OTTAWA (CCN) — Faith communities can play a key role in the societal transformation necessary to overcome poverty, faith leaders were told at a conference on poverty here Oct. 20.
Faith communities can bring a new dimension to conversations about issues such as basic income, changing it from a “context of austerity” into a “context of solidarity,” said Sister Sue Wilson, co-chair of the board of the London Poverty Research Centre.
Central to a new vision is seeing the person before you as a neighbour, instead of a burden, she said.
Speaking on a panel of faith leaders at the Ending Poverty in Canada Conference organized by Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) at Saint Paul University, Wilson said the centre was a collaboration between the Sisters of St. Joseph and the London (Ont.) Food Bank. The centre later expanded to bring in a research component from King’s University College.
Having community members mix with researchers and political activists created “significant synergy,” she said. “It took communication to a much deeper level.”
When the idea of seeing a person struggling with poverty as a neighbour instead of burden was presented at a gathering of these groups, it “stirred up a momentum for change in that room I haven’t seen in many rooms,” she said.
Addressing poverty is not a matter of small changes, “we need transformation,” she said. The conversation has to go deeper to “identity and meaning.”
The economy is in transition and that transition is “leaving far too many behind,” she said. Will society “step up to make its own transformation” as the economy changes?
“For many of us the spiritual and moral questions help us appreciate the policy implications,” she said.
“Too few faith communities see the connection between the policies they vote for and their implications” in terms of barriers they may create or the people they may marginalize, she said.
Derek Cook, director of the Canadian Poverty Research Institute at Ambrose University in Calgary, said his organization takes a multi-dimensional approach that examines material, social and spiritual poverty.
When talking about poverty, one immediately starts talking about money and leads into a “world of scarcity” and the “framework that there’s not enough to go around,” he said. Speaking of limited resources and unlimited needs “leads to an ‘us and them’ conversation.”
Poverty does not need to be fixed, it needs to be healed, he said. “The fix-it approach treats people as objects rather than whole persons.”
Faith communities can help find new language so poverty is not about “compromised relationships driven by the ideology of scarcity” but about “abundance, resilience and community,” or the acronym ART, Cook said. This is a way to introduce missing “moral and ethical” concepts into the conversation.
David White, pastor of Centretown United Church in Ottawa, said he was called to this inner-city parish eight years ago to do “transformational ministry,” but he wasn’t sure at the time what that meant. He, too, had been exposed to various teaching on a “theology of abundance,” rather than one of scarcity. The parish began holding town halls for the community, inviting speakers such as former MP Tony Martin, who had tabled a bill for the eradication of poverty in Canada. They invited many others from Parliament and other leadership roles. The parish partnered with CPJ and other organizations to run the meetings, that do research faith communities can use, he said.
They found they could mount events for the community that maybe only six or seven people from the parish attended. They found, too, that a small number of parishioners could work with other groups to create projects, such as a mentoring program for professional artists to help low-income artists and a community garden.
So many churches say, “there are so few of us; we’re getting old,” but working with the community can bring abundance, not scarcity, White said.
Kathy Vandergrift, a writer and child rights advocate closed out the panel urging citizens to persuade political leaders to “reject the language of trade-offs.”
There’s a “media push” to see things in terms of “winners and losers,” she said. “We can have both/and.”
She also warned against the tendency to pit levels of government against each other. Citizens need to play an active role in encouraging co-operation, because they belong to both the federal and the provincial levels.