gospel peacefully and openly. We can pray for the safety of those who shine a light on injustice. We can ask our elected leaders to address human rights even when it isn't convenient.


Monday, February 26, 2018

The Darkest Hours

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Dunkirk and Darkest Hour are two stirring films which have been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars and honestly don't deserve the award. They are very good though and both worth watching to remind ourselves of the tremendous sacrifices made by so many for a world free of tyranny. I am a post-war Baby Boomer but both my father and father-in-law served in WW2.

Dunkirk gives us the panoramic view of the extraordinary and heroic evacuation of British and Allied troops from the French beaches. Darkest Hour focusses on the soul-searching of Winston Churchill, thrust into the role of Prime Minister. The film portrays his loneliness despite the bluster, his oratorical prowess, and his determination to fight to the end. As this story is told, former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Lord Halifax, and even Anthony Eden want Churchill to consider negotiating peace, but he was convinced that Hitler could not be trusted.

As I watched Gary Oldman's fine portrayal of Churchill I wondered how I as a Christian should regard Churchill's resolve. It makes for excellent story-telling but is it good theology? Churchill did quote the bible in speeches and invoke God's protection, but most did at that time. His grandson co-authored a book called God and Churchill in which he maintains that Churchill's worldview concerning evil was informed by the Christianity he learned from his childhood nanny.

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In a few weeks we will enter into the prelude of Easter called Holy Week and hear that in his darkest hour Jesus refuses to use force to resist the Roman Empire and those who come to arrest him saying "those who live by the sword will die by the sword."

Of course I know how both of these dramas play out, but day by day I am required to ask how I will follow Jesus, and as our United Church statement of faith says:

seek justice and resist evil,
    to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
       our judge and our hope.


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The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio

Saturday, February 24, 2018

True Prophets

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Beware of false prophets,
who come to you in sheep’s clothing
but inwardly are ravenous wolves.

                               Matthew 7:15

On Thursday I listened to an interview with several American high school students, including a couple from the Parkland, Florida high school where several of their classmates were killed by another teen using a military grade assault rifle. They are on a mission to change the way their troubled nation thinks about the "right" to own weapons. They have already met with legislators and with the president, Donald Trump.

To me it is an aspect of the sickness of the United States that they have been dismissed as na├»ve children by some, vilified by others, and even accused of being "crisis actors" rather than real victims. It seems that conspiracy theories sprout up every time hard truths are articulated, and make no mistake, these young people are articulate, honest, and undeterred in their difficult mission. I have become deeply cynical about the US but listening to these courageous kids brought me hope. They are prophetic voices in a land where many of those who claim to be followers of Christ ignore his teaching and call to be peacemakers.

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Later that morning the head of the National Rifle Association (whose name I will not use) offered a bizarre defense of the Second Amendment and the right to purchase highly destructive weapons under the guise of freedom: "It's not bestowed by man, but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright. So I call right now today on every citizen who loves this country and who treasures this freedom to stand and unflinchingly defend the Second Amendment, the one freedom that protects us all." Apparently he has developed his own idolatrous scriptures because nothing in the New Testament would support this notion in any way.

The irony is that while the teens I heard said nothing about God, they are hopeful, truthful prophets. The NRA and religious and political leaders who are in thrall to this demonic organization are the false prophets who invoke God's name for a kingdom of destruction.

We can pray that this movement for change will gain strength and that sanity will prevail in the United States.

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Friday, February 23, 2018

Soundtrack to Life

Image result for newfoundland ads tourism 2018

Newfoundland and Labrador may have the best tourism ads of any place, and the advertising firm the province employs is brilliant at evoking a way of life which is based in reality with a touch of fancy. In the ads the sun is always shining, the wind is a breeze rather than a gale, and no one slaps at the swarms of insects which can drive a person mad.  

This year there are commercials which draw us toward the sounds, or absence of them, in this maritime land and seascape. In the ad pictured above there is a kettle that whistles even though that type of kettle doesn't, but other than that we've heard 'em all while living inand visiting in Newfoundland.

We have a variety of God-given senses, and hearing is one of them. Seldom is there absolute silence in our days, even when all that we hear is our own breathing. Yet we can choose to listen for the sounds of our surroundings and we realize that when we quiet the noise, both literally and figuratively, we become aware of the divine presence.

 These tourism ads include all three of what Bernie Krause describes as biophony (creature sounds) geophony (non-biological natural sounds) and anthrophony (human-induced sounds). A whale breathing, and waves on a shore, and the laughter of children might represent these three. Sadly the human sounds often become amplified and  intrusive, what we might describe as noise.

During Lent I've been attempting to pay attention to my soundscape each day. What are the sounds around me, and how do I respond to them? When I get out for a ramble I try to focus on the sounds of geophony and biophony, even as I make room for the "still small voice of God." It is the Creator who is the conductor, although I like the image of a young girl with improvised baton in hand.

Perhaps you can be more attentive and intentional in awareness of your soundscape as the Lenten season progresses. Here is the rather poetic text (or most of it) from another of the advertisements

....It happens in this place.

It's the skirl of fiddles and the tapping of feet
with a happy clamour of voices on backing.

It's the song of an accent and the easy rhythms of a chat.
It's the thunderous timpani of waves crashing against an ancient rocky shore, pounding, beating down but lifting your spirit up.
It's the soft sough of the invisible wind and cawing curling songs of the seabirds that ride it.
It's the awestruck silence of watching a slumbering iceberg, water gurgling against the hull of your boat, the creaks, cracks and groans of the ice telling you that, while it might slumber, it is very much alive.
It's standing on a peak looking over a glacial fjord hearing nothing but hearing everything.
These are the moments.
The moments when you realise that peace and quiet is rewardingly unquiet.


Image result for newfoundland and labrador there is a soundtrack to life

We have stayed in a friend's house on Change Islands from which this tourism image was taken.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Billy Graham, evangelist

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Yesterday  both traditional and social media were abuzz with the news that evangelist and "America's preacher" Billy Graham had died at the age of 99. Graham was a unique phenomenon, a Christian speaker who could address stadium crowds in the tens of thousands with an intimacy which spoke to individuals. His messages addressed spiritual hunger which could be satisfied in the person of a living, present Christ with whom we can develop a life-changing relationship. At every evangelistic event participants were invited to make a decision for Christ and Decision was the name of the magazine for Graham's organization.

Evangelistic "crusades" have largely gone out of fashion, yet the energy of these events created through large attendance, music, and we can hope the stirring of the Holy Spirit, meant that many thousands responded to the invitational moment, the altar call. It's estimated that Graham preached live to 100 million people around the world, and that many again via satellite and television.

I never attended a Graham event, although as a child I attended a large Leighton Ford rally with my mother. Ford was a Canadian married to Billy Graham's sister. As a minister I chose not to be involved in crusades which came to communities near where I served, even though pastors were invited to participate. The concern was always that these rallies were manipulative and that one-time conversions were not very United Church. Mind you, mainline denominations aren't exactly success stories these days.

I did feel that Graham was a person of deep Christian conviction and integrity. He integrated his crusade stops in the American South during the 50's and 60's and he got on board with President Lyndon Johnston's War on Poverty. Perhaps he greatest weakness was his association with power. He became something of a chaplain to presidents and eventually realized that he had compromised himself in his relationship with Richard Nixon. He made anti-Semitic comments to Nixon for which he later apologized. Despite these blemishes Graham was genuine in his faith.
Image result for Billy graham and richard nixon

It's interesting that today Billy Graham's son Franklin is a huge supporter of President Donald Trump, arguably a more dangerous and devious president than Nixon -- and that's saying something. Franklin Graham is not a spiritual successor to his father. He can't even stand in his shadow.

Did you ever attend a Billy Graham crusade? Were you wary or supportive of this sort of event? Does Billy Graham deserve the accolades directed toward him since news of his death?

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Movement Ecology

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Well, I'm living proof that we're never too old to discover new words. My newly acquired word is "vagility" and, no, it is not what you might think! Vagility is "tending or able to move from place to place." The New York Times just published a piece by Jim Robbins entitled Animals Are Losing Their Vagility, or Ability to Roam Freely. Many species of birds and mammals are migratory and humans are messing up their ability to move by poking around  in areas which were once relatively wild, often for the opportunity to extract resources. 

...a new and growing field called “movement ecology” is casting light on the secretive movements of wildlife and how those habits are changing. A global study of 57 species of mammals,  published in the journal Science, has found that wildlife move far less in landscapes that have been altered by humans, a finding that could have implications for a range of issues, from how well natural systems function to finding ways to protect migratory species.

Image result for monarch butterfly migration

Arctic terns migrate 19,000 kilometres each way, from the Arctic to Antartica,  and Canadian caribou 700+ kilometres. Monarch butterflies move thousands of kilometres in a generational relay team. We forget that humans are vagile, or at least we were. The First Peoples of North America likely crossed a land or ice bridge from Siberia and spread steadily southward. I was interested to discover this past summer that proto-Inuit people would travel across dangerous waters to Newfoundland and its surrounding islands for summer hunting and fishing. Today, the people who are migratory are those who leave their homes because of war and famine.

Our biblical story is strongly rooted in the notion of the exodus from Egypt and forty years on the move. And Jesus' parents were vagile, traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem and on to Egypt.

But back to the critters. Humans show such little regard for the intricate systems of the natural world in the Anthropocene, this age dominated by our species. I hope we are capable of change for the good of all living beings, not just our own kind. I honestly figure that this is God's desire for the planet.

 Feel free to comment, but please don't share when you lost your vagility.


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Van Gogh, Churches, and Grasshoppers

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Yesterday, which was the Family Day holiday in Ontario, I had a conversation with son Isaac about Vincent Van Gogh. Isaac was curious about the church buildings in a couple of Van Gogh's paintings. The most famous is the Church at Auvers, one of roughly 80 paintings he completed during the final months of his life when mental illness resulted in his hospitalization. Vincent was given the freedom to go out on day passes for rambles through the countryside and he often worked feverishly en plein air. He speaks about this painting in a letter to his sister Wilhelmina in June of 1890, a month before his death:

I have a larger picture of the village church — an effect in which the building appears to be violet-hued against a sky of simple deep blue colour, pure cobalt; the stained-glass windows appear as ultramarine blotches, the roof is violet and partly orange. In the foreground some green plants in bloom, and sand with the pink flow of sunshine in it. And once again it is nearly the same thing as the studies I did in Nuenen of the old tower and the cemetery, only it is probably that now the colour is more expressive, more sumptuous...

I have been thinking a lot about Van Gogh in recent months. There is a new book to be published next month called Vincent and the Seasons which looks at the paintings reflecting the different seasons of the year. I've requested that the library purchase it because the cost is a steep $75!

Vincent Van Gogh's Olive Trees

I've also been fascinated by recent news that a grasshopper was found embedded in the paint of another work of that era called Olive Trees. I know, I know, it seems odd that this intrigues me, but this chance occurrence seems emblematic of Vincent's love of the outdoors, where he was so creative and found solace for his tortured soul.

Vincent had an ambivalent relationship with churches and structured religion. He studied for the ministry but he was miserable at it, and eventually abandoned his plans. Even though he fluctuated wildly in his religious convictions, at times declaring himself an atheist, he found comfort in singing hymns, often doing so during his rambles.

This is the way I want to imagine Vincent Van Gogh, painting whilst surrounded by the beauty of Creation, singing and humming songs of faith.


Thursday, February 15, 2018


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is embraced by Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould after delivering a speech on the recognition and implementation of Indigenous rights in in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, made a 15-minute speech in the House of Commons which was clearly a response to public outrage at the acquittal of a Saskatchewan farmer who shot and killed Colten Boushie, a Cree man who drove onto his property with friends. Trudeay promised new legal framework for Indigenous peoples and the speech included the phrase "we need to get to a place where Indigenous peoples are in control of their own destiny." I've heard a number of responses to the speech from Indigenous leaders, most of them cautiously optimistic, although they are well aware that there have been plenty of words which have not issued in action when it comes to healing the brokenness of virtually every system which addresses Native rights and culture. Someone suggested that what we need is "reconciliaction," the simple but profound addition of a letter to remind us that the time is now for concrete proposals and their implementation.

The United Church has responded in the form of a letter by our Moderator Jordan Cantwell. I'll include a portion here, as well as the link for you to read her worthwhile thoughts in their entirety:

I am therefore asking you to reflect on the legal system’s response to the violent death of a young Indigenous man in a Canada that says it is committed to reconciliation. I am asking you to reflect as members of a church that has also pledged its commitment to reconciliation and to confronting racism.

To the members of the United Church’s 64 Indigenous communities of faith and to Indigenous members of the church in urban areas and other communities of faith, I say that the United Church will continue to seek to build a new relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. We understand that this cannot be accomplished simply with words. It requires confronting our own racism and dismantling systems of privilege that deny you your rightful place in the life of your nations and this country.

To the those of you who are members of non-Indigenous communities of faith in the United Church, I ask you to think about what our Indigenous relations are experiencing and feeling in this moment. I ask you to think about how you can respond in a way that will be meaningful for them, and that will contribute to a new relationship between us.

What can we do? We can pray for those affected by this case, and for all those who have been or are being harmed by the systemic racism that underlies it. We can pray for the strength to face hard truths. We can join in public witness and support. We can learn more about what changes the TRC has recommended for the Canadian legal system with respect to Indigenous peoples (Calls to Action 25-42), and we can advocate with political leaders for the fulfillment of those reforms. Most importantly, we can acknowledge and confront our own racism and privilege.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Snow Day

Backyard cross this morning

You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Psalm 51

Ruth and I have been delighted by the amount of snow that has fallen through this Winter. Okay, there have been some moments when I wanted to hang up my shovel forever, but for the most part it has been a delight. We're old enough to recall pre-climate change Winters in Southern Ontario, back in the days when the seasons weren't Spring, Summer, Autumn and Grey. We also lived in Northern Ontario for eleven years and quickly learned to embrace the outdoors opportunities of the season with our young family. The alternative was a serious case of cabin fever.

Cold and ice and snow are transformative. They can literally alter the landscape, obscuring reference points, making some places inaccessible and others accessible. Snow can remake the dreariest thicket into a place of enchantment and surprise the most cynical heart with joy.  

Through the years I've pondered all this in the context of Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. Ash Wednesday shifts around the calendar because of it's relationship with Easter, our curiously migratory celebration of Christ's resurrection. It can be as early as February 3rd and as late as March 9th.  Still, for a lot of Canadians snow is at hand as Lent begins Through the decades of ministry I had just one Ash Wednesday cancelled because of a heavy snowfall and white-out conditions.

It's important to have the "dirty forehead" aspect of Ash Wednesday, the contrition and repentance which open us to a new and clean heart and mind. I also appreciate the words of the Ash Wednesday Psalm, 51, where David is sufficiently convicted by guilt and remorse to seek a fresh start: "wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." How often did David see snow in the course of his lifetime? It couldn't have been more than a few. In that respect the imagery is even more powerful.

I hope that this Lent is a time for redirection and transformation for all of us. May Christ be with us on this journey. Happy sledding.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Old and the New of Lent

Why I Believe: Daily Devotions on Faith & Discipleship

Today Mardi Gras or "Fat Tuesday" will be celebrated will be celebrated with varying degrees of debauchery around the world. Others of us will stick to pancakes, perhaps ramping the meal up with some sausages on the side. This is the last day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. Because Lent was traditionally a time of self-denial Christians would get rid of the fat in their kitchens and do some celebrating before the six-week season began.

A lot of us grew up without Lent, leaving that notion to the Roman Catholics. While many conservative Christian groups still look askance at this "popish" behaviour, a surprising number now include aspects of the liturgical year in their worship life.

Abstinence and self-denial can actually be good choices in an age where there seems to be so little encouragement to see less as more. Perhaps we would be better off with less screen time and more prayer time during our journey toward Easter. Fasting from meat a day or two a week makes a lot of sense, environmentally.

There are resources such as the United Church Lenten devotional book, Why I Believe. Our son, the Rev. Isaac Mundy is one of the contributors this year. Here is a sample of his weekly reflections 

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Citizens for Public Justice have their Give it Up For the Earth emphasis, which has a Creation Care theme. I wonder how far we can go to reduce plastic from our "diet," a modern day version of the traditional ridding ourselves of rich foods during Lent. What if we consciously chose not to purchase goods, including food, entombed in the plastic which is plaguing our waterways, lakes and oceans?

Lent is also about a shift in attention and intention. I would encourage you to take a moment in every day to be aware of the world beyond your walls, admittedly a challenge at times when we feel housebound by winter conditions. How about keeping a Lenten notebook in which you record the simple pleasures and beauty of the natural world? That may require a commitment to get outside more often to experience creation and Creator.

Diana Butler Bass is about to release a book on gratitude and recently tweeted:

Lent begins this Wed 2/14. Add a practice of gratefulness to your life. Keep a gratitude journal, write a thank you letter to someone you appreciate, surprise friends with thank you gifts, do gratitude meditations. Make this a thankful Lent.

Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks

Will you give up or take on anything for Lent this year, or will you give up thinking about Lent for Lent?

Monday, February 12, 2018

Queen Victoria and Christian Compassion

Martin Compston as Dr Traill in Victoria

 Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth,
I therefore command you,
“Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

Deuteronomy 15:11 (NRSV)

We haven't been watching the British series on PBS entitled Victoria. We started last year but I gave up on the melodrama about the British monarch of the 19th century and Ruth wasn't impressed by the beginning of the second season. We did stumble into an episode last evening and it was quite worthwhile. It explored one of the darkest eras of Queen Victoria's reign, the Irish Potato Famine. During a roughly seven year span in the middle of the century disease ravaged the staple of this nation of eight million inhabitants. Estimates vary widely but by the time of stabilization he population was halved either by starvation and disease (1-1 1/2 million and emigration (1-2 million). It has never recovered to that eight million figure and even in the 1970's the population was only around three million.

Skibbereen by James Mahony, 1847.JPG

Back to Victoria! The focus of the episode was on a Church of Ireland (Protestant) priest, Dr Robert Traill , who served one of the most afflicted parishes where people sometimes died by the side of the road and lay unburied. Traill was initially fiercely anti-Catholic but put aside sectarian biases to work on behalf of the starving souls of the area. He wrote passionate and eloquent letters beseeching authorities to come to the aid of the afflicted

That's where Queen Victoria comes in, at least in the drama. She becomes aware of Traill's advocacy and gives him an audience. She, in turn, asks the Prime Minister to respond to what was one of the greatest humanitarian crises in European history. The British government had been fully aware of the unfolding disaster but chose to ignore it.

The historical Dr Traill is the great-great-great-grandfather of Victoria writer Daisy Goodwin who thought his story would be a good way to illustrate the terrible way in which the Irish were treated by the British government. Traill set up a soup kitchen in his parish rectory and eventually succumbed to disease himself, dying of "famine fever" in 1847.

What struck me was how overtly biblical this episode was. Traill quotes from Deuteronomy 15 and we are also given a snippet of 1 Corinthians 13 (the Love Passage) and a nod to the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.)

I think I've made a strong case for channel surfing here! Were you aware of the magnitude of the famine? Are you aware that there is a memorial to those who left Ireland on the Kingston waterfront? And don't forget the Heritage Minute about Irish orphans!

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