“We have one thing in common: The common core value of caring for the people,” said Peter Chen, convenor of the Toronto Chinese Catholic Task-force. “And that’s why we can work together.”
Many parishioners of the Archdiocese of Toronto have likely never heard of the Toronto Chinese Catholic Task-force (TCCT). They are one of the archdiocese’s worker bees. For 16 years, this small lay association has quietly been taking on an ever-greater number of projects that have made life better for countless people.
They have even caught the eye of Bishop Robert Kasun, auxiliary bishop of the Archbishop of Toronto, who often consults with the TCCT as part of his work overseeing the archdiocese’s ethnic councils.
“The Toronto Chinese Catholic Task-Force (TCCT) is a unique lay service organization based in the Archdiocese of Toronto,” Bishop Kasun said. “It is prepared to initiate and support any kind of activity which would promote the ‘common good’ as understood by the Church and which would come under the category of ‘Outreach in Justice and Love.’”
For those who have never heard of this group, now is a great time to learn more about the TCCT’s work – and how you can help them.
From Humble Beginnings
Formally founded in 2005, the TCCT brought together likeminded groups that wanted to take action in response to a number of political developments that they saw as an erosion of traditional values in Canadian society. Many Chinese Catholics were particularly concerned about the legalization of same-sex marriage, but at that time, there was no guarantee that they would mobilize to express their opinions.
Fr. Peter Chin, spiritual advisor to the TCCT and chair of the Chinese Pastoral Council, recalls that in the early days of the taskforce, Chinese Catholics were not always eager to add their opinions to Canada’s public discussion.
“We found that the Chinese, in general, were not very active in social issues,” Fr. Peter said. “They come from countries where any sort of expression of individual freedom and voicing opinions on social issues was suppressed.”
School-related issues proved to be an effective in-road for social engagement among many Chinese Canadians who wanted to ensure their children received a good education, according to Fr. Peter.
Over time, the TCCT expanded its work – and it flourished in the process. The taskforce now has a network that reaches 23 cities (16 in Canada and seven internationally). It has regular contact with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Pontifical Council for Culture at the Vatican, as well as non-Chinese Catholic parishes, non-Catholic denominations and members of non-Christian religions.
Stem Cells Drives
Around 2015, the TCCT noticed that some other Chinese organizations were trying to help people in desperate need of stem cell matches. In a particularly gripping situation, the family of a very sick child was publicly appealing for assistance in finding a stem cell match.
Peter Chen, the convenor of the TCCT, is currently retired after an impressive career that weaved together academia, consulting and business, but he remains endlessly busy with the taskforce’s many projects.
Chen’s undergraduate education in biology helped him see the challenges and opportunities that stem cell technology presented to the seriously ill. He watched stem cell donation campaigns being organized in Toronto and Vancouver with great interest.
“They expressed the urgency of the patients and that made me really alarmed,” Chen said.
In recent years, doctors have been able to transfer stem cells from one person to another in order to treat people with life-threatening illnesses, including blood cancers, sickle cell disease and immune system disorders.
But finding a suitable match for a stem cell donation is not guaranteed. In fact, it can seem like looking for a needle in a haystack. Identifying a donor who is genetically close enough to you that you can successfully receive their stem cells is difficult enough when you are a member of a country’s majority group. The chances of finding a match become slimmer when you’re a member of a minority group and slimmer still when your parents are of different racial groups. Chen notes that Chinese Catholics are a minority in Canada and they are increasingly marrying non-Chinese people, so there is a real concern that members of this group will not be able to find a suitable stem cell donor, if needed.
Layered on top of these difficulties was the possibility that Catholics would not participate in stem cell medical treatments. Early stem cell science used aborted fetal cells, which is against Catholic teaching. But as the practice started using the stem cells of consenting adult donors, could Catholics ethically donate and receive stem cell treatments?
This question led to a one-year investigation by the TCCT into various aspects of stem cell use from a Catholic perspective, culminating in a 300-page report that was submitted to the Archdiocese of Toronto. The TCCT concluded that stem cell treatments that worked with consenting adult donors were morally acceptable from a Catholic perspective – their report was later validated by the Vatican.
This was a huge development in getting Chinese Catholics to accept the practice.
“The TCCT already had a trust relationship with the Chinese-speaking Catholic population, so that is very helpful,” Fr. Peter explained of the destigmatization of stem cell treatments in the Chinese Catholic community.
In 2016, the TCCT started organizing stem cell donor registration drives in cooperation with the Canadian Blood Service (CBS). Participants would have their cheek swabbed to determine their stem cell information and the CBS would contact individuals if their stem cells could help a gravely ill person. There was excellent interest from the Chinese Catholic community.
“The theme was, ‘You Are Giving Life.’ We’re not asking for money, we’re not asking for a donation, we’re asking you to save life,” said Fr. Peter. “So that’s very attractive to the Chinese population: Down the road you could save a life. That is very Christian.”
Because of the TCCT’s efforts, three people have received perfectly-matched life-saving stem cell donations and others have received partially-matched stem cell donations. Sadly, at least one person has died while waiting for a donor to be identified. But the project has been an overwhelming success.
“We thought, ‘Well, if we can do this in the archdiocese, then we can do it in other places,’” said Chen. “In other places there are also these desperate patients.”
The TCCT sees itself as a steering organization, so it helped groups in 23 cities to organize their own stem cell registration drives.
For Peter Chen, the need for stem cell donations is only going to increase, which he thinks we should all be concerned about.
“Recently there have been more children asking for help,” said Chen. “This is an alarming situation, because this means more and more young people are falling ill to these kinds of diseases. We as an organization – and other organizations – should actually pick up the pace and do more for these patients.”
Promoting Mental Health
In recent years, the TCCT has put a focus on promoting the importance of good mental health. It was work that Fr. Peter was ready to help the taskforce with.
Fr. Peter, currently the pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Toronto, is a psychotherapist by training and has worked at many psychological services centres, including The Southdown Institute, which was at that time located in Aurora, Ont.
In his parish ministry, Fr. Peter saw there were a number of parishioners at Chinese Catholic churches who had children with disabilities. Their parents would often come to church exhausted and would try their best to celebrate the Mass while caring for their children’s needs.
“No one had come forward to really care for them,” Fr. Peter said. In response, he gathered a group of volunteers who would take turns caring for the children during Mass, giving the parents some time to spend with God.
“That was the initial idea,” said Fr. Peter. “And like all initial ideas, it develops.”
Peter Chen was involved with a program at Chinese Martyrs Catholic Parish, in Markham, that worked with students to improve their academic performance in order to get into university and receive scholarships. This experience showed Chen the stress these students were experiencing.
Chen cites statistics saying that the majority of first and second year university students struggle with depression. Seeing these statistics motivated Chen to organize the launch of the National Caring for the Mental Health of Students campaign.
The TCCT found that students who didn’t know how to study experienced more stress. Family expectations of top-tier academic performance didn’t help. But the taskforce found that these students’ mental health particularly suffered during the transition to university, often because their high school education didn’t properly prepare them for the post-secondary world.
“The students would experience something like a quantum leap. Jumping from one level to another, but not being prepared,” said Chen. “So our program teaches students what to expect and how to study in a university setting.”
In response, the TCCT organized sessions where mental health professionals had conversations with soon-to-be university students and their parents about the stressors that post-secondary education presents. Discussions on how to better academically prepare for university were also included in these sessions.
The TCCT encouraging parents to ask their university-aged children about the cafeteria food rather than their studying.
“Parents can’t help them with their work anyway, so why ask them?” Chen said. “It just gives extra pressure, especially for the students who really mind what their parents think.”
For Chen, it’s vital to address these mental health struggles as soon as possible.
“When these students become adults, if they continue to have these mental health challenges, their struggles will be even worse,’ said Chen. “Because the outside pressure will be even greater from the community, the workplace and the family.”
The pandemic has shown us that mental health challenges can affect all of us. Chen looks to reports of the stress that medical workers felt during the pandemic as an example of this. He hopes it will help us have a better conversation about mental health.
There Is More to Do
The TCCT’s work has greatly expanded over the years and they would be excited to get more volunteers to help with their many projects.
“People who are really passionate about what this taskforce is doing should let us know,” Fr. Peter said. “We depend on volunteers. As with all groups, we need new blood to survive. We need new ideas to energize ourselves.”
Bishop Kasun echoed this call to assist the TCCT with its work, as he said, “I am most appreciative of the dedicated efforts of the TCCT and I invite many others to consider membership.”
For Chen, the recent pastoral letter on the sacred heart of Jesus by Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, shows why Catholics need to reach out and help others. The pastoral letter deeply touched, Chen, who helped spread it to Catholics around the world.
“We need to take action to love our neighbours,” explained Peter Chen. “All our love for others is grounded in the fact that Jesus loved us first.”
If you are interested in volunteering with the TCCT, partnering with them or just learning more, you can reach out to Peter Chen directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 416-858-2253.
To learn more about the Toronto Chinese Catholic Task-force, please read a backgrounder document written by Peter Chen here.