What good is faith, especially given escalating clashes between religious groups worldwide? Even as that question becomes more pressing, the new Calgary Interfaith Council takes shape. Established in the spring of this year, the council has engaged more than 30 of the city’s key faith leaders.
The idea for the council first grew out some conversations between Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman of Temple B’nai Tikvah, the Reverend Ryan Anderson of Advent Lutheran Church and the Reverend Anna Greenwood-Lee of the St. Laurence Anglican Church.
The three were struck by the two common elements of their respective faith communities: people motivated by social justice concerns, and large buildings that could benefit more than their just members.
Imagine if we joined together in working on a community project, they said. How much more effective that project could be.
Today, the council has committed to addressing poverty in Calgary as its core mission. It is doing this formally through a partnership with the Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative.
Howard cites this commitment as a unique factor about the council. It’s a possible reason some faith leaders have joined who otherwise might not.
“A lot of interfaith initiatives are only about dialogue for the purpose of understanding one another better. That’s great and I’m happy to get involved in that,” says Howard.
“But what energizes me about this is that we have a community project where we can use our resources and our people who are motivated by the texts of sacred scriptures to actually do what we call in Judaism ‘tikkun olam,’ which is the Hebrew word for repairing the world.”
The Bigger ‘Room’
Our “old” ways of addressing social problems, especially in North America, aren’t sufficing, it’s being increasingly noted. Some are looking to business to do more — to move beyond corporate social responsibility to embedding the creation of social impact into the core of a business. Others are turning to neighbourhoods, asking how citizens can become the central producers of a community’s well-being. Social services, of course, were always intended to be the primary champions of society’s thriving.
Today it’s increasingly recognized that no one sector can carry the load of social concerns alone. Efforts to bring diverse sectors together, to find synergies in their respective strengths and resources, in order to solve issues like poverty or homelessness, are on the rise. This is effectively what the Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative is — a coming together of diverse community players, led by the City of Calgary and United Way.
The Interfaith Council has now stepped up to say it wants to play a part in this too.
The Gifts of the Faith Community
Faith communities offer strengths and assets that business, social services and even neighourhoods do not necessarily possess.
In addition to their places of meeting and constituencies, faith communities may have an extraordinary strength and drive that’s derived through a combined commitment to one’s fellow human beings and a greater being, Howard says.
“In Judaism, not only are we commanded to repair the world, but more importantly, our relationship with God is covenantal. In other words, we have a responsibility to God, to realize God’s vision for the world and that vision is a vision of a more just and a more compassionate world,” he says.
Leslie Walker, a minister with the Grace Presbyterian Church, also points to the view of humanity that faith cultivates. There is a singular recognition of the inherent dignity, value and worth of all human beings, including those who are dealing with poverty — not because they can lift themselves out of poverty, or because they can somehow be productive members of society, but simply in the fact that they exist.
“Our understanding from a faith perspective, would be that because they exist and they’re made in the image of God — because they are — therefore they have dignity and value and worth,” Leslie says.
It’s also possible that faith communities, for this reason, are more cognizant of the strengths that those who are struggling with poverty hold in their very vulnerability.
Perhaps one of the risks in addressing any social ill, but especially poverty, is that those who have much might stray to thinking they are all powerful and “can do things for people.”
It may be only when they are willing to make themselves vulnerable to what those who are poor have to offer in return, that meaningful and lasting change will be possible.
Looking ahead, some of the highest hopes expressed by those who are on the council are that this will open the way to unprecedented trust between all peoples of all faiths.
“I’ve always been the type of person who believes that diversity and being open to one another’s faith perspectives, not only informs our own, but really contributes to the public good in the public square,” says Leslie.
“Seeing the breadth rather the narrowness is what leads to healthy communities and people understanding one another better, and working together on issues and concerns that we all hold in common.”
Where the Promise Lies
Integral to the flourishing of the council’s work will be its collaboration with other sectors –government, business, social services, those involved add.
But perhaps even more important, will be how much it can inspire and engage the grassroots — the “regular” members of the faith communities. An Oct. 19 interfaith worship service was an important step in beginning to help make this possible.
Imam Syed Soharwardy is one who is convinced that the strongest promise for this effort lies not in himself and his fellow faith leaders, but in real, human connections between the children, women, teenagers and fathers of the different faith traditions.
He is and will be putting a lot of focus on family get-togethers and social gatherings where people can sit down and get to know one another .
Of note is that his mosque is the only one in the world to celebrate the Jewish tradition of Hanukah. The Al-Madinah Calgary Islamic Centre has also created a plan to have people of both the Jewish and Muslim faiths taking part in one another’s festivals in the future. “We will share food, we will have family get-togethers in Muslim houses, in Jewish houses,” says Syed.
Both Leslie and Howard agree the engagement of the grassroots is integral to success, in the poverty project, but also simply on a social level. The faith leaders will have to lead the charge, in this respect, of course, but they also can’t expect to do the work alone.
If everyone can be energized by the things that Leslie, for one, has been, then, yes, wonderful things should be possible.
As Leslie says, she’s just thrilled to be made more and more aware of what she doesn’t know through her involvement on the council – and she’s excited to learn more.
Curiosity and love. Is that the greater promise in a real and healthy faith?