When Father Deacon Andrew Bennett and researcher Johanna Lewis began planning the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute’s Diakonia project last year, their aim was to tell the stories of Canadian faith-based services.
Fittingly for an undertaking whose name is the Greek word for a “call to service” they completed the work feeling themselves being personally pulled toward active engagement with the very kind of work they examined and wrote about.
“Sharing the stories is such a beautiful way to spur each other to good works, but interviewing these faith-based initiatives and getting to know their organizations was so inspiring for me. It made me want to get more directly involved,” Lewis says.
Bennett echoes the sentiment. CRFI’s program director says working on the Diakonia Project provoked some pointed questions for him about how he approaches his own faith life.
“It caused me to reflect: am I living out my faith as fully as I could be?” he says. “In what way am I trying to protect my position as Think Tank Guy? Is that sufficient? In terms of my faith, why am I not doing more of this type of work? It got to the point where I reached out to Matthew House here in Ottawa and said ‘Look, how can I help?’”
Matthew House was one of eight service organizations across Canada that Bennett and Lewis looked at in depth and, more, created space on the CRFI website so workers within the faith-based groups could tell their own stories as well. The stories and the voices of the insiders were posted through late fall and winter on the site, which got a fresh look last week as part of a relaunch initiative.
On Thursday, March 18th, Bennett will lead a free webinar from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. with three leaders of faith-based service organizations to discuss religious faith in action, i.e., the critical role that such groups play in Canadian communities. In the weeks ahead, Lewis and Bennett will also be updating the Diakonia Project with regular short blog posts.
Both told Convivium that a striking commonality across the wide range of organizations in their case studies – from the Union Gospel Mission on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to the Pastoral Home Care Service of the Archdiocese of Montreal and the Shi’a Ismaili Muslim community’s Ismaili CIVIC international initiative – was the sense of simply getting the job done without fuss or fanfare on a daily, even hour-to-hour, basis.
“Part of it is these groups don’t talk about themselves. They don’t feel a need to broadcast what they’re doing. It’s not because they’re trying to keep it quiet or anything like that. They just...they just see a need and they go and meet it. They just do it,” Lewis says.
While she found speaking with and writing about the groups “moving and humbling,” she was especially touched by researching the Our Time project, a women-in-prison outreach offered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Vanier Centre for Women in Milton, Ontario.
“These are women in jail, hidden away from and separated from the rest of society. We don’t encounter them in our day-to-day lives. We don’t think about them as a group of people. And here we have a faith-based initiative reaching out to them, helping them connect with their children,” Lewis says.
“They are mothers and grandmothers who have experienced multiple traumas in their lives so the focus is on their dignity, which is often not respected by society because they’re in jail. The interviewees I talked to convinced me they truly do love their children,” she adds.
For Bennett, the case study on the Toronto-based Jewish humanitarian group Ve’ahavta was particularly joyful and resonant for its efforts to “present the ethical monotheism of Judaism to everyone.” But he said a story told to him by the English sector coordinator for the Montreal Archdiocese pastoral care program was the most moving of all.
“She (the coordinator) was visiting this one woman who was very devoted, very faithful but didn’t have anyone coming to see her ever. She was a real, true shut-in. She would watch several Masses a day on television, and they gave her great hope, really nurtured her faith. When it came time for the sign of peace in the Mass, she would get up from her chair and go over to touch one of her plants because at least it was another living thing. I was so moved by that.”
Bennett sees telling that story of the human-in-front-of-us dimension as one of the most vital contributions the Diakonia Project can make to Canadian common life. Most people know there’s a book club in the basement of their neighbourhood synagogue, a Boy Scout troop at Christ Church Anglican down the street or a 12 step program around the corner at Sacred Heart, he says. But in the broader cultural sweep, the works of faith get lost in media obsession with the titillating and the controversial, or in the hubbub of radical pastors going to jail for refusing to obey the law.
“Sadly, in our culture today, truth and goodness are boring. We forget the most important things revolve around how we relate to one another, how we care for one another, how we’re motivated to great goodness. I think it’s something we have to get a grip on. I’m hoping the Diakonia Project can do a little bit to help remedy it,” he says.
Lewis puts it succinctly: “It’s very easy to overlook truth and goodness in our culture but they remain very beautiful and very moving when you take the time to pay attention to them.”
Never more so than when you put out a call about service, and hear the answer calling back.
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Publisher Peter Stockland reflects on the "why" behind the annual Stations of the Cross tradition he participates in each year in downtown Montreal, Quebec. He asks readers to consider the value of a community and the depth of our belief in the one who gave us His all on the cross.
With the release of a new research paper this week exploring relations between law, faith and government, and with planning underway for launch of a new religious freedom institute later this year, Cardus Law Program Director Andrew Bennett took time to catch up with Convivium.ca publisher Peter Stockland and discuss the critical balance between individual and institutional faith rights.