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Faith For Our FutureFaith For Our Future

Faith For Our Future

Last week, Cardus Religious Freedom Institute launched its newest project, Faith in the Future. Convivium's Peter Stockland sits down with program director Andrew Bennett and researcher Aaron Neil to discuss the team's aspirations and plans as it kicks off.

15 minute read

Give me a sense of what the launch actually involves or what does it mean? What are we doing to signify the launch?

Andrew Bennett: The launch is really about the official initiation of Faith in the Future. We now have 10 Faith in the Future communities across the country. These are young faith leaders who we have engaged with over the last eight months, getting them interested in this initiative about living out a more vibrant public faith. They self-selected and applied to the program over the past months. Now we have a core group of roughly 50 young faith leaders from different traditions who are now getting ready to enter into this period of formation, engagement, and leading some projects to live out a public faith. 

What will we see over the launch period? What exactly will happen?

Aaron Neil: We sent out two emails. We sent an email to the participants – the members of Faith in the Future, those faith leaders Andrew was talking about. We also sent a second email just to our contacts saying, here's what we've been doing. We've gone across the country, we've established a community and we're launching them.
 What they'll see in their local city is a Faith in the Future group meeting. We want to have the first meetings in the second and third weeks of June. There'll be a group of young people meeting in that time period to get started on the program, essentially. In addition, they would likely see contributions to Voices in the Crowd. We just want to get them started meeting together and then from there we're going to build.

So those meetings will essentially be intro meetings. They're not really public events per se, if I understand that right?

AB: That's correct. In each of all the 10 cities, we have a local coordinator who will work with that group to determine when they're going to meet and then they'll come together in a coffee shop or pub. What we've done in this period of formation – the first four-month period of the program – is provide them with our first policy paper: An Institutional History of Religious Freedom in Canada. They're going to read that to address questions around the nature of religious freedom, where we've gone historically and where we are today.
 And then we provided them with a set of three questions for the agenda for that first meeting.

 So in that first meeting across the country, there will be engaging in that policy paper and having conversations around what does it mean to live out religious freedom? What does it mean to who are the key players in terms of advocating for religious freedom in the country? And we hope to challenge them, get them to think more clearly about the nature of religious freedom as a fundamental freedom.

I would assume that if somebody wanted to bring along a friend to one of the local meetings, no one would say no, but the initial meetings are not public events. They are for people who know it's happening and could already start to grow it, but you're not looking for a big splash of additional people right now, is that right?

AN: For the first few meetings, we're going to reach out to our groups and especially the ones where we have smaller numbers. So, for example, in Ottawa we have a big group because we're established in Ottawa, but there are other cities that have much smaller groups. In those cases we are are going to encourage them, "Please bring a friend." But… we’re not just looking for a bunch of people watching.

We want to get them involved in the program as new members. So yes, not public in the sense that we're looking for an audience to watch people chatting over religious freedom. But we're going to encourage them to add to their numbers with additional members essentially in those first few meetings.

AB: So what we're doing, Peter, is we've asked, as Aaron said, for currently-enrolled delegates to bring along a friend or two and at that point if they want to be part of it, they can then apply. We're asking our advisory council members who will be participating as mentors in the program to recommend additional young people who they think might be engaged.

 We’re also going to reach out to a few other contacts that we have faith communities to encourage continuing participation. The long-term goal is to grow the group up to a hundred. We're already halfway there, so we're fairly confident.
 But as Aaron said, there are some cities where we'd like to have additional participants, especially Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal. So we would reach out to our contacts in those cities to encourage them to suggest and recommend people to Aaron and myself.

Is it right to say that this comes out of the 2017 Faith in Canada 150 initiative through what we call the Millennial Summit? But this is not looking back at 150 years of Canadian confederation, but rather looking forward to where the faith is going to be, 100 or 150 or 75 or 50 years from now. So it's much more forward-oriented. 

AB: That is correct. We learned from the Millennial Summit that there was a real need to bring young faith leaders together to have authentic discussions about faith and building a common life together, but recognizing sometimes there are deep differences in what we believe. The Millennial Summit was so successful that we thought we needed to expand this and do it on an ongoing basis involving young faith leaders across the country.

So it is very much forward looking. We had someone in Edmonton ask us, "What's your utopia? What's the big goal beyond building this community?" And we said, "We want to change the culture." We want to ensure that people of faith, led by these young people in many respects, can engage the public square to a level where they are seen as being contributors to the public debate. And in fact, even beyond that, they must be there to contribute to the public debate so as to enrich our common life.

 It’s a further step in our work as the Religious Freedom Institute to challenge this idea of marginalization of faith into the private sphere.

I guess it's fair to say that Faith in Canada 150 and to a certain extent, the Millennial Summit, came from “We're getting knocked back here.” We have to do something to show that faith still is vibrant. This sounds to me like a lot more, not from a defensive posture in any way. It's much more – assertive in a very positive way, saying, "Look, we've established that faith is here. Now let's build on it and capitalize on it." Even though there are these challenges to religious freedom, this is not about defending what it is, but about growing into what could be – is that a fair summary?

AB: Yeah. This is not about manning the barricades. This is about building community, but in a way that is deep and truly meaningful, where young people can come together, young people of faith.
 We’re trying to rebut this myth that young people are checking out of religion altogether. Certainly a lot are, but so are a lot of boomers, so it's not just a millennial thing.

 If you look at some of the work that we've done and the Pew Research Centers that are in the United States, it's older boomers and older millennials that are the ones that are less engaged in religious activities. Younger millennials seem to be more engaging. So that's an interesting trend. 

AN: Yeah, it's only defensive in the sense that it's busting those myths around millennial participation in faith. Coming together with differences, having conversations around those differences will allow us to live a common life together in the future. So it is kind of like, “Look, religion isn't going away, difference in our society isn't going away.” The worst thing we can do is isolate from each other.

Aaron, just let me frame the question a little bit differently, but specifically for you, because obviously this is your sort of demographic cohort. The data we got on the work we did with the Angus Reid Institute showed, as Andrew said, there is a deep spiritual hunger in a very surprising percentage of that demographic group. But they've also been abandoned in terms of the language and in terms of understanding faith in language, or in a way that makes sense to them now. Is that part of what this is in an attempt to redress? Ray Pennings used to say, "We cannot continue to speak to this generation the way our generation was spoken to because we knew what was being said. They don't." Is that accurate?

AN: I certainly think, yes, it clearly is an initiative meant to address millennials, but I also think it's a learning initiative. I know if you look at that trends, there is also a trend of people, spiritual but not religious in the millennial world, but then that could also just be a lack of knowledge and a lack of formation around the depth of religious traditions and how they form those spiritual practices and give a framework for deep spiritual practices. I think that would probably be a voice we're giving to millennials by saying, "Look, we're going after the great religious traditions in millennials that want to live their faith within them."      

But I think we're learning from them a lot, too. Each month we're giving an agenda and essentially just asking questions. Then part of my role is talking to the table leads that are facilitating conversations, asking how they're going and what language they're using so we can learn from them. So, I think yes, we're definitely trying to talk to them in a different way, but first we're trying to try to listen in how they're approaching these topics.

This generation is, certainly much more than the boomers, motivated towards good works, community engagement and being involved. And whether it's the environment or any of those racial, anti-racial activities or so on, et cetera, they're far more motivated toward that kind of outward view or engagement than the boomer generation was. Again as Ray used to say, they have to understand that faith isn't just good public works. It's actually an encounter with God and that's the part that they haven't been schooled in or it hasn't been available to them. Does that go beyond the scope of what Faith in the Future will be able to inculcate or is it central to it?

AB: I think that is central. We want to demonstrate through these young people of faith that they can be witnesses to this in the public square, they realize that the public works. Dealing with poverty, dealing with discrimination, racism, whatever it might be – that is not the end in itself.
 Rather, one takes up the challenge of trying to address these challenges in our human life.

One takes up that challenge because one understands something bigger is going on. So the end is not the social justice action, but rather the renewal of the world, that Jewish understanding tikkun olam, the renewal of creation. Or in the Christian understanding, it's about making fully present Christ in the world.  

The act of trying to address poverty is tremendously noble, but it's more greatly ennobled if you see it in the context of this greater good. And that it's not about you feeling good about helping the poor, it's actually about you also being transformed into a more perfect human being through that work.

I think these young people of faith, although they believe different things theologically, have the understanding that there is something bigger going on, that religious communities are not just social justice organizations. They're something much bigger.

AN: Something that Andrew has talked about: if you quoted the words of the government response to the religious community over the Canada summer jobs, "We like what you do, keep doing it. Just don't believe these things."

 But the whole point is why religious communities do those things. I think when you leave out the reality in the faith, the ontological reality of whatever religion they hold, then it just becomes about good works and you've already lost the religious freedom argument in a really essential way. Those works flow out of deeply held beliefs about the world.

You become the YMCA, which used to be the Young Men's Christian Association and is now the YMCA, right?

AN: Yeah, exactly.

Tell me about the logistics and the task of getting the wheels on this, because it's been a tremendous amount of work. How much time, how much effort have you actually, the two of you, had to invest in it? What have you done?

AB: I'd say that in terms of our typical daily work, it's probably occupied about 80 or 90 per cent of Aaron's time and probably a good 60 per cent of my time. I would say that Faith in the Future is the leading initiative right now of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute.
 And that's good. I think it points to an opportunity to advance the broader mandate of what we're doing at the institute, to re-present to people the importance of public faith and the importance of religious freedom and what better way to do that then through these young leaders of faith who want to live that out. So it's been a heavy lift, but it's been a joyful one.

And you have been back and forth literally across the country. Like you were saying, in communities from coast to coast, you've been from Newfoundland to Vancouver meeting with people, actually encountering them directly and personally. 

AN: I think we wanted to model the inner workings by being physically present, meeting with people, shaking hands and welcoming them into this initiative because that's what we want them to do with each other. I think so much of our society is depersonalized communications with different people. And then again, insulation from different communities.

 We really wanted to model out and live our common life together by getting different people around the table, meeting them by name, then discussing all the big issues and big questions concerning the public good, religious freedom, and our common life together.

Obviously anything of this scope has woulda, coulda, shouldas, if we'd known this, we would have done that. What are some of the lessons that you've learned in terms of organizing it? What were some of the lessons learned? What were some of the obstacles that you encountered?

AB: I would say one challenge, I'm being very frank here, is that despite Cardus's work over the last three to four years to engage more broadly outside the Christian community, especially our very good relations with the Orthodox Jewish world, with some aspects of the Muslim world, with the Latter-day Saints.

It has been hard for us to get the diversity we were looking for. And some people who are not Christians believe that this is a Christian project. In one sense it is: We are Christians and we are the ones initiating this project.
But this will not be all that it could be without the participation of other faith communities. Some may feel it's harder to participate because there are a lot of Christians involved and Cardus is a Christian organization, but that is exactly the reason they need to participate and we want them to participate.

We want to hear from their perspective, their own faith tradition about the importance of public faith. We're going to really try and re-initiate our appeal to young faith leaders from different traditions, including the varied number of traditions that were part of the Millennial Summit in 2017 to engage this initiative. Because then it'll be just a real, crackerjack sort of initiative and we'll get the desired engagement. 

AN: Yeah, I mean for essentially two people to manage a national network of people, it's going to be challenging. But I think that the primary challenge and hurdle for us has been getting the right people involved and getting commitment from people.
 And that's been a bit of a difficult theme. I think people are so busy and millennials are still in that stage where they are moving around a lot. So it's just difficult getting strict commitment from people, I think.

AB: And as a young Catholic missionary with Catholic Christian Outreach said to me about our initiative, "You have to remember that there are not a lot of young dynamic leaders of faith. You're fishing from a fairly small pool and they have a lot of choices as to which initiative they get involved in." I think we're competing with a lot of other things they can occupy their time with. So we have to be strategic. We have to present, put it kind of in more of a secular way, the value in the proposition of the initiative. We're continually refining how we do that, how we engage. The message remains constant, but how do we present the message? I think that's where we have to work. Because of the hope that is within us, we are fully confident that we'll achieve what we hope to.

But I think a lot of what we need to do is go back and meet people on the phone, talking through questions they have and then really getting them engaged. It's much more powerful than, I think, repeated emails that often will just sit in inboxes. I think often we go back to exactly what we are trying to encourage, and that is human-to-human contact. And to work with people, walk them through what we're trying to do. I think Aaron and I realized we need to do much more of what we've already done.

We know from other work Cardus has done, I'm obviously speaking in large terms here, but as a generation, the folks that this will draw are pretty skittish about commitment, right? They don't even live together anymore because that's how nervous they are. So if you're going to have faith, you've got to commit. Right? I mean that’s what it comes down to. But it sounds to me like that's a hurdle that, as you said Andrew, was going to be an ongoing challenge to overcome. Faith itself requires commitment.

AB: Exactly. You know, the wonderful line from the holy scriptures, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” All of us, I think even if we're not in that millennial cohort, we have to remember what it means when you give your word, when you commit to something – it's so important to see that through.

Not simply for the people you've committed to, but also for yourself. Faith requires great commitments and it requires that commitment every day. It’s not easy commitments, in fact it's never easy. We have so many distractions in our world that can take us away from our focus. Short attention spans are a challenge, especially if it needs to be commitments. And I think, Aaron and I have talked about this, that I think sometimes when you're younger, you have this sense we can change the world. You try to take on so many things because you've been convinced for so long by so many people that you can change the world. Maybe your world is your neighborhood and you just focus on one or two things that you can do really well. What we're asking these young faith leaders is, your world is also your city, your local parish, your local gurdwara, your local mosque.

That type of commitment is as great as any commitment to do something on a global scale. I think that's something we have to again: present to young people this wonderful desire, this yield to make a difference. Sometimes it's just at the very local level that we can make the greatest difference.

There is an advisory council – a group of people who have committed to assisting with this project and lending their time, their profiles and so on. What will their role be? How will they actually engage with Faith in the Future?

AB: I think it's an important piece. What we really want them to do is just to show up. Again, this is person-to-person contact. We want them to show up to the meetings – they do not have to lead the meetings. They don't have to facilitate the discussion or anything like that.
 We just want them to be there, take it in and offer kind of a general reflection at the end of this discussion. I think it's really important that the millennials, the Faith in the Future delegates as we're calling them, lead the discussion, go back and forth with each other.

 The advisory council can listen, but then the delegates add a lot of value to hear someone who is an established voice in this field, give their thoughts on whatever topic they were discussing that day. So it's mostly that we also want to open it up to a bit of informal mentorship. 

Okay, wonderful. The Advisory Council comprises people who are established in their careers, established in their vocations, who have leadership experience and are able to communicate that to the members of faith and Faith in the Future. Right? 

AB: Yeah and the people that are on the council are there because of their role in engagement with administrative issues. The first criteria to be on the advisory council is to have background. Whether you are coming from an academic perspective, working on religious freedom from public policy, from the law or you're a faith leader in your own sort of right, you lead a congregation.

 The voices that we have are ones that are established in their local community or nationally on religious freedom and faith in the public square. So it gives these young faith leaders a chance to tap into that.

Convivium means living together. We welcome your voice to the conversation. Do you know someone who would enjoy this article? Send it to them now. Do you have a response to something we've published? Let us know!  

Peter Stockland

Peter Stockland is a Cardus Senior Fellow and Publisher of the Catholic Register.

Aaron Neil

Aaron holds a Bachelor of Commerce from Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business where he studied Management and Economics. He has also studied liberal arts at Ottawa’s Augustine College.

Andrew P.W. Bennett

Rev. Dr. Andrew P.W. Bennett is Program Director, Faith Communities at Cardus.

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