The annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland gets widespread media coverage in all corners of the globe.  Most are aware that economic, political and celebrity speakers address the conference, yet few have heard that the Forum earnestly seeks faith leaders to participate and that they are seen as essential to the betterment of the world. 

Many toss cold water on the concept of faith playing a prominent role in helping the world with its greatest challenges, but a significant portion of those from fields as diverse as health, climate change, democracy, politics and media are themselves of religious persuasion and they can look past the ills of religious institutions and see their strengths.  For this reason, faith leaders and grassroots religious movements have been provided delegate status to global forums such as Davos, the United Nations, the European Union, World Bank and South East Asia Treaty Organization, even NATO.

The World Economic Forum confirmed the UN’s research that religious adherence will grow globally in the coming decades and view this as part of the reason for the importance of the religious voice in their own economic deliberations.  From their report last year:

“The power of faith to impact global issues and shape global perspectives is a fundamental reason why the Forum consistently engages faith leaders and. perspectives in our work. As part of our efforts to incorporate an understanding of the impact of faith in our analysis of complex global trends and challenges, the Forum established the Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith..” 

But if this important development is to gain any traction in healing the world, it will have to be effective in local settings.  In many ways it already is.  Those involved in community and social work will be the first to acknowledge that people of faith make up the critical mass of those functioning on the front lines of poverty, homelessness, refugee settlement, and anti-racism efforts.   Regardless of their religious persuasion – Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist – they live out their respective faith’s mandate to the marginalized.  It is an irrefutable reality in all of our communities and should be recognized as such.

Yet it is the absence of their religious institutions themselves to come together, share their resources, and engage communities at a higher level that is sorely missed.  Faith ministerial associations exist in most Canadian communities and in recent years have found compelling and diverse ways of coming together to share their commonalities.  This is no longer sufficient, however.  As social ills continue to escalate and divide cities, there surely must come a time when religious leaders acknowledge that more is required.

For the sake of argument, here is but one example of what faith institutions might accomplish.

As homeless populations mushroom in Canada, and as governments at all levels claim to have insufficient funds to effectively address the problem, faith institutions could play a more active role in reducing such levels and, in some cases, eliminate homelessness altogether in smaller and mid-sized cities.

In speaking to a number of churches each year, I continue to hear from congregations that the idea of people without a place to live is abhorrent to them and many volunteer in shelters and soup kitchens to prove they mean it.  Why don’t the houses of faith themselves, many of which have substantial trust funds built up over the decades, invest some of those trust funds together, and tackle homelessness in a serious fashion.  This is frequently a difficult subject to discus, since, as churches in Canada decline in numbers, those same trust funds are used to keep the doors open and heat pumping.  Yet those specific funds could be used for community service.

So, here’s a suggestion: invest those funds, together with other faith institutions, in public housing projects, knowing that if invested properly, those same institutions will see their money returned – with interest.  The secret is to invest in the public good instead of investment portfolios that have nothing to do with local communities.  Larger financial institutions can then take on the financial responsibilities, returning the initial loans back to the churches with the interest accrued. Will the investment interest be as high? In most cases, no, but it will be close enough that the money could be invested in humanity in a fashion that can tip the scales in ending homelessness.

This is but one example of the leverage religious institutions possess that their individual adherents don’t, and it’s just the kind of collective action that all the original founders of faith groups called upon their people to follow. Some will say this is being done now, but it’s not nearly to the level it could be.

And, so, this is but one of my wishes for the coming year, but it is a big one, and one that faith could help accomplish.  It represents the potential of religious institutions in each community to accomplish what neither politics or civil society seem willing to do.  Something like this is already in its founding steps in my own community of London, Ontario, but the possibilities are everywhere.

When the World Economic Forum concluded faith groups could accomplish – “social transformation,” this is the kind of venture it means.   Maybe 2019 will bring it to pass.