(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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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