Finding Common Ground in the Night Sky

Ausma Malik is Atkinson’s Director of Social Engagement.

Growing up, my dad, older brother and sister were amateur astronomers. As the youngest at the time, I naturally wanted to be in on the exploration. Summer holidays at the planetarium. Summer nights with the telescope, star maps, and naming constellations. What fascinated me most was that the night sky, the heavens, were shared — around the globe and through time — and I had a lot of questions.

Could my grandma halfway across the world see the Milky Way? Of course.

Would my heroes have looked up at these very stars to guide them? Yes, and probably their heroes too.

Is this the moon whose phases have always told us when it’s Eid, the celebration that ends the Muslim month of fasting? The very same.

As I’ve grown up, I realize we are all searching for meaning whether we find it in the study of the stars, or in moments of quiet reflection, or in daily work.

It’s one of the reasons I was drawn to Mary Jo Leddy’s latest book. Her title Why Are We Here?: A Meditation on Canada invited me to pause and reflect in this way. Mary Jo is a teacher, theologian, social activist and founder of Romero House for refugees. In the book, she shares a question posed by a Tsimshian chief to an early European colonizer on the Pacific northwest coast.

“Why are we here?” is a question that persists, that none of us can shake off, in an increasingly uncertain world.

As a Muslim whose beliefs lead me to accept responsibility for improving the world, this question reminded me of this Quranic verse: “By the flight of time, humanity is indeed in a state of loss, except those who do good works and enjoin upon one another truth and justice and, enjoin upon one another patience.”

“What we can be,” said Mary Jo in a recent CBC radio interview, “is a good country and a just country.” In her lifetime, she has witnessed that a deep hope for goodness and justice is shared by those who seek refuge, opportunity and equity in Canada.

Joseph Atkinson, a practicing Methodist, believed that “society must be made good” and demonstrated this by campaigning for the public good: unemployment insurance, old age pensions, publicly-owned transit, a national health plan, minimum wage and the rights of unions.

Last week at Atkinson, we celebrated the launch of Mary Jo’s book by bringing together people whose faith, activism and commitment to community intersect and has fueled their good work over many decades. Colette Murphy put it this way that night:

“Atkinson has a timeless mission of social and economic justice. Today we’re focused on building stronger movements for decent work and a fair economy – we’re working with a wide range of people to rewrite the rules of an unfair economic system, a system that is global in scope but is experienced by people where they live – the places they call home. Mary Jo’s idea that we can find our way forward in this vast, beautiful, but increasingly divided country in our public spaces, spaces we hold together, resonates deeply with where Atkinson sees signs of progress and draws hope.”

After posing the question “why we are here”, Mary Jo asks: what do we hold in common? “We hold a street in common, a neighbourhood, a city, a village, a vastness.” Even perhaps a night sky. “…We are not owners but inhabitants of this place,” she says. I get what Mary Jo means. On a clear summer evening star-gazing, we can catch a glimpse of why we are here, our place, and our responsibility in this big universe — and see each other in a natural and true light.