Brian Mitchell-Walker was born in Richmond Hill, Ontario into an extended Mitchell family that had deep connections to the United Church of Canada dating back to its founding in the 1920s. Brian’s family was active in St. Matthew’s United Church, an open-minded and supportive community of faith. During Brian’s teenage years a couple in the congregation, Barb and Tom Beattie, came out publicity as parents of a gay son. While they received a quite mixed response from across Canada, at St. Matthew’s they were fully supported. So Brian never questioned whether homosexuality was right or wrong. It was simply a matter of figuring out his own identity. The Beatties and as well as the minister listened to Brian and supported him through the process of coming out to his family.
As college years approached Brian debated whether he wanted to be a teacher or a minister. He chose teaching and received his degrees from Queens University in Kingston where he studied mathematics, statistics and education. He was the only man in his education program that placed extra emphasis on early education—kindergarten to grade two.
In 1987, while still a university student, Brian participated in an Ecumenical young adult leadership event as a representative from his conference. His roommate there was Russell Walker, a representative from another conference. Brian recalls that they met on Friday, February 13th and their relationship began on February 14th.
Russell was a minister in his first charge in Lloydminster, Alberta. At that time they recognized that it was not a safe place for the 2 of them to be in relationship, so they decided to relocate to Toronto. Brian took a teaching position and Russell worked for an Anglican ministry, the Downtown Church Workers Association.
Brian and Russell had a covenanting service in 1988 in Alberta. Their honeymoon trip was to the General Council meeting in Victoria, BC. In the months prior to that General Council there had been heated debate on the status of LGB persons within the church. That General Council took the bold step of adopting a Membership, Ministry and Human Sexuality document which stated that sexual orientation was not a barrier to membership in a congregation and all members were eligible to be a minister. Brian and Russell had to get back to Toronto to set up their home together and were not present for that historic action.
Upon arriving in Toronto they connected with the local Affirm group, the LGB -affirming organization of the United Church of Canada as well as Friends of Affirm which included people of all sexual orientations. Brian and Russell attended the General Council gatherings in 1990 and 1992 to support Affirm’s efforts there. The Affirm Toronto group started a campaign called “Let’s Talk”—in which they wore buttons with pink triangles to open conversations with other persons. Brian served as secretary of Affirm in the early 1990s. They were active in Bloor Street United Church from 1988-1993.
Brian and Russell both wanted to be parents but didn’t think it was possible. Then in 1990 a friend from church who was pregnant asked if we would consider adopting her child. Brian and Russell recognized that she really wanted to keep her child, but in that process of discernment, they approached the Children’s Aid Society in Toronto and asked if we would be able to adopt. The agency said they had not done this before but were willing to pursue it. Over the next two years Brian and Russell bought a house together and worked through the home review process with the agency. Then the agency announced a decision that stretched the bounds of logic—they could not allow Brian and Russell to adopt as a couple because they were not legally a couple, but because they knew they were a couple they could not allow one of them to adopt as single. Their adoption worker suggested they get legal counsel at the same time as considering being foster parents. They were the first same gender couple to be named as foster parents as a couple (There were previous couples where only one was named as the foster parent). From 1993 – 1996 they had six different foster sons (several at a time).
At the 1992 General Council, the United Church of Canada approved congregations providing covenant services for same-gender couples. At that same General Council, Affirm created a document with elements and examples of Covenant services as a gift to the church. Brian was part of the editing and formatting of this document. In 1993, Brian and Russell gathered over 200 friends and family for a covenant service on their 5th anniversary at the Bloor Street United Church with a reception at Kimbourne Park United Church located in the neighborhood of their home. Kimbourne Park congregation became their home congregation where their foster sons were welcomed.
Then, in 1996, after a successful court challenge by 4 lesbian couples to perform a step parent adoption of their partner’s biological children, the Toronto Children’s Aid Society shifted in their position and approach as to how they could support Brian and Russell to become adoptive parents. At the same time the Oshawa Children’s Aid Society outside Toronto approached Brian and Russell about adopting a five-and-a-half year old boy. Tyler came to live with them just before Christmas that year. They went through a two-step process in which Brian adopted as a single parent and then a year later through a step parent process Russell was made a legal parent as well. A year after Tyler became part of their family, the Toronto agency came back to Brian and Russell asking if they would consider adopting a 3 year old boy named Cody (as they were still in the process of adopting Tyler). Cody’s 2 adoption steps happened in matter of 2 months in 1998.
Russell shifted from working for the Downtown Church Workers Association to the General Council of the United Church office when they were fostering and Tyler entered their lives. After this Russell wanted to get back into congregational ministry. In the following years as he accepted a couple different part time positions he had over 40 interviews for full time positions in congregations. In several responses from congregations there was concern that their children would not be safe in their community – Russell and Brian wondered if it was about being public in the community – you can explain away 2 men living together but with children calling out daddy and papa to them both – it is harder to hide.
Finally, in 2000, Russell was hired as part of a ministry team at Sunset United Church in Regina, Saskatchewan. Brian took a year off from teaching to care for the boys during the transition. Then, in the summer of 2001, he joined the staff of the Saskatchewan Conference of the United Church to work with congregations, and presbyteries in a variety of areas, including supporting congregations, presbyteries and outreach ministries to become Affirming Ministries. That fall Brian was designated as the Affirm United representative to the planning team for the ecumenical Witness Our Welcome (WOW) 2003 Conference that happened in Philadelphia. The experience in that broader coalition opened Brian’s eyes to other issues of inclusion, particularly race/ethnicity and the differences between Canadian and US cultures in dealing (or not dealing) with these issues.
In the summer of 2003, Brian became one of the coordinators of the Affirming Ministry Program of Affirm United/S’affirmer Ensemble. In that capacity Brian worked with congregations in their process of moving toward being more welcoming. He learned that for many ministries the biggest question was: “why do we have to do this publicly?” From the beginning of the Affirming Ministry Program, it asked ministries to broaden its focus beyond just sexual orientation. In 2000 gender identity was added, and Brian with his fellow Affirming Ministry coordinators – encouraged congregations to look at a wide spectrum of ways we exclude or honour diversity – including, age, race, class, and ability.
Beginning in 2003, court decisions began legalizing same-sex marriage, on a province by province basis. In 2004, while on a ski trip in British Columbia (where marriage was legal but not yet in Saskatchewan), Brian and Russell were legally married—in the presence of their children and friends—on a mountaintop. They had decided to combine their names to a new name—Mitchell-Walker. They applied to the provincial department and waited about a month and a half to be the first same gender couple to be approved for a name change. Adopting the common name simplified their family lives considerably, for example, when dealing with customs at the U.S.-Canadian border.
Brian served as co-chair of Affirm United/S’affirmer Ensemble from 2008-2010 with Nicole Hamel and 2010-2011 with Annette Taylor. At this time Affirm United/S’affirmer Ensemble was taking strides to become a stronger bilingual (French-English) organization. They also began discussions around issues of intercultural ministry and what a White organization Affirm appeared to be.
Despite these advances, by 2009 the church body had not yet lived into the goal of being an “instrument of the loving Spirit of Christ” where all “human dignity [is] defended” (A Song of Faith, 2006). As a result of this recognition, the 40th General Council 2009 directed the church: “to host a national consultation within the next three years, with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and two-spirited members of the United Church to discuss homophobia and heterosexism in the church, and that Affirm United be invited to name at least three people to be on the planning committee.” (GC40 2009 – 083)
Brian was one of the people named by Affirm United to be part of planning team with four others and two General Council staff. Brian was asked to chair the planning team for these consultations. The objective was to hear from as many people as possible across the country, both people in the GLBTT community and others who care about these issues. In addition, recognizing that people hold multiple identities—sexual orientation and gender, age and stage of life, race and class, cultural and linguistic diversity—and that these identities inform diverse experiences in the church, recruitment of facilitators and participants was designed to broadly reach across networks. The hope was that as the participants listened and shared their stories throughout the consultation, everyone involved would be strengthened in their resolve to offer radical hospitality to all.
Between August and October of 2011, thirteen gatherings were held across the country with trained facilitators to support over 380 people that responded to the invitation to participate in the consultation. All the qualitative research was collected and data analysis was done by Jamie Armstrong. This analysis and emerging themes was reviewed by the planning committee. From December 2011 to March 2012, the GLBTT National Consultations Accountability Report to General Council Executive was formulated by Brian and, as he describes, two amazing General Council staff, Alcris Limongi and Jordan Sullivan.
This report included a number of suggested Interventions for each of the following 4 recommendations:
The United Church should stand in and for its core identity as a justice-seeking and non-discriminatory welcoming church as it lives into its mission concerning sexual orientation, gender identity, and intercultural inclusion
We call for the church to re-emerge as a leader for justice by undertaking specific actions to move local congregations to embrace the United Church’s welcoming policies for all people in the sexual orientation and gender identity continuums.
Reflect on practices of inclusion and discrimination, intentionally increase expressions of welcome and opportunities for all to participate in the life of the church, affirming the realities of all people in the sexual orientation and gender identity continuums.
We recommend educational and relationship-building initiatives, coordinated with the efforts toward creating an intercultural church, that create safe environments where differences are celebrated, affirming relationships are nurtured, and all can be their authentic selves in their relationship with God and each other.
Many of the suggested interventions have been taken on by different areas of the church and at the 42nd General Council meeting in 2015 – a process was adopted for Living Apology to Members of LBGTTQ Communities. The Living Apology is seen to be an interactive growing installation that shares and gathers stories and experiences of LGBT in the church and community that will travel across the country and inform the church toward developing an apology.
Brian trained as a life coach and starting his own coaching business in 2010. In 2012, he left the conference staff position to focus on his coaching work. Much of his coaching is done with church leaders who are looking to change, evolve and develop more authentic ministries. Brian helps leads workshops on racial justice issues as an ally. Since 2012 he has been one of the chairs of the Racial Justice/Gender Justice Advisory Committee for the United Church.
(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman from an interview with Brian Mitchell-Walker and edited by Brian.)
Biography Date: February 2016