2011 Distinguished Alumni Award Recipient Don Gillies 5T9

2011 Award Recipient Don Gillies 5T9

Don [Emm 5T9] has been involved in a variety of ministries over many years. He received his B.A. from McMaster University, and holds an M.Div from Emmanuel College and an STM and D.Min from Boston University School of Theology. Don was active in parish ministry in First Congregational Church, Shrewsbury, Mass., and in the Honeywood, Sheridan-Park Royal, and Bloor St. pastoral charges within the United Church. He also served the Toronto Conference as a personnel minister, a ‘minister to ministers’ providing support, personal counselling, and consultation, and for a time as the Chaplaincy Co-ordinator. Along the way, Don also held positions in the General Council Office and with the Division of MPE. For 12 years, he was the Executive Director of the Toronto Institute of Human Relations, a pastoral counseling centre in Toronto. For the last five years of his working life, he was the Director Field Education at Emmanuel College. Don also has his ARCT from the Royal Conservatory, and has been active as an organist, pianist and choral conductor. His other activities have included involvement with the Working Group on Refugee Resettlement, the Canadian Association for Pastoral Practice and Education, . He was presented with the 1998 Victoria University Teaching Award at Spring Convocation and was also a recipient, in 2009, of the Arbor Award.

Don continues to remain active at Bloor St. United Church (as a Minister Emeritus), Port Nelson United Church, Burlington, and Trinity United Church, Gravenhurst. He is also a guest preacher and worship leader from time to time with various congregations. Don also extends his volunteer activities to serving as a member of the Burlington Save Public Medicare Campaign, IDEA Burlington (an interfaith organization), the Oakville Opera Guild and Creative Burlington (formerly Performing Arts Burlington).

Don is married to Mimi (Johnston) and together they have four children, 10 grandchildren and one great grandchild.


Don Gillies and his family at the Distinguished Alumni Award presentation held during this year's Emmanuel Days.

May 10th, 2012

Among the congratulatory messages that have “poured” in - well, to be honest, they actually came in a kind of “trickle” - was one from my friend John McTavish: (who, sadly, is unable to be here today). This award - he said - is “another reason for you to practice that “aw, shucks, it was nothing folks” look!” Now I’m not sure that the “aw, shucks look” is really my strongest suit! But I’ll give it a try!

In any case, it is to me that the lot has fallen this time round. And, in response, I am both humbled, and deeply honoured, especially when I remember who my predecessors have been. Bruce, of course, - our first honouree - and Bessie, and Glyns - all friends of mine, and all here today!
So, like the typical recipient of another celebrated award, l want to begin by “thanking the academy!”  President Gooch, Principal Toulouse and, of course, Richard Choe and the other officers of the Alumni Association (not to mention the wonderfully supportive Alumni staff). My thanks, in a very special way, to Herb, my friend of over 50 years, for his carefully crafted (and, at the same time, heartfelt) presentation. Herb promised that he wouldn’t let me off “scott free.” And he didn’t! But it certainly could have been a lot less flattering than it was! And for that, I am thankful!)

It is a great thrill for me, of course, to have in attendance today not only my dear wife Mimi, but also all four of our wonderful children! Stephen, Maureen, Donna and John. That alone makes the whole event more memorable than words can express. 
I know I don’t say it often enough - but you really are my pride and joy!

In addition, it is heart-warming to have the presence and support of former teaching colleagues, along with students from my teaching days, ministers, past and present, (including Gord Dunbar, who is both a former student and a present minister) and other dear colleagues and friends. Thank you all.

Now, if you were searching for a word to describe me, I’m NOT sure that “distinguished” would leap immediately to mind! I‘m sure that some of you might even have other suggestions! Calling me “distinguished” is a bit like referring to me as a stylish dresser. And yes, Herb and I did discuss our outfits earlier this week!

Given that my doctoral studies at Boston University were focused on the practice of ministry, and given that my position on the Emmanuel faculty, for the last five wonderful years of my professional life, was as Director of Field Education, it will come as no surprise that my basic response, in the few minutes allotted to me, will consist not of tightly argued theses, but rather of stories; personal stories, that, I hope, will flesh out what you have already heard. Yesterday, of course, Tom Long alerted us to some of the perils of “Narrative” preaching.
And I take his point.  But, if I had to label my theology, I would still opt, not for liberal, or post-liberal, or post-modern, or progressive, or radical, but rather for “narrative.”
I love the richness and the complexity of human stories, in all their quirkiness. And, in them, I find hints at least of the divine story.

My favourite theological term, most days, is “mystery.” You can tell me yours later on if you want. And my favourite biblical text, no surprise here, is probably 1 Cor. 1:27. You‘ll recall it immediately, I‘m sure! “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.” Though, to be honest, I have some problems with the context in which it appears. It's true, I’m afraid, that I tend to divide the world into those who are able to see the funny side of life and of themselves, and those who are not!

I began my spiritual journey as a Baptist, attending James St. Baptist Church in Hamilton. But don’t get the impression that I’m a refugee from fundamentalism, or anything like that. James St., in those days, was a mainline, liberal church, linked to the theological school at McMaster University. My transition to the United Church was prompted, not by theological frustration, but rather by circumstance and by musical connections with the minister and his son. 
When I arrived at Emmanuel college, I already knew about the differences among the various gospels, and other biblical texts. I was open to the wisdom of other faith traditions. (The only “A” I got in my undergrad studies was in World Religions). I was, at that point, a classic “liberal.”

At Emmanuel, the most significant influence, for me, was Robert Dobbie - a tiny little Scot with a huge mind, and an even bigger heart. It was he who baptized our firstborn, Stephen - preaching, on that occasion about the martyrdom of Stephen from the Book of Acts - a burden which Stephen has carried amazingly well over the years. And it was he who helped me to ground my faith as I tried to make sense of all those academic challenges. There were other influences, of course. Doug Jay (who is here, today), the late Greer Boyce, and others.

My relationship with Bill Fennell, our systematics prof, was of a different order. Humanly, we probably had more in common - and at the college retreats, we would bond over a shared performance of German lieder. Theologically speaking, however, we were not always on the same page. Ironically, it was my frustration with the prevailing neo-orthodoxy of that time that led me to pursue graduate studies in Boston. Not in pastoral psychology, as some of you might suppose, but rather in systematic theology - studying with one of Bill’s own teachers - Paul Tillich, no less. My STM, believe it or not, was an academic degree! For that whole process, I am eternally grateful.

Likewise, the relationships I have enjoyed over the years have been similarly rich and diverse. Classmate Bill Fritz and I were best man at each other’s weddings! At the 1988 General Council in Victoria, we were on opposite sides of the debate! And yet our friendship survived.

For me, it was not simply a question of “gay rights,” though that was important too. It was also, and perhaps more, a question of how we live out, in the church, the radical inclusiveness of the gospel we profess! I went into that struggle as if my life depended on it. And in a way, it did! I’m not quite sure what I would have done if the church had gone the other way on that issue.

The reason why I applied for the position of Field Ed Director at Emmanuel College is also interesting, I think. It was NOT at the urging of liberal, progressive friends, but rather through a chance encounter on the street with Prof. Dave Demson - also a friend, but someone whose approach to theology was very different from my own. “You should apply, Gillies!”, he said with typical bluntness. A sentiment that was reinforced over dinner, a couple of days later, by Paul and Deanna Wilson. So I did. And the rest is history! I had a wonderful five years in this institution of higher learning. And it was a wonderful cap on an interesting, and varied career.

One final point: something thing that I have heard a lot, over the years, is that the “best thing Gillies has going for him, is MIMI!” 
And they’re right, of course. Picking up, again, on the Academy Award connection, I want to recall the words that Christopher Plummer used during his acceptance speech at the last Oscars. With a slight edit, they could just as well apply to my situation.
“She came into my life almost 60 years ago, armed with a caring soul and the wisdom of Solomon!” I can’t say it any better!
Though I should point out that, in fact, we were in the same kindergarten class, so, it has actually been over 70 years! Were it not for that “caring soul,” and that “wisdom of Solomon,” I would not be standing here today!

But here I am! Saying: “Ah shucks. It was nothing folks!”
So thanks. And God bless.

Alumni/ae & Giving