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United Church moderator-city councillor couple receive Queen’s medal

Gary Paterson and Tim Stevenson recognized for their civic leadership

"Gary went on and got a medal and I thought, 'for God's sake I can't be outdone,'" jokes city councillor Tim Stevenson (left), with his spouse, United Church Moderator Gary Paterson. Credit: Nathaniel Christopher photo

United Church Moderator Gary Paterson and his spouse, Vancouver city councillor Tim Stevenson, have been awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for their respective achievements in church leadership and civic governance.

“Here they are in Vancouver; a very prominent city councillor and a very prominent Christian leader,” says their long-time friend Tim Scorer, a Christian educator and writer. “It’s in that kind of context, in their participation in our civic society, that they are so visible.

“What’s so important is they have such integrity because what they are doing has such profound meaning for us in this time. It’s a huge blessing that they have the kind of deep integrity they have because that’s what this kind of social change requires.”

Paterson’s election as the United Church’s first openly gay moderator last August followed his more than 35 years of service to the church, including ministries at First United Church in the Downtown Eastside, Ryerson United Church in Kerrisdale and for the last seven years at St Andrew’s-Wesley United Church in the West End.

“As moderator they say it’s a three-year appointment; one year in Toronto, one year on the road and one year at home,” Paterson says. “I do have a deep sense of being connected to the Spirit and it’s been a wonderful journey – almost 36 years now. I have a passion for preaching and opening up a sense of how we talk about connections with God.”

Paterson, who was nominated for the medal by Premier Christy Clark, believes it is a result of the work that he and his congregation at St Andrews-Wesley have accomplished in the community.

“This is a congregation that has grown to become a vibrant place of worship, and a place of accepting, and inclusive of people,” he says. “They do a luncheon for seniors in the neighbourhood as well as a weekly drop in for parents – and they don’t proselytize. We just meet in the community and are also quite connected to global communities in places such as Guatemala.

“The other thing we’ve been trying to wrestle with is our understanding of right relations with First Nations peoples and we are trying to be involved with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission event that will be held this September in Vancouver. We suspect 50,000 people will be walking the streets in solidarity.”

Scorer describes Paterson as a champion of social justice both within the church and in society as a whole.

“The thing that Gary has been noted for is his capacity to create bridges between faith communities and the secular world,” he says. “A lot of people are willing to come off the street and into St Andrew’s-Wesley because Gary has a remarkable capacity to speak to people meaningfully who are secular or describe themselves as spiritual. They are willing to come into a religious building because he can speak in that space between secular and religious.”

Stevenson, who has been a Vancouver city councillor for 11 years, was nominated for the medal by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities for his work on their Standing Committee on International Relations.

“Gary went on and got a medal and I thought, ‘for God’s sake I can’t be outdone,'” he jokes.

Stevenson has a long list of firsts next to his name: In 1992 he became the first openly gay clergy person of a major Christian church in Canada; in 1996 he was one of the first two openly gay people (along with Ted Nebbeling) elected to the BC Legislative Assembly; and in 2000 he became the first openly gay person to be appointed to cabinet in Canada.

“I had struggled for a long time within the church to be ordained,” Stevenson says. “In fact, it took me 12 years, so if you know one thing about me it’s that I have patience. I got ordained and then after three years the NDP came to me and asked if I would consider running and I thought if I was going to try to bring out changes I wanted to see I would have to do that myself.”

When he first ran for office, Stevenson says he set out to bring changes in legislation for the gay community.

“There was nobody who was openly gay in caucus or cabinet and I thought it was really important for someone who was openly gay to be at the table when they were discussing human rights and marriage and all those things,” he says. “It’s like a cabinet or caucus without women, talking about women issues. My experience in the church had been just that.”

Stevenson notes that his government brought in huge changes around the definition of spouse.

“I worked very closely with Ujjal Dosanjh in all the legislation to include same-sex couples and that was the precursor that led to marriage,” he says. “It was better when we stood up and got involved and were at the table making decisions rather than people saying, ‘I know gay people and gay people want this.’ It was important to have a gay person at the table.”

“The one area that I wasn’t able to get to because we ran out of time was the transgender issue,” he notes. “But we had started on that.”

Dosanjh, who served as premier from February 2000 to June 2001, appointed Stevenson as Minister of Employment and Investment in November 2000. Dosanjh describes Stevenson as a “very close friend” and a “wonderful human being” and says that he regrets that he wasn’t appointed to cabinet much sooner.

“He’s a very passionate human being and the ministry he had was tied to economic development and the fate of all of us in British Columbia,” notes Dosanjh. “I felt it was important for him to be in that ministry. It wasn’t a social services ministry, which is where you’d put someone who fought for equality, but it was important to make that statement – breathe equality into economic development – so that it spreads across the spectrum.”

The Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, which has been awarded to 60,000 Canadians, was created to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s ascension to the throne.