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Project brings ‘nones’ together to explore spirituality

By Stuart Mann

In the summer of 2019, the Rev. Dr. Jason McKinney and a local community partner piloted a project that sought to bring people together to talk about spirituality. While the backyard gatherings were open to all, they were specifically designed for people with no religious affiliation – one of the fastest growing groups in society.

The project, Sharing the Sacred, was a success, so much so that he is hoping it will continue throughout the year. “What made me excited was how eager people were to be part of it and engage in it,” he says. “It was very religiously diverse, but for the most part it was made up of younger, unaffiliated people.”

Parkdale residents take part in Sharing the Sacred in 2019. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Dr. Jason McKinney

About 29 per cent of Canadians over the age of 18 say they have no religion, according to a survey done by the Pew Research Centre in 2018. That number is expected to be higher after the Canadian Census is taken in 2021.

For Dr. McKinney, the interim priest-in-charge of Epiphany and St. Mark, Parkdale and an adjunct professor at Trinity College, engaging with the religiously unaffiliated – called “nones” in church jargon – is something he is passionate about. “They are unaffiliated, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a spirituality there, that there’s no elements of religious practice in their lives.”

He says it’s a group the Anglican Church cannot afford to ignore. “We’re not losing people to other denominations. We’re losing people to no religion.”

A resident of Parkdale in Toronto’s west end, he is deeply involved in local efforts to foster inclusion, diversity and affordability. He is a member of the board of directors of the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust and the steering committee of the Parkdale People’s Economy. He is also a core partner in shaping the Parkdale Community Food Hub.

For the past three years, he and Michael Burtt, the director of a local community arts company and the children’s ministry director at Epiphany and St. Mark, have been trying to bring the reality of religious people and a spiritual perspective into this non-religious, neighbourhood-based work. They have connected with people of other faiths, often using art as a way to find common ground.

While engaging with people of faith, they were asked by community partners to also reach out to people without religious affiliation. “We were interested in doing that, but it’s really hard to convene people who don’t belong to a specific religious community,” he recalls.

An initial event to attract people with no religious affiliation didn’t work. “It didn’t go anywhere because we weren’t working closely and bringing into leadership the people we were trying to connect with,” he explains. “We learned that if you want to reach the nones, you have to put a none in charge.”

For their next attempt, that’s exactly what they did. “We worked with a young woman who was religiously unaffiliated, and it became her vision. Our role was to help implement it and bring some resources and structure to it.”

The format, which became Sharing the Sacred, involved three backyard gatherings over the summer. Each gathering attracted between 10 and 20 people, many of them religiously unaffiliated. Each session included an art-making activity, food and story-sharing.

Spirituality was explored during the story-sharing time, which was led by a facilitator. Each gathering had a theme and the participants were asked to share stories based on that theme. At one of the gatherings, for example, they were asked to share a story of a time when they had experienced something as sacred. The facilitators also introduced a spiritual practice, such as centring prayer, and the group practiced that.

Dr. McKinney says he was surprised by the results. “In each case, people were eager to have those kinds of conversations.”

He says one of the things that made the gatherings work was that they were not designed to bring people to church. “I think it would have failed if that was our intention and that intention had become known. People wouldn’t have been interested in engaging or engaging to the level that they did. We made it very clear from the beginning that we were simply opening a space for them to come as whole people, which includes spirituality.”

The Rev. Dr. Jason McKinney in Parkdale in 2017. Photo by Michael Hudson

He says it’s important for the Church to reach out to the religiously unaffiliated, even when there is no expectation that they will come to a church. “I think the call to be missional is to go out there and facilitate spiritual community for the people where they are. That includes the non-religious. We have to carve out a space for them.”

During the winter, the gatherings are held in a room at Epiphany and St. Mark, which has become a community hub by sharing its space with local groups. When the weather turns warm again, they will be held in local backyards.

He hopes the project will one day serve as a training ground for young spiritual leaders who can take Sharing the Sacred to other contexts. He would also like to see a conference on spirituality and spiritual retreats for the unaffiliated. “The Church needs to focus on not just the people who aren’t here but the non-religious as well,” he says. “There needs to be some thought and energy put into how we engage with them.”