Mutlifaith Housing Initiative
Sue Evans (daughter of the Rev. Bob Plant)
2010 October 24
Well, here I am again. Thank you. A lot has happened since I was here three years ago. We have had some major global disasters. We also have been through the deepest recession in forty years and will probably never look at the economic landscape in the same way again. Not knowing where the economy was headed, I sold our family home out in the west end of Ottawa and made a somewhat expensive decision to move downtown to a condominium so I could enjoy the conveniences of urban life and walk to the church I am attending. Notably and fortunately for me, two years ago I went back to work. I am now Executive Director of an organization (of which I was a founding member) called Multifaith Housing Initiative, an organization whose mission is to provide and promote the development of affordable housing in Ottawa. I had retired and this was supposed to be a temporary situation –a few months. But I guess temporary in the eyes of God is just what is not eternal. It is this work which prompted your worship committee to invite me to be your anniversary speaker again. Thank you. It is a pleasure to be with you to celebrate the life and work of your church.
When I was preparing for today, my mind went back to one Sunday morning about eighteen months ago. I was listening to the news as I ate breakfast and enjoying the sun streaming in my dining room window. On the news, there was a report about the housing situation in Ottawa. Despite the recession, property values had continued to climb! I remember the sudden relief I felt hearing this news. I had put a lot of my eggs in this basket. For about thirty seconds, I experienced a really overwhelming sense of wellbeing. And then, from somewhere else –not the radio –came another thought: increasing property values means increasing property taxes etc. means increasing rents. In fact, over the past three years rents have increased 4 to 5% along with food and transportation costs and unemployment. Thank you God for spoiling my morning! And if I hadn’t got the point, when I arrived at church I saw in the bulletin that food bank use was up 29%.
“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!”
When we explore what might be behind this tax collector’s confession, I think these can be very hard words to hear. They can hit close to home. The tax collector was someone benefitting from the economic system of his time at the expense of others. Unlike the Pharisee, he could see that he was [a sinner] and he was painfully self aware. He knew that there was something inherently wrong with this system. The grinding work done by the majority in his country was benefitting very few –the king and his family, the rich and often absent landowners, the religious elite and people like himself who collected the taxes. He may even have been someone like Zacchaeus who took more than his due but maybe he just realized he was one of the lucky ones, doing a necessary job he was good at and that happily paid off.
I wonder what he did next? Finding a way to live differently in the midst is not easy and it can have dire results –even crucifixion.
Multifaith Housing Initiative –the existence of Multifaith Housing Initiative –like food banks is a kind of confession. Something is wrong. Maybe we are just feeling the effects here now of globalization. In any case, while many of us are doing better, more people are being left out. An increasing number of people in Canada cannot afford to house themselves and meet their other living needs. Food banks are a very inadequate answer. In Ottawa there are about 10,000 households on the waiting list for affordable housing –a wait that can last four to eight years. Seven to eight thousand people including well over a thousand children –are cycling through the shelters each year. Their stay there on average is over two months. In 2006, the United Nations declared the situation with housing in Canada to be a national emergency.
Over lunch I am going to speak more specifically about the affordable housing problem and what we are doing about it –I have some slides to show you –but Paul was telling me that you might be interested in hearing about the multi-faith dimension of MHI. He tells me there are enough Muslims in Deep River now to establish themselves as a community and acquire a Mosque and some in Deep River are a bit discomfited by that.
Right from the beginning, we at MHI decided our organization should be two things: We agreed, first of all, that we wanted faith-based values to inform our approach, decisions and actions. We spent quite a bit of time talking about the difference, for example, between providing housing and providing a home.
Secondly we wanted our organization to be multi-faith. You here in Deep River Community Church know the challenges which come with being ecumenical. We were proposing to take ecumenism one step further . Well, you might ask why because the energy it might take to create and maintain a faith-based, multi-faith organization could entirely subvert our efforts to do something about the housing problem. Certainly we had this concern.
I myself was very supportive of the idea because of my experience as community chaplain working in the social housing neighbourhoods in Ottawa’s west end. In these neighbourhoods live immigrants who come from all over the world. Many had fled their countries because of the persecution they were experiencing in the name of religion. Some carry deep hostility towards a particular religious group –sometimes Jews –sometimes Muslims –sometimes Christians –depending on where they have come from. Here in Canada, poor immigrants of different religions are now living often rather uncomfortably, side by side, in these poor neighbourhoods. While I was chaplain, I and a Muslim friend ran a Christian-Muslim children’s program for awhile based on stories shared by the Quran and the Bible. One day we were talking about Abraham and I used the phrase “people of Israel.” A child of about ten immediately said, “I hate Israel.” Another family who had fled the Sudan with no baptismal certificates begged me to help them get their children into the separate school away from the Muslim children who were attending the local public school. And, if I visited a Muslim family –perhaps to invite the wife to a community event –the husband if he happened to be there, would sometimes greet me, a Christian, with the statement, “God is one.”
Also mixed in as neighbours to these immigrants, are Canadians born poor of Christian heritage. They would tell me how resentful they were that their neighbourhoods were being taken over by “foreigners” –particularly Muslims from Somalia. They could see the wait for affordable housing growing longer and their housing deteriorating. They would ask me why their children had to stop singing Christmas carols at school. They would ask why is it always ‘us’ who do the giving, the volunteering?
This is the mix of people who need affordable housing. We knew it would be naive to think that simply by providing housing to those in need, all would be well. We wanted to develop homes for people that were not only affordable but felt safe and to promote harmonious relationships among those living there. A multi-faith organization would model co-operation and understanding among people of different faiths and respect for everyone regardless of origin or economic status and help to address the growing resentment of the Canadian born poor. We also would have a source of volunteers of similar background who could help newcomers with settlement issues if need be. So, our decision to be multi-faith was really based primarily on practical considerations.
Well, establishing a multi-faith organization on paper was one thing. Creating a cohesive faith based, multi-faith culture within that organization is another. The first problem is that most faith communities regardless of religion are focused on many internal issues –both practical and theological. This problem is particularly true when people are feeling anxious about resources –about, for example, belonging to a church with an aging population, a shrinking membership and escalating costs; or about how to raise money to build or buy a worship space and at the same time have enough to send to those struggling to survive back in their homeland; or about how to keep the youth engaged. One day, I was visiting the Ottawa mosque to meet with a few people there about an upcoming fundraiser. The president said to me –yes but… our dome is leaking. It is going to cost us a half million dollars to fix it. Hmm, yes, we had just been discussing the roof at our church too.
Sometimes too, where people are fearful that the survival of their congregation or their way of life is threatened, they also may be highly invested in defending their religious beliefs and practices as the right ones, the best ones. Last Sunday I attended an Interfaith Prayer Service at an orthodox synagogue. After the service –which was quite a lovely offering of prayers and music by about sixteen different religious groups –I commented to a clergy person there that I thought that the service had not been that well publicized. There was no notice of it in my own church bulletin. He told me that he had sent out the information to the churches but he got some very hostile responses. I asked –what was it, the Palestinian issue? He said no, it was the gay issue. Orthodox Jews see homosexuality as immoral. He said to me rather sadly, “I don’t see why we can’t still pray together.”
At the same time, both this clergyman and others in the city who create opportunity for their youth to do social outreach projects, [but they] want them to do it on their own –not mixed in with youth of a different religious background. This is understandable because we all need to be clearly grounded in who we are before we can comfortably spend time with people who are different –before we can see them and listen to them and allow them to be who they are without feeling competitive or defensive. Yet the need to be confident about who we are or about the group with whom we identify is powerfully intertwined with the struggle to survive. This can completely overshadow any sense that in the end the only way we can move forward, is together.
Remember that the Pharisee in this morning’s gospel was living in a country occupied by the Romans. He was a member of a subset of the Jewish people who were being oppressed, taxed to death and trying to figure out how to survive: “God, I thank you that I am not like these other people…” –not like those Catholics or the Anglicans or those totally off the scale liberal United Church folks, or the evangelicals or the Muslims, for that matter. ““God, I thank you that I am not like these other people… I’m not like thieves, rogues, adulterers or this tax collector over here ” –or these gays or lesbians or fundamentalists or terrorists.
I am reminded of a conversation I had with a Muslim friend I had made. She and her husband had come from Kuwait. One summer they returned home to visit aging parents but left their five children here in the social housing neighbourhood in the care of her brother. While they were away I noticed that her brother seemed to be keeping the children shut up in the house all the time even in the very hot days so when they returned commented on this and asked my friend how things had gone while she was away. She said, “you know it’s hard not to be afraid here. We see what it is like here in Canada on TV. We don’t want our children to behave like this so we keep them inside. We are Muslim and so we have to keep apart. I wonder despite his conviction that he was right in his ways whether the Pharisee too was afraid.
Well, you can see that what we were proposing would be difficult to achieve. It called for some very specific strategies. We realized that we would not get the volunteer and financial support we needed unless the religious leaders and congregations themselves acknowledged that interfaith co-operation was a good thing so in establishing the organization we did three things. First, we contacted the religious leaders in the city, told them who we were and what we wanted to do and invited them to become patrons. Secondly we made faith communities rather than individuals our voting membership. Thirdly we sought out people who had a strong interest in social justice and who were respected members in their faith communities to sit on our board.
At the same time, we did something else which I believe was equally important. While we were completing all of the legal and organizational things necessary to obtain charitable status, establish our membership and make a start to acquiring some housing, six or eight of us from four different religious traditions met together over a period of several years to continue to talk about the mission of MHI and what we hoped to achieve. We asked ourselves a number of questions:
- Who do we understand to be the poor?
- Why do we feel called to respond to their needs?
- What do we mean by the term “people of faith” that we use to describe ourselves?
- Why is it both appropriate and essential that faith communities work together to help address the crisis in affordable housing?”
- What can we do to help MHI be faith-based in its decisions and actions?
- How can we engage other faith communities in this mission?
I have participated in Christian-Muslim dialogue groups where people come to learn about the beliefs and practices of the other. In such a group the leader chooses a topic –e.g. prayer, holy days, weddings or rites of initiation –and then someone from each religion makes an authoritative presentation about the subject in question. It’s all very interesting and informative so we enjoy it. Afterwards, the host where the group gathers provides usually more than enough to eat, we socialize and then we go home. This kind of event is a good thing.
However, focusing on these kinds of questions at MHI stimulated dialogue of a different kind. In this small group we spent time learning how to talk together about an issue that we all cared about. We assumed that we were alike in one respect: we were bringing a consciousness of God in some way which had been shaped by our respective traditions and a desire to embody this in how we lived and what we did. As we discussed these questions, we did not try to speak authoritatively for the religious tradition to which we belonged. Instead we shared our own stories with one another –stories about our growing up years in the tradition, about how the teachings and traditions had shaped us and had led us to feel a sense of responsibility for the poor in the community. This was an incredibly enriching experience. There was little danger of feeling competitive or defensive. Each person’s thoughts stood as a piece to be contributed to the whole we were searching for. Sometimes it seemed that what we heard from others helped us to own what we already knew, in a new way. For me, personally, I became more self-aware about the extent to which I take my faith seriously. I have become much more appreciative of why human beings adopt symbols, rituals and practices which include choosing to dress in a particular way. And my sense of the mystery of God has deepened.
This group no longer meets but its legacy has proved to be solid. After eight years, we still begin our board and some committee meetings with one member speaking about how their faith tradition shapes their understanding of our shared mission. We also have had a number of retreats or board workshops which have included a faith sharing element. As we work together, our conversations often touch on who we are as people of faith
This past year our board which now has Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh members, adopted Karen Armstrong’s “Charter for Compassion” as the opening statement for our board manual. This is a statement based on the golden rule and is signed by religious leaders from around the world. It calls people to treat others with compassion as we would like to be treated as ourselves; to refrain consistently and empathetically from inflicting pain, from denying basic rights and from inciting hatred; to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion; to reject any interpretation of scripture which breeds violence; and, to ensure youth are given a respectful interpretation of other religions, traditions and cultures. Compassion, it affirms, is essential to human relationships, a fulfilled humanity, to the path to enlightenment, to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.
At this point, we have been incorporated only eight short years. Much of our energy has been focused on acquiring housing –a total of 42 units so far –and increasing our capacity to manage them. This is hard work. We have nine or ten two hour meetings a month and these can easily trump any time set aside for faith sharing. Yet as I look back over this time I am struck by a couple of things. These are my own learnings, generalizations about what it takes to generate positive interreligious relationships which truly affirm the value of diversity. Maybe they will stand the test of time and maybe they won’t.
First, our primary purpose was not to become a multi-faith organization. Our purpose was to address the affordable housing problem. We called on people of other religious traditions to help. We believed that at the heart of all religions is call to compassion. We are concerned about what is a human rights issue. Focusing on this commonly held issue itself is what has made real multi-faith dialogue, understanding and co-operation possible. I believe it doesn’t matter where you live –in a city like Ottawa with many poor people or here in Deep River where there are not so many –if you live and work together, if you are attentive to what is happening in the world, there will be something of common concern that can be an opportunity for shared faith-based action.
Secondly, as we have worked together at developing some affordable housing, more and more questions have emerged which invite us to respond as people of faith. For example, we have had to talk seriously about what we mean by good stewardship of our resources; about paying a just wage to people working for us; about what approach we want to take to management of staff; about what kind of support we want to provide our tenants; and, of course, what strategies can we develop to enable us to both reduce rents and pay the bills. We have now just begun to talk about our environmental responsibilities. In these discussions a kind of synergy happens which can take you far beyond simply finding a compromise. There is a sense that the term “people of faith” has real meaning and the values implied in this are being embodied in the way we create our housing and how we treat our tenants. What we are trying to do is not just develop affordable housing. It is to create small inclusive, sustainable life giving communities. Does what we have accomplished so far look like that now? No, but we are heading in the right direction and learning as we go.
Of course, our members have not always agreed and we have not always been successful in finding a common way. For instance, we have not dealt with the question of the taking and paying interest, something which is an issue for Muslims. They have a different way of financing housing but we simply have not had the time to pursue this. I hope eventually we will.
Thirdly, when people of faith experience a deepening awareness of the radical nature of this kind of action/reflection so too does their level of commitment. A good number have given a good deal of time to this work. Some have taken some very real risks. Two years ago, for example, we purchased a twenty seven unit apartment complex –“a fixer upper” –financing it with donations, mortgage money and, we hoped, a grant through the Canada Provincial Affordable Housing Program. While we had a good recommendation from the city we were not 100% sure we would get it but we decided to proceed in faith that we would be able somehow to raise the money we needed. On top of this, the government works like molasses and we ended up needing a bridge financing to carry us over until the grant money arrived –something we have not able to get until recently from a financial institution. To cover this period a number of board members committed to taking personal lines of credit on their homes to make this transaction work. We also have several others make very large donations to help us with our down payments.
Finally, I think that if Canada is going to become a more cohesive, compassionate civil society people of different faiths must find ways of working creatively together. Creative dialogue of a kind is already happening in the work world, in the IT world, in the world of business. MHI members who initiated this project were able to identify people of a different religion who might be interested in participating because they already knew them and felt comfortable with them in other contexts and saw their leadership potential. What it took was for them to say, “I am Christian and concerned about this issue. We think that you as a person of faith might be concerned too. Are you interested? Would you like to work together on this?”
In fact, not only can we do this; I believe we are called to do this. We are experiencing what happens when the values of the business world are dominant. If in the end, social cohesion emerges as an embodiment of the values which drive the world of business, the gap between rich and poor will continue to grow and costly social problems will continue to escalate. At some level my friend from Kuwait was right. Today, many –particularly those of Christian heritage –call themselves spiritual but not religious –and the kind of moral clarity displayed by the tax collector is disappearing. People want to distance themselves from religious institutions for all the reasons I am sure you know very well. And I think there are lots who have a vested interest in seeing the different religious groups continue to live hidden lives in isolation from one another because this undermines their credibility and impact when they do speak out about injustice. People of faith need to be allies. If we truly believe that compassion is essential to a fulfilled humanity we have to find a way to restore the confidence of those who reject religion. We have to work together. We have to find our collective voice.
Our experience at MHI though in many ways still in its infancy, convinces me that there is possibility. People are hungry for signs of hope. We have found getting support for the development of more affordable housing is a hard sell. Perhaps, given our experience with public housing, the issue feels heavy and burdensome. However, the fact that we are a multi-faith group working on this has brought a lot of attention to the issue. It is proving to be a brand which appeals. For example, one of the ways we have financed our purchases is to establish a housing loan program –a kind of ethical fund which has no more legal weight and protection than the promissory note we give them. To date forty one people have lent us about five hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Right now our interest rate is attractive but most was lent to us long before this current economic downturn. Just this past week a young woman from a small church in the city –one I had never heard of –came to the office out of the blue to ask about this fund. She had come across us on the internet. She wanted to know whether if she held an “ethical fund” investment fair at her church we would participate. And she also wanted to invest about $15,000 with us. She said she knew she could get the same or better rate of interest investing her money differently but she was excited by our project because we are investing in people.
When I listen to today’s gospel I kind of smile because I find myself praying: thank you God that I am not like other people. And thank goodness God you have created people of other faiths who are not like me. Religious diversity is a wondrous thing. It keeps us watchful, mindful, enriched and challenged.