Iconic activist and esteemed professor Dr. Gary Warner inspires us to ‘fill our cup’ 

Giving up hope is a luxury, says Dr. Gary Warner, Professor Emeritus at McMaster University, when asked how he has maintained over 50 years of robust activism for social justice. These were just a few of the many wise words shared at an event on spirituality and activism in celebration of Black History Month.  

March 9, 2023

By: Jessica Vinluan

On February 8, the McMaster Spiritual Care and Learning Centre (SCLC) and Black History Month Committee welcomed Dr. Warner at Living into a New Activism: A Presentation and Discussion on the Spirituality of Liberation. 

I speak as an African Caribbean person, descendent of the Atlantic Slave Trade. I am also a Catholic Christian whose gospel is rooted in liberation. That is part of my history…part of my DNA…it is what sustains me.

— Dr. Gary Warner

Dr. Warner tells us that he is not an expert on the philosophy of liberation. But for those fortunate to experience the discussion, we discovered that he is an unapologetic advocate for the spirituality of liberation. 

Dr. Warner’s experience and integrity are well-known and deeply regarded at McMaster and in the broader Hamilton community. He was one of the first Black professors at McMaster (1967), where he taught courses on Francophone Literature and International Development and held various administrative roles such as: 

  • Department chair 
  • Associate dean 
  • Co-founder and co-director of the Theme School on International Justice and Human Rights 
  • Founding director of what is now known as the Office of International Affairs 
  • Director of the Arts & Science Program  
  • Initiator of African-Caribbean studies in McMaster’s Faculty of Humanities  

Alongside his academic career achievements and pursuit of justice and equity at McMaster, Dr. Warner’s local, national and global community engagement are grounded in inter-religious/spiritual dialogue and communal activism. 

Celeste and Dr. Gary Warner, The projector image says, water is a right.
Dr. Gary Warner on a laptop. The projector image is a newspaper clipping with the title, fight for freedom continues.

Inspired in his youth by religious and spiritual leaders who wove the Christian philosophy of liberation into acts of conscience and social change, Dr. Warner shared how the integrity of this message has uplifted him throughout his life. He compelled the audience to reflect on our activism and the ways we can sustain it. 

Drawing on the rubrics of liberation theology — a social justice movement originating in Latin America in response to industrial capitalism displacing the poor and marginalized — Dr. Warner quoted Jon Sobrino, who uses the image of a cup as an instrument to be filled and emptied in order to fulfill its function. 

Spirituality is our profoundest motivation…it is our intuitions…our longings…(it) inspires us…it is our ultimate concern, or orientation, or goal…it’s the inner life of the cup. But our spirituality is not just interiority. It is also our choices and actions; it is where our spirit is given flesh…Our spirituality shows up just as much in how we spend our money, our time, our abilities, as in how we say our prayers…it is how we use the cup.” 

Dr. Warner has been active in the Hamilton community for more than 50 years. Still, he continues to address all forms of social justice issues related to international development, peace, poverty, anti-Black racism, immigration and human rights.  

Where does he find the passion and energy to persist with joy in the causes of justice?  

It’s hard to say. However, as we work to fill our own cups, we may begin to discover that we are the ones who fill the cups of human rights and peace.  

This is an insight we could never know just by wishful thinking; it is only possible through living activism. 

“Giving up hope is a luxury.”