From my London Free Press article this week on the need to recognize faith groups for what they bring to those struggling on the margins. (illustration by Jane)
George Bernard Shaw once said to an audience, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
London’s Salvation Army is likely coming to terms with the importance of that statement in recent days. In what has been universally understood as a communications disaster, the well-known agency’s handling of the closing of its Bethesda Centre has created a resentment that goes beyond the issue itself.
Hundreds of comments were submitted through various venues questioning the validity of faith groups and their work. Some accused the Army of a kind of hypocritical spirituality, while others noted religious groups aren’t nearly as compassionate as they pretend.
We need to think again. A number of years ago, a well-known politician in London vented to my wife Jane and me that churches and Christians are nothing but hypocrites enjoying charitable status. We were taken aback at the outburst. And so we went to work for a period of some four months, interviewing the majority of social agencies in town, attempting to determine just how many of their volunteers and staff were of religious persuasion.
The results were overwhelming – of those surveyed over 80% of the compassionate work undertaken in our community in helping the marginalized was performed by people of faith persuasions. From mosques, temples, churches, synagogues and numerous other groups throughout the city, armies of men and women perform front-line service to lower-income people throughout the city.
The politician was stunned when we delivered our findings and, to his credit, owned up to his initial delusion.
This reality shouldn’t surprise us, for it is the tenet of every faith that the poor matter and that efforts should be undertaken to alleviate their plight. The range of activities are enormous: providing meals, non-perishable items, Out of the Cold programs, resettlement services, refugee assistance, low-income housing, mental health supports, counselling, shelters for men, women and children at risk, and much more.
Faith groups have become proficient at providing pivotal services to the London community since the city’s founding, but most often such efforts take place in those areas most citizens don’t frequent. And yet every day thousands of our poorer neighbours are assisted by the practical outpourings of these quiet emissaries for divine and human compassion.
This reality is the opposite from what the naysayers say about faith groups. They are, in reality, everywhere in this city where there is need and they are doing it in humble ways that fall outside of the usual notoriety that can often come with such efforts. They are “walking the talk” and they save the city millions of dollars each year through their faithful efforts of care.
And that includes the Salvation Army. I have been around almost every part of this community in the last 40 years and in more cases than I can count, I found Salvation Army personnel in some of the most depraved of conditions exhibiting what they believe is the love of God to those in need. But it doesn’t stop there. They run emergency programs overseas wherever there is disaster and Canadians in high numbers continue to donate to this group because of a track record that can stand on its own merit.
Rev. Kevin Dixon, dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, puts it this way: “When it comes to spirituality, institutions that support people’s faith journeys may have some undesirable qualities, but their existence is preferable to their absence. Institutions organize and channel individual aspirations to make a worthwhile contribution to society.”
This hasn’t been the Salvation Army’s finest hour, but one, even a couple, of errors do not a hypocrite make. It is in their number of selfless tasks that they should be judged.
Unless those making criticisms are prepared to stand in the breach and advocate for the needy, dedicating the hours and lifetimes required to change lives as so many faith groups do, perhaps it might be best to acknowledge that those in real need in our community would be far worse off if not for those who, despite their flaws, live out their faith where people actually require the help.