How can we help the poor?

Posted on June 23, 2013 in Inclusion Debates – opinion/columnists – Religious leaders debate the charity model
June 21, 2013.   By Douglas Todd

Canadians who regularly attend a religious institution give “three times” more to charity.

That claim was made by the head of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada when he opened his talk to an interfaith group at a recent McGill University conference titled Bridging the Secular Divide: Religion and Canadian Public Discourse.

Bruce Clemenger, an Ottawa-based lobbyist for evangelical concerns, was putting forward what he must have thought was a feel-good fact for his audience, which consisted largely of committed Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus.

No one challenged Clemenger’s declaration, which is based on Statistics Canada data. Maybe they were basking in the glow of hearing that active religious Canadians like them are more magnanimous than most non-religious people.

After all, there could be some truth to it. Pollster Reg Bibby has also found Canadians who regularly attend a religious institution are on average twice as likely as atheists (76 per cent to 37 per cent) to affirm: “Generosity is very important.”

But, in a follow-up conference workshop on how interfaith Canadians should address “poverty and inequality,” difficult questions were raised that are of deep importance to all Canadians.

Many in the workshop of 40 people asked if there is a downside to the charity mentality. After all, they said, charity can be unreliable and even sentimental, especially when its aimed at supporting the poor.

All those attending the workshop appreciated the value of individual generosity — since they were involved in various charitable programs to feed, house, employ or provide health care to the disadvantaged.

“There are literally hundreds of Canadian religious groups addressing poverty and homelessness in practical ways,” said panelist Julia Beazley, a long-time poverty analyst for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

But participants also recognized the dilemma emerging as Canadian opinion-makers increasingly celebrate philanthropic giving while many grow cynical about attempting political solutions to social problems.

They heard poverty levels are accelerating in Canada and around the world, in part because of globalization and stagnant wages. Many suggested Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other forms of religious charity are not enough.

As a potential issue over which Canada’s disparate multi-faith groups could form a common front, Beazley said the fight against poverty is “ripe for agreement.”

Poverty reduction, Beazley said, is not a “wedge issue.”

She was among participants who seemed to realize poverty is different from hot-button moral issues such as homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia, which many religious and other groups constantly emphasize in a way that mostly divides Canadians.

Could combatting poverty become the cause that brings together Canadians of all faiths? That would be significant, since four out of five Canadians express some level of adherence to a religion.

And, after all, helping the outcasts and poor is a central teaching of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism, and it’s echoed to varying degrees in Eastern religions and secular worldviews.

The problem, Beazley added, is that religious groups do not agree on the “how’ of helping the impoverished.

This is where things get complicated. Some conference participants agonized that charity, which religious people tend to do well, might be doing the poor more harm than good.

One Christian woman was in anguish as she worried about whether her lifelong commitment to her neighborhood food bank was making her compliant in furthering poverty.

“Sometimes helping people helps keep them in dire straits. When we keep helping the poor through food banks, are we avoiding real solutions?” she asked.

Panelist David Pfrimmer, who is dean of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary at Wilfrid Laurier University, acknowledged, “People at many congregations give to food banks. And that’s where it ends.”

Pfrimmer added the same is true of many Christians who contribute to In From the Cold, a loosely-knit national church program supporting the homeless, particularly in Vancouver Downtown Eastside.

In a “post-modern” Canada in which citizens of multiple nationalities and cultures lack any sort of “grand narrative” of the common good, Pfrimmer said Canadians are fragmented over how they should help the less advantaged.

Recognizing the importance of business being able to create wealth to support good jobs and finance social programs, Pfrimmer said it’s useful to explore why Canadians disagree over how to distribute wealth.

Some workshop participants asked whether there should be a stronger moral onus on Canadians to help the marginalized through paying their fair share of taxes.

Others mentioned how dramatic income disparity hurts even the rich, according to the bestselling book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone.

Some praised the generosity of billionaires such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates. But others pointed to reports out of the U.S. that showed the rich give far less a proportion of their income to charity (1.3 per cent) compared to poorer people (3.2 per cent).

What’s more, not one of the 50 largest public donations in the U.S. in 2012 went to a service agency for the poor. The giant donations went mostly to elite educational institutions, art galleries and museums.

Still, several said it’s best to avoid playing the “good guys/bad guys card.”

And some emphasized the need for political responses.

Former independent MP David Kilgour of Alberta, who was moderator of the workshop, lamented that governments could do more to stop transnational companies from exporting tens of thousands of North American manufacturing jobs to China.

In addition, Beazley emphasized the federal government has the key role to play in setting housing standards for the nation. A strong response from Ottawa is necessary, she said, to stop the housing “crisis” in Canada becoming worse.

For his part, former NDP MP Bill Blaikie, of Manitoba, said religious people have indirectly contributed to politicians ignoring the plight of the poor.

“If you could get the faith communities to speak out and care as much about poverty as same-sex marriage,” Blaikie said, the federal government would have had no choice to respond by now.

While acknowledging the value of donating to charities, Joe Gunn, head of the ecumenical Citizens for Public Justice, also emphasized the potentially positive power of politics.

“I’m always amazed at how many church people don’t support a political party,” Gunn said. “Everyone needs to send a cheque to a political party.”

In the end, the EFC’s Beazley acknowledged: “We don’t want to get stuck in this charity-only model. We want to look at economic justice.”

Pfrimmer put it this way: “We have to remember charity is only the first step on the road to justice.

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