One day last winter, Hope Paslowski came home from school to find her parents deep in conversation. “What are you guys talking about?” Hope asked. Rev. Jordan Cantwell, minister at Delisle-Vanscoy (Sask.) United, explained that she had been asked to let her name stand as a nominee for the 42nd moderator of The United Church of Canada. Cantwell’s spouse, Laura Fouhse, a diaconal minister at McClure United in Saskatoon, recalls that Hope asked what a moderator does. “Jordan went over it, and Hope said, ‘Of course you should do it.’”
According to Fouhse, teenage Hope then offered some advice to her 48-year-old mother. “Hope said to Jordan, ‘You’ve always told me that courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is doing what you’ve been called to do in spite of the fear that you’re feeling. So you need to do this.”
That bit of wisdom proved to be “a huge part of Jordan’s discernment,” says Fouhse.
Months later, Cantwell and Fouhse stood on a podium in front of 500 cheering commissioners and visitors gathered in Corner Brook, N.L., for the 2015 meeting of the United Church’s General Council. After a long day of balloting, Cantwell had been declared moderator-elect from a field of 12 nominees. The journey that her daughter helped to kick-start had reached the finish line. Another, perhaps more difficult, journey — leading the United Church through a time of painful transition — had begun.
“I commit to all of you and to our church that I will hold all of you, I will hold our church, in my prayers and in my heart as we walk together these next three years as we continue to do Christ’s ministry in new ways and old ways together,” Cantwell said as Fouhse stood behind her, smiling.
With her closely cropped hair, black T-shirt bearing an image of martyred Archbishop Óscar Romero, and black jeans, Cantwell cut a markedly different figure from moderators-elect of the past, hinting at the unorthodox route that led her to the highest elected office in Canada’s biggest Protestant denomination.
Cantwell was born in the United States (she holds dual Canadian-American citizenship) to a Methodist mother and Roman Catholic father. She grew up as an Anglican in Edmonton and drifted away from organized religion altogether before finding her way to the United Church and formally becoming a member in the late 1990s.
She had been hovering around the edges of the church for several years through her involvement in social justice movements, in particular an ecumenical youth program focusing on racism in
Canada and apartheid in South Africa. In 1993, the United Church sent her to South Africa as part of an ecumenical team monitoring the country’s transition from apartheid rule.
Working at the United Church’s Centre for Christian Studies in Winnipeg — where she and Fouhse met — and running a poverty outreach program at Winnipeg’s Augustine United led to her decision in 2006 to start a master of divinity degree at St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon. Cantwell’s faculty adviser, Rev. Sandra Beardsall, remembers her as curious, bright and disciplined — with a quick sense of humour that counterbalanced a deep commitment to social justice.
“I experienced her as one of those rare radicals who can be radical and yet always open to the other, whoever the other is, with a kind of genuine curiosity,” says Beardsall. Watching Cantwell during her internship at Delisle-Vanscoy United, 30 minutes southwest of Saskatoon, Beardsall was impressed by “a magnetic personality. In a very positive way, she was using that to draw people into ministry and church life.”
Cantwell graduated in 2010 and was settled at Delisle-Vanscoy. Commuting from Saskatoon, Cantwell has breathed new life into the 175-member congregation. Sheldon Dugas, a member of a reinvigorated youth group at the church, says, “Lots of people come now, and some aren’t even related to the United Church. They just enjoy her presence, her passion, so much.”
In addition to her pastoral duties, Cantwell has been involved in a wide range of denominational and ecumenical positions. She insists that moderator was one role not on her radar. Tracy Murton, a member of the General Council Executive who nominated the new moderator through River Bend Presbytery, first noticed Cantwell when she was a student at St. Andrew’s College.
“She was feisty, playful and articulate. . . . She had clear, precise questions and tried to get at the heart of understanding what’s happening in our church,” Murton says. Cantwell’s response when first approached about letting her name stand was thanks, but no thanks. But as time passed and others approached her, Murton says, “the conversation switched from ‘Oh no, not me,’ to ‘Let’s talk some more about that.’”
Several months and five rounds of voting later, General Council commissioners learned that the down-to-earth minister from Saskatchewan with a “passion for the Gospel and a deep trust in God” would be their new moderator.
At a press conference, Cantwell described the challenges she faces as she leads a United Church in the midst of reinventing itself. “People will be in all kinds of different places on the journey,” she said. “Some will be in a time of lament. Some will be in a time of panic. Some will be in celebration and excitement. My intention would be to journey with folks where they are and to remind us that the stories of our faith teach us that God is with us on our journey, wherever we are.”
On election day, the moderator’s daughter was back in Saskatoon, watching a live online feed from Corner Brook. Fouhse says that two minutes after the final results were announced, she received a text message from Hope. The message was what you might expect from a 17-year-old: “OMG! OMG! OMG!”
With files from Jocelyn Bell