As Calgary grapples with an economic recession, thousands of job layoffs and continued uncertainty, the Herald asked four of the city’s religious leaders how faith plays a role in these challenging times.
Q. When 9/11 happened, the U.S., saw a great swell of people going back to church/faith/spirituality. Do you have a sense that this is happening today in Calgary due to the recession?
Rabbi Shaul Osadchey, Beth Tzedec Congregation: The resurgence of interest in religion following the 9/11 attack reflected a tangible and observable fear generated across all sections of the American population. As such, people looked to their religious leaders for ways to cope with the sense of shared loss and helplessness they felt in the wake of terrorism. However, economic recessions tend to have a disproportionate effect on specific segments of the population, and so the effects are not as deep or far reaching. Thus far, I have not observed a discernible increase in attendance at the synagogue or a significant increase in counselling for those who have lost jobs or who are in economic peril.
John Van Sloten, pastor, New Hope Hillside Church: I think there is a difference between people going back to their faith and people going back to church. I get the sense that a lot of people are asking bigger spiritual questions about life, their source of sustenance and what really matters. But I’m not convinced that they are connecting these existential questions to the idea of church. At New Hope Hillside, we’ve not noticed a perceptible increase in attendance due to the recession. But the recession is affecting our members. Twice over the past week I’ve spoken to people who have been laid off. Both have had their lives snapped to attention. Both are awake to questions about meaning, security and sustenance. Both are wondering about their callings — both vocationally and as human beings.
Rev. John Pentland, Hillhurst United Church: This recession is deeper and there are lots of people living in uncertainty. Faith provides an element of certainty in the midst of uncertain times. When times are tough, economically or politically, people often seek refuge, perspective and community. The church can be a place that offers connection to what matters in life. We find people need to be affirmed as loved human beings and to know they aren’t alone. Taking time to be in community and to experience a large view of life helps get us through difficulty.
Imam Syed Soharwardy, Al Madinah Islamic Centre:The tragedy of 9/11 caused lots of uncertainty and anxiety in people. People were worried about their future, jobs, business, safety and the well-being of their families. The only thing that could give them hope was their faith. Faith kept people together and hopeful. Similarly, during the current recession in Calgary, people are facing similar uncertainty due to tough economic conditions. In these tough times when mental peace is in jeopardy the remembrance of Allah gives peace. The holy Qur’an says, ‘The peace of heart is in the remembrance of Allah (God).” This remembrance of God reduces anxiety and stress, and keeps a person hopeful about the future.
Q. Why do people turn to faith in turbulent times?
Osadchey: The very purpose of religious institutions is to celebrate with people in prosperous times and to comfort, uplift and offer support in times of difficulty. As such, religious leaders are uniquely equipped to respond to issues of doubt and faith, and to address such questions as ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ When the material aspects of daily life are challenged, people turn to the spiritual side to regain balance and perspective about life’s priorities.
Van Sloten: I think turbulent times . . . rock our boats and wake us up. Nothing like a big storm to help us realize how fragile human lives and regional economies are. When the sailing is smooth, we take the source of our sustenance for granted. But when an economic wave hits, everything changes. It’s often said that there are no atheists at funerals or in foxholes. I suppose the same could apply to the economy. There are no atheists in the unemployment office or when oil threatens to drop below $20 a barrel. There is just something about the economy hitting bottom that causes us to look up. For some, that may lead to a renewing of faith, and perhaps an awareness of the one who made, loves and holds all people, families and economies.
Pentland: Worship provides a welcome space to cry, laugh, sing, listen and to pray. It helps us all get a wider perspective and there is comfort in this intention. People turn to faith in turbulent times in search of security and some sense of purpose. Faith reminds us of our value and worth as people. So often we define ourselves by what we do, not by who we are. People turn to faith for tradition and innovation. Space to daydream, to imagine, to wonder about life’s purpose. Faith affirms that nothing can separate us from God’s love, and that we are worthwhile beings.
Soharwardy: People turn to faith in turbulent times because they believe that when they fail, God will not let them fall. The merciful God takes care of them when the world abandons them. When people suffer in turbulent times and nothing helps them, the belief in God gives them hope and keeps them afloat from drowning.
Q. From a faith perspective, what message would you give people today who are feeling stressed, worried, anxious because of the economy?
Osadchey: In times of economic uncertainty, the best advice is to encourage people to take a longer-term view of the future, especially in energy-based cities that experience cycles of booms and busts. In the shorter term, however, people can find great comfort and profound joy in turning to family, friends and community as their true priorities and sources of strength and well-being. Placing greater emphasis on physical and spiritual health can obviate the stress and anxiety caused by the economic downturn. The ancient rabbinical sage Rabbi ben Zoma asked, ‘Who is wealthy? The one who is content with what he has.’
Van Sloten: I’d say, you’re not alone. I get that the situation you’re facing is very uncertain. I wish I could offer you some sort of divine job guarantee, but I can’t. But what I can say is this; even if you do lose your job, or your car or, God forbid, your house, you will not be alone. God has graciously planted you in a country with all kinds of life-support systems; free health care, social safety nets, neighbouring provinces whose economies can help keep ours afloat if needed, community, friends and family. You’ve still got all of your God-given skills and aptitudes. Oil slumps like this have happened before. Trust that your basic needs are going to be met — no matter how bad it gets — and have a little faith.
Pentland: I try to affirm that we are not alone in life’s struggles. We are not defined just by our work, but also by our life work, how we live and treat others matters most. Liturgically, I invite people to breathe, to let go and, in doing so, people deepen their trust that all shall be well. The opposite of faith is control, and we need to practise letting go and trust in a greater purpose. We need to see where we might be called next. Faith reminds us of this sacred trust to live life to the fullest even in the midst of diversity.
Soharwardy: My message is the message of Qur’an. Allah says, “Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere. Who say, when afflicted with calamity: To Allah we belong, and to Him is our return. Those are they on whom are blessings and mercy from their Lord, and those are the followers of the right course.” (Qur’an, 2:155-157).