Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
PEOPLE who don’t often frequent Manitoba’s houses of worship might be surprised to know that before the pandemic, many such buildings were bustling busy throughout the week with visitors whose attendance was unrelated to the in-house brand of religion.
A typical week’s schedule in a church, synagogue, temple or mosque might include meetings of a divorce recovery group, a language class for refugees, meetings of 12-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, a pre-wedding shower for a bride-to-be and an envionmentalist lecturing on climate change.
Some of the weekday community outreach was organized by members of the faith family that owns the building, perhaps to distribute food to needy people, or run daily after-school activities for neighbourhood children.
But many of the activities were conducted by non-religious groups that only approached the faith facility because they needed a meeting place that is safe, clean and inexpensive — often, free. They weren’t allowed to use spaces that were sanctified as holy, but they were free to use adjoining rooms, the basement or attached halls.
The facilities kept their doors open because all major faiths priorize charity and compassion, which in practical terms means welcoming the community, including the non-religious community.
Such faith institutions provided an "invisible safety net" of community services, according to a report released last Monday by Cardus, a faith-based think-tank. The report, which uses figures compiled before the pandemic, says it’s the first in Canada to add up the economic value of religion to Canadian society. It says religious organizations account for about $67 billion of economic activity each year, and it divides that sum into two categories:
First, about $30 billion, is the direct revenue of faith-based organizations, including congregations and faith-based charities.
Second, about $37 billion, includes what is called "the halo effect," a term that tallies the value faith groups generate for the public good. It includes putting a price tag on outreach programs — for example, when a faith facility offers free space to a teen drop-in centre and adults volunteer to help out as councillors, the new study estimates how much it would cost if the group had to rent a facility and pay councillors.
An earlier study on this "halo effect" called faith institutions "de-facto community centres," and estimated the worth at about $150,000 per congregation per year. Sadly, the "halo effect" has been snuffed out, extinguished by the pandemic. The faith facilities closed their doors, by edict of the public-health office, leaving countless community groups without a place to go.
Faith groups are now trying to resume a semblance of worship with online streaming and sparse in-person services without singing and chanting, without embracing, without the powerful dynamics of full communal gatherings.
Like the rest of Manitoba, the faith groups are trying to defend against the pandemic, and a sensible — although dispiriting — precaution is to restrict outside groups from using the carefully sanitized facilities.
The consequences can be dire for people who relied on the meetings for emotional and social health. This includes support groups for people with mental-health challenges or narcotic addictions, moms who met weekly with other moms who can relate to colicky babies and post-partum depression, or the widowed pensioners who live alone and depended on the weekly coffee hour for rare social connection.
Such people are the hidden casualties of lockdowns. They’ve lost their network of supportive activities at the same time as many have also lost their jobs, and may be struggling with increased anxiety, fear and suspicion of other people who may be virus carriers. It’s during this dark time Manitoba’s faith groups are planning how they can mobilize and help lead the recovery.
Faith communities value marginalized and vulnerable people — that’s their specialty. Their ancient rituals and fervent beliefs empower groups of people who are like-minded in putting the common good ahead of individualism. Desperate times reveal true character, and I believe Manitoba’s faith groups will rise to the occasion and — when allowed by the relaxing of public-health orders — will once again attend to the physical, emotional and social needs of their local communities.
The recovery from the pandemic will be like the aftermath of a hurricane that left the landscape strewn with wreakage and debris. As soon as it’s safe to go in, Manitoba’s faith groups will be there to pick up the pieces.
Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.
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