Sunday, June 18, 2017

Islamic Relief Enables Canadian Muslims to Help Locally and Globally

Organization one of the fastest-growing NGOs in Canada today

Mennonites can help the world’s needy through Mennonite Central Committee. Lutherans in the can respond through Canadian Lutheran World Relief. 

Baptists, Presbyterians, Christian Reformed, Catholics and other groups have their own relief and development arms.

Canadian Muslims can also extend a hand to the world’s poor through their own agency—Islamic Relief Canada.

Founded in 1984 in Great Britain in response to the famine in Ethiopia, today Islamic Relief has chapters in a number of countries, and provides assistance in 40 developing nations around the world.

The Canadian chapter was founded in 2007. In 2009, it received $1.2 million in donations. Last year the figure was over $28 million, making it one of the fastest-growing international relief and development groups in the country.

A lot of the money it receives comes during Ramadan, which took place this year from May 26 to June 24. In addition to fasting and prayer, it’s a time when Muslims especially remember those who are hungry and needy.

“We get half of our annual income that month,” says Reyhana Patel, who heads up media and external relations for Islamic Relief.

For Muslims, one of the five pillars of their faith is the zakat, or the obligatory sharing with the needy. 

Most Muslims tend to give it during the month of Ramadan, since they believe giving during that holy month provides the giver with a double reward.

In addition to giving their zakat, Muslims also give another special donation in Ramadan during an iftar, the meal that breaks their daily fast.

The ancient formula for how much to give was two kilograms of either flour, wheat, barley or rice for each person in the household. In Canada today, Muslims typically make a gift of about $10 per person for everyone at the meal.

Some of that money is donated to Islamic Relief through what it calls Share Your Blessing. 

Through it, Canadian Muslims are invited to sign up to host an iftar with their family and friends, using the occasion to break the daily fast and raise money to help needy people around the world.

Islamic Relief provides a package of materials for each host to share with guests about its work, along with pledge forms so people can make donations. Last year, one iftar in Canada raised $90,000 for the charity.

Once misconception about the organization, Patel says, is where the money goes.

“Although most of our programs are in Muslim countries, our assistance is available to all, not just to Muslims,” she says, noting that the organization provided help after the Haiti earthquake, the typhoon in the Philippines and for people affected by the Fort McMurray wildfires. It also funds a program in Toronto for disadvantaged youth.

“We don’t only help Muslims,” she adds. “We give to whoever is in need, just like other NGOs.”

As well, she notes, “anyone can donate to Islamic Relief, not just Muslims.” All donations are tax deductible.

Current appeals include for the famine in Africa and Yemen, as well as for victims of inter-communal violence in Myanmar and refugees from the fighting in Syria.

Ongoing programs include orphan sponsorship, and health, education, medical and water projects.

In addition to donations, the organization also gets grants from the Canadian government for its work overseas. It is also part of the Humanitarian Coalition, which brings together Canada’s major relief agencies to respond to emergencies in the developing world.

For Idris Elbakri, past president of the Manitoba Islamic Association, supporting Islamic Relief is a good way for Muslims to help those in need.

“Through it Muslims in Canada can realize their obligation to help others both locally and globally,” he says.

Beyond the good work that Islamic Relief is doing around the world, it also means a lot to the Muslim community in Canada.

“The respect and recognition it gets from other NGOs, and the Canadian government, shows how Canadian Muslims are in the mainstream of Canadian values,” he says.

From the June 17 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Weird Religion, or What if Christianity Was Once Again Considered Dangerous and Subversive?

Christianity from the first three centuries might be the most instructive about how to live out Christian faith today

“Any religion is, by definition, crazy to a non-believer.”

That aphorism was coined by Jeffrey Weiss, formerly a religion reporter at the Dallas Morning News.

Dubbed Weiss’ law, it explains how weird other religions can look to people who are not a part of those faiths—things that people inside those belief systems view as completely normal.

I thought about Weiss’ law while perusing Larry Hurtado’s most recent book, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World.

Hurtado, a professor at the University of Manitoba from 1978-96, writes in the book that what we consider normal Christian belief and practice today was once viewed as strange and subversive in the first three centuries—the time before Constantine made Christianity legal and acceptable in the Roman Empire.

Or, as he put it, it was a time when there were features of early Christianity “that made it distinctive, odd, even dangerous in the eyes of some of that time.”

Back then, the Romans considered the new Christian faith not only weird, but also repugnant.

“There is a group, hated for their abominations, called Christians,” wrote the historian Tacticus.

Added another historian, Suetonius: “The Christians are a class of men given to a new and wicked superstition.”

Said a third, Lucian: “The poor wretches have convinced themselves they are going to be immortal and live for all time.”

And what were these superstitions and abominations? The idea that a man could die and rise from the dead, of course.

The practice of the Eucharist also caused concern—to the Romans, eating Christ’s flesh and blood sounded like cannibalism.

But there were other reasons, too. Christianity was seen as a threat to the state. By refusing to acknowledge the primacy of the emperor, as adherents of other religions did, Christians appeared disloyal and threatened the stability and legitimacy of the Roman Empire.

The new faith also upended behavioural norms. Christians were expected to live by high moral standards—men, for example, were required to be faithful to their wives at a time when it was widely accepted they could have one or more mistresses.

Another radical idea was how Christianity based its identity not on ethnicity or nationality but on a shared religious belief. As well, the new faith elevated the role of women, and rejected the practice of child brides and the killing of baby girls.

The result was that life for the earliest Christians was very difficult—including persecution and death. And even without that, “becoming a Christian held no social or economic advantage,” writes Hurtado. 

“Those who wanted to aspire for upward social mobility would have been advised to give Christianity a pass,” he adds.

For Hurtado, Christians today might do well to learn how the church before Constantine engaged the world.

“Christianity is no longer the socially dominant force that it once was,” he wrote. “Christians are again one kind of religiousness among many others. So, actually, it may well be those Christians and texts of the first three centuries that will be the most instructive about how to live out Christian faith in these circumstances.”

Sometimes I wonder: What would it look like today if Christians around the world put their faith first, before their nation?

What if they all practiced unconditional and non-judgmental love for any and all who cross their path?

If they lived by the highest ethical norms?

If they actively celebrated and promoted women as leaders?

If they were once again considered dangerous and subversive by the state?

I don’t know about you, but that would just be weird.

From the June 10 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Misogyny in Religion, or Things Only Christian Women Hear

Considering how they've been treated, why do so many women stick with religion?

Some days I am amazed that women who believe in God bother with religion at all.

For centuries they have been told by men to shut up, cover up and put up with countless rules and regulations governing how, where, when and why they may—or may not—participate in religious roles or rituals of one sort or another.

I honestly don’t know how so many of them managed to keep their faith. If the shoe were on the other foot—if men faced the same limitations and restrictions based on out-of-context interpretations of selected verses from ancient texts—most of us would be out of there in a minute.

But somehow, and for some reason, many religious women have hung in there. All I can feel is awe.

What got me thinking about how women have been treated by religious groups was the hashtag #thingsonly Christianwomenhear, which was popular on Twitter in April.

The conversation about the sexist and toxic things Christian women hear was started by popular Canadian Christian author and blogger Sarah Bessey.

According to Bessey, who is author of the book Jesus Feminist, it was just something she wanted to talk to her Twitter followers about.

But it quickly went viral, amassing hundreds of responses from women sharing things they had heard in churches or from church leaders.

Examples included: "You are an amazing leader! You'd make an excellent pastor's wife someday!"

“Women are too emotional to be leaders and pastors. It would never work."

"OK, you can teach this, but there has to be a male leader in the room when you do. We'll send someone." “

“Your clothes can cause boys to sin.”

“You have tremendous leadership gifts . . . it's too bad you weren't born male.” “

Wrote Bessey on her Facebook page: “This hashtag is pulling back the curtain on the everyday lived experiences of women within the church.”

She added that the responses were “illuminating, sad, infuriating, ridiculous, funny . . . we still need to speak about freedom and expose the lies and amplify the voices of women who have too often been silenced.”

In an interview she went on to say that “I love the church but I also know that we can’t fix what we refuse to acknowledge . . .I look forward to the day when women with leadership and insight, gifts and talents, callings and prophetic leanings are called out and celebrated.”

In a subsequent tweet, she stated: “Nobody is attacking the church. We're attacking the patriarchal spirit that has a death-grip on the throat of the beautiful bride of Christ."

There was pushback. Author and speaker Rebekah Lyons urged women this week to avoid making the hashtag a "megaphone for bitterness."

That prompted Christianity Today editor Katelyn Beaty to respond: “I don't know . . . it seems to me when men name structural problems it's prophetic. When women name structural problems it's bitterness?”

Of course, this isn’t true for every Christian denomination; many church groups are welcoming of women as leaders. But I bet some of those women also have experienced sexism while trying to follow God’s call in their lives.

And it’s not just a religious issue—women hear similar things in many parts of society. Another Twitter hashtag started about the same time was titled #thingsonlywomenwritershear. And women in Canada only make 87 cents for each dollar made by men.

About the same time this hashtag was getting traction, A Handmaids Tale was beginning its run on Netflix.

In the series, based on the book by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, men in the future theocratic country of Gilead use religion as a basis to subjugate women.

Just fiction, right? In fact, Atwood based her book, which was published in 1985, on real-life events throughout history such as the 17th century Puritans, the experience of women in some Muslim-majority countries, and the rise of the religious right in the U.S.

One can only hope that we have moved on from those experiences, that the imaginary country of Gilead will remain, in fact, a fantasy.

But as the comments some religious women hear today show, we still have a ways to go.

From the June 3 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Spiritual Care Helps Patients, Saves Money

Illness is a spiritual experience for most patients

Shockwaves rolled through Canada’s spiritual health care community in March when the government of Saskatchewan eliminated pastoral care services in that province.

While increasing the overall health care budget very slightly (by 0.7 percent), the province cut several services it considered non-essential—like spiritual care.

“In recognition of the fiscal situation we’re in, it’s about trying to get to the core services of health,” Health Minister Jim Reiter said. “The services that we cut, while they’d be nice to have . . . they certainly wouldn’t be what we’d consider the core services of health.”

The cut to spiritual health care services will save the province $1.5 million a year.

Following Saskatchewan’s decision, there was concern in Manitoba that something similar might happen here as the province tries to maximize efficiency in the healthcare system.

“We are imagining that many (or most) of us are concerned about the upcoming provincial budget,” the executive team of the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care wrote to spiritual health care providers in Manitoba in March, before the budget was tabled.

The news from Saskatchewan, “is concerning,” the letter continued, “and we are aware of the stress that some are carrying because of this.”

As it turns out, their fears were unfounded. 

The Manitoba government did not cut spiritual care services, although a decision to reduce management jobs means at least one spiritual health care director position will be eliminated at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre.

Altogether, in 2016-17, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA) budgeted $3 million for 46.75 full-time equivalent spiritual health care positions. An additional $600,000 was raised by religiously-based institutions such as assisted-care homes.

That’s not a lot out of a total budget of $2.8 billion a year. But with pressure on from the provincial government to trim $83 million in 2017-18, why should scarce resources be used for spiritual care? 

That’s the question I posed to Adel Compton, Regional Director of Spiritual Health Services for the WRHA.

For Compton, spiritual care is an essential part of whole-person care in the health care system.

“Each of us tries to make sense of life,” she says. “But when we end up in hospital, that sense of meaning can be challenged, especially if we are very ill or facing death.”

Spiritual care, provided by trained spiritual health care providers, “can help people understand what’s happening to them, and what choices are available to them that fit into their life and values.”

Providing these services is also an aid to nurses and doctors, who are often very busy and have not enough time to spend with patients.

“We have the time to listen to people, to calm them down, help them make informed decisions for treatment,” she says.

“We help people connect with whatever it is that gives them the strength” so they can cope with their medical situation, she adds—and make it easier for the medical team to do their jobs.

All of this not only helps patients and staff, but it saves money, too. “There are numerous studies that show that spiritual health care results in better patient outcomes,” she says.

A quick Google search shows she is right. Over 400 studies have found that religion or spirituality helps patients cope better with illness, and deal better with the stress caused by health problems.

The studies also show that religion or spirituality promotes hope for recovery, and provides rituals and behaviors that helps people ease anxiety, lessen depression and promote greater overall well-being.

“Illness is a spiritual experience for most patients,” especially those with serious illnesses, says Tracy Balboni, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

Balboni, who has been conducting research into how spirituality affects the experience of patients in hospitals, adds that “patients want to be seen as whole persons, not just as bodies affected by illness.”

Through her research, Balboni has also has found when religious or spiritual needs are not addressed, it reduces a patient’s quality of life and satisfaction with care, and doubles or triples healthcare costs towards the end of life.

So while the Saskatchewan government’s decision to cut spiritual care services might save a few dollars now, maybe it won’t turn out to be such a good move in the long term.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Millions Face Starvation, But Does Anyone Give a Shit?

African Christians call for day of prayer to end famine May 21 

“I have three things I’d like to say today,” said American author Tony Campolo to a crowd at the 1982 interdenominational Spring Harvest church conference in England.

“First, while you were sleeping last night, 45,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition.

“Second, most of you don’t give a shit.

“Third, what’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact I said ‘shit’ than the fact that 45,000 kids died last night.”

Campolo’s words—for which he became infamous—come back to me as I think about the terrible food crisis in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and parts of Kenya and Nigeria.

An estimated 20 million people face starvation in those countries, the largest humanitarian crisis since 1945 according to the UN.

And it’s not as if this came out of nowhere; the disaster has been forecast for many months. And yet, for the longest time, it seemed as though the world—to use Campolo’s words—didn’t give a shit.

Except for a bit of media coverage here and there, there was virtually nothing about it in the media. 

There are several reasons for this—it’s hard for the media to get into the worst-affected regions, and they don’t have the resources they used to.

Then there’s the Trump effect; the new President, and his unpredictable ways, has sucked up much of the media oxygen.

Added to this is the general fatigue everyone feels over the extended Syria crisis; will it never end?

Two groups that are trying to break the silence are the All Africa Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. The two groups have issued a call for a Global Day of Prayer to End Famine on Sunday, May 21.

Noting that “more people face famine today than any time in modern history,” the groups are calling for prayer for an end to the hunger, and to the conflict that is causing so much of the need.

“Churches have a prophetic role in calling to mobilize their members, the wider society, and governments, and making a difference during this unprecedented period of suffering,” they state, adding that “food is more than a human right; it is a divine gift that cannot be impeded.”

Since that is the Sunday of the May long weekend in Canada, it’s possibly the worst time for a day of prayer in this country—attendance at worship services will be lower than usual. But people can still pray at the cottage, the lake or the beach.

Of course, it’s not just Christians who can pray; anyone, of any faith, can do so. When it comes to asking God to help end the suffering, we’re all in this together.

But what to pray? The Global Day of Prayer website has some resources on its website, as does Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

But if you want a simple one you can use, good for anyone of any religion, here’s a prayer from the aid group Christian Aid:

God of all grace, hold all those who are hungry in your infinite love.
Be with those for whom the earth’s resources have run dry;
Be with those who must walk for miles to find their daily bread;
Be with those for whom survival is a fragile hope.
And be with us, as we read the stories of those who bear such acute suffering;
Give us hearts of compassion to respond in your service,
So that together we may see restoration where there is pain,
And all may rejoice in your goodness.

To that we can all say, "Amen" and, "yes, I give a shit."

From the May 13 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

From Sports Radio Host to Rabbi

Definitely not a typical path to becoming a rabbi, says Winnipeg's Matt Leibl

Winnipeg sports fans were surprised last summer when Matt Leibl, co-host of The Big Show on TSN 1290, announced he was leaving after six years to become a rabbi.

Leibl admits he was sort of surprised himself.

“I didn’t feel a pull to be a rabbi,” says the 32 year-old, even though he has been a long-time volunteer at Shaarey Zedek, leading services and prayers, reading the Torah, performing weddings, officiating at funerals, and working with teens.

In particular, he didn’t feel he was religious enough, despite growing up in an observant Jewish home, attended Jewish elementary and high schools, and speaking Hebrew.

“Never once did I feel myself to be a religious person,” he says. As he grew older, he “wasn’t observant, I didn’t keep kosher. I was a secular Jew, culturally Jewish, just like all my Jewish friends.”

“I always thought to be a rabbi you had to be very religious,” he adds. “That wasn’t me.”

But people kept saying he’d be good at it, that he’d make a great rabbi due to his natural gifts for interacting with people, along with his great voice—something that is important for leading prayers and reading the scriptures.

And so it was in spring, last year, that he began to think about a change of career.

“I had a great run in radio, but it wasn’t enough anymore,” he says. “I wasn’t unhappy, but I didn’t know how long I could do it,” he says.

Through his volunteering at the synagogue, “I was working with people, being part of the milestones in their lives, walking with them through joy and grief, being involved at a much deeper level,” he says.

At the radio station, he felt he wasn’t “talking about the same kind of stuff. I decided I wanted something more out of life, to be more involved in meaningful topics, to interact with a broader range of people beyond the guys who call in to a sports radio show.”

Last August Leibl made the big change, resigning from TSN to start rabbinical studies and serve as a rabbinic intern at Shaarey Zedek.

“It’s definitely not a typical path to become a rabbi,” he says of his journey.

Although he has changed careers, one thing hasn’t changed—Leibl still doesn’t see himself as religious. But he thinks this will be to his advantage during his ministry.

Noting that many younger Jews today feel disconnected from their religion’s traditions, rules, rituals and prayers, Leibl thinks he might be exactly the kind of rabbi that is needed these days.

“I ask myself, ‘how I can reach people today?’” he says of those who don’t see Judaism as relevant to their daily lives.

“That’s when I thought a non-religious rabbi made sense,” he says. “Maybe I could connect with them.”

At the same time, he is quick to note that he doesn’t want to abandon traditions—just update them.

“There is lots in the tradition that is valuable,” he says. “But what’s more important is the spirit behind those laws.”

He thinks the things he learned from being in radio will help.

“My journalism background is an advantage,” he says of his work as a rabbi. “I can read the audience, adapt to it, be a good communicator.”

For Alan Green, Senior rabbi at Shaarey Zedek, Leibl is “a shining personality with a bright future in the rabbinate.”

On several occasions. Green urged him to pursue the rabbinate. “But Matthew's world was the world of sports, and Judaism was purely for enjoyment on the side,” he says.

Things began to fall into place, though, after Leibl came up with “some bold suggestions to completely revamp our Sabbath and High Holy Day services,” he says.

After implementing the changes, “the quality of our services jumped dramatically, says Green,  adding that when Leibl saw how well the changes were received, he “was inspired to do more. The rest is history.”

With Green retiring next year, Leibl will have more opportunity to suggest changes; the plan is for him and Shaarey Zedek’s cantor, Anibal Mass, to take over as co-rabbis.

Reflecting on his career change, Leibl, who is married to Heather Wadsworth, says he has no regrets.

“Each day is so different and inspiring,” he says. “I love everything about it.”

From the May 6, 2017 Winnipeg Free Press

Sunday, April 30, 2017

New Presbyterian Church Moderator Set to Navigate Church in Scary, Changing Times

Story of the Presbyterian Church in Canada one of decline, but also points of excitement and bright lights

You might think that being nominated to lead a fast-changing and declining Canadian mainline denomination would not be considered an honour or opportunity. After all, who wants to captain a sinking ship?

Peter Bush, Senior Minister at Westwood Presbyterian Church in Winnipeg, doesn’t see it that way.

(Although Bush is the sole nominee for the position, it is possible that someone else could be nominated from the floor and he could fail to win election. But, he says, "it has never happened.”)

When he assumes his new role following this summer’s convention, Bush, 55, does not plan to abandon ship.

“The story of the Presbyterian Church in Canada today is one of decline,” he acknowledges, “but there are also points of excitement, some bright lights.”

Like other mainline Canadian denominations, the Presbyterians have seen a fall in membership, from 202,566 in 1964 to 91,036 in 2015.

At the same time, congregations have become smaller, with most having fewer than 100 people at worship services on Sundays.

With statistics like that, Bush knows that, for many Presbyterians, this is a “scary time.” Some churches, he says, will close.

“The traditional model not working” for most churches, he says, noting that many congregations aren’t large enough to support a full-time pastor.

At the same time, he sees this as a time of opportunity and experimentation. He is especially excited by new house churches in different parts of Canada; in these cases, several “congregations” share a pastor, meeting in homes at various times of the week.

“We may need to launch more neighbourhood churches like these,” he says. “This could be a way to bring some people back to church, and reach new people.”

Bush is also encouraged by how immigrants to Canada are impacting the church.

“They are bringing energy and excitement,” he says. “Ethnic ministries are the brightest lights. Ethnic congregations in every province are growing.”

He also sees opportunity as denominations work together.

“Denominational lines are becoming less important to many people,” he says. “I think we will see more interdenominational cooperation in creating new churches.”

By way of example, he points to the Manitoba’s Pinawa Christian Fellowship, which is an amalgamation of four denominations: Mennonite, United, Anglican and Presbyterian.

In the future, he says, there may be more churches like this. “Denominational divisions will matter less. What will matter is our common faith in Christ.”

As for the role of the Presbyterian Church in this increasingly secular and post-Christendom age, he says that the church today “has become less influential” in society—and that’s OK.

“We need to stop hankering for the days when we had more influence,” he says of  those who might bemoan religion’s waning impact on Canadian life today.

Instead, he says, Christians should put their “focus on the community level, get our hands dirty”—not worry so much about whether the broader culture is paying attention to the church.

That said, he does believe the church has a role in holding governments to account, especially around issues such as poverty, refugees and climate change.

“Sometimes church and state can work together, as with the sponsoring or Syrian refugees,” he says. “But we always need to keep it [government] at arms length. Getting too close to political power is deadly for the church.”

He also believes in evangelism, but not the kind where people “shove the good news down people’s throats.”

For him, the best evangelism is “neighbours talking to neighbours, by being in relationship with people, and being open to when the spirit says to say something.”

Looking ahead, “God is faithful, the church will survive. It may not look like it is now, it may be very different. It may be something new and unexpected.”

Whatever it is, local congregations will be at the centre, he believes. That, he says, “is where the light and hope is . . . it will be found in our service in our neighbourhoods as we become intentionally engaged with people.”

“We worship a savior who died and was resurrected,” he concludes. “The church has again and again reached moments when it has died and found new birth. We need to tell stories about how the church is growing, adapting, changing.”

From the April 29 Winnipeg Free Press.