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Forum forges connection between faith, advocacy

By Murray MacAdam

Effective ways of working with politicians and of affirming the connection between faith and public life highlighted a “Faithful Citizens” workshop held at St. John, York Mills, on Nov. 24. Ten Anglicans, including Bishop Linda Nicholls, were among the 60 participants.

The event explored how faith traditions are based on values of justice, compassion and care for creation. The event provided practical advice through workshops on advocacy, communications, rules affecting charities and advocacy, and other topics.

Bishop Nicholls gave a powerful reflection on how faith must make its impact in public life. “The Gospel speaks so deeply to our call for justice,” she noted. Countering the notion that religion should have no voice on public issues, she affirmed Anglican historian and theologian Paul Avis: “The state has moral responsibilities. A state cannot be neutral about what matters most.” Muslim community leader Habeeb Ali noted a common thread of justice throughout the Abrahamic faiths, and said that for Muslims, “being just is the closest to God consciousness.”

Keynote speaker Willard Metzger, general secretary of the Mennonite Church Canada, urged participants to make care for creation real for faith communities by grounding it in worship. He cited a famous statement by Mennonite founder Menno Simons: “True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant. It binds up that which is wounded.”

Mr. Metzger zeroed in on the hardship caused by environmental damage, noting that the one billion hungry people in the world are hardest hit by climate change. Each year, 250 million people are affected by climate-related disasters. Climate change has the potential to undo 50 years of development and international aid, reports World Vision. It’s easy to despair about the fate of the Earth, yet “as people of faith, we must choose to hope. Because when we hope, we believe a different path is possible, and we begin to explore that path.”

Concerns about the environment have fallen off the public radar, said P.J. Partington, a policy analyst with the Pembina Institute. Environmentalists must do a better job of explaining why these issues matter. “What is the vision for a sustainable Canada? This is a tremendous opportunity for faith communities.”

Two Christian politicians, MP John McKay and MPP Cheri DiNovo, also affirmed the positive contributions that people of faith can make. Mr. McKay said that clergy can play a vital role in public life, and should not be afraid to do so. Ms. DiNovo noted how hard it is get positive legislation enacted. “It’s a bit like moving an elephant uphill. When you get something done, the angels sing.”

She urged participants to talk to politicians of all parties in their advocacy efforts, in language that politicians can relate to. When advocating for specific measures, mention the costs involved. “Don’t forget that politicians are human,” she added. “Speak to them as human to human.” Forum participants were moved by the honesty and personal sharing by Mr. McKay and Ms. DiNovo. “Having those politicians talk about their humanity was excellent,” said the Rev. Penny Lewis, from Christ Church, Bolton.

Other speakers also affirmed the right of faith communities to speak out on public issues. The faith community has a voice in society, just as business, labour and other sectors, said Sara Stratton, a staff person with the ecumenical Kairos justice coalition. “Our (biblical) texts are highly political,” she said.

In a workshop, Ms. DiNovo noted that poverty and environmental concerns rank far below economic, health and educational issues for most people. Today’s anxious economic climate makes advocacy for the poor and for environmental concerns tough. “People are frightened. A frightened population is not going to show generosity to those on social assistance.” People of faith need to outline how we can remain hopeful, so that people can see different possibilities for society, she said.  

“The conference brought together advocates from both the environmental and social justice streams of the faith communities to focus on how we can make a difference,” said the Rev. Mishka Lysack of the Diocese of Calgary. “I think that’s why there was excitement in the room.”

For photos from the event, visit the Diocese’s Facebook page.