Sunday, February 25, 2018

Update on the Canada Summer Jobs Program: Positives & Negatives, and Lawyers will be Involved

The application form. If the attestation box was not checked,
applicants could not proceed.


That’s the message many church groups have received from the federal government after sending in applications for funding for the Canada Summer Jobs program.

Since the online application form couldn’t be completed without checking agreement with the attestation of support for sexual reproductive and LGBTQ* rights, a number of groups sent in paper applications.

Attached to the form was a letter indicating why they could not agree with the attestation.

According to the Christian Council of Canadian Charities, an umbrella group for church-related non-profits in Canada, groups that sent in paper applications tell them their applications have been returned with note indicating there is “missing information.”

The note states that any “alteration or modification of the attestation” will result in an incomplete application.

The Council is recommended that groups who received these letters re-submit the applications, once again without checking the attestation.

They encouraged them to include another letter requesting accommodation under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Human Rights Act. 

Unless there is a change of heart in Ottawa, I expect these applications will also be returned as incomplete.

But while some groups are testing to see what happens if they file an incomplete application, others aren’t applying at all.

That’s what’s happening in London, Ont., where the local Catholic Diocese didn’t apply for summer jobs funding.

“I believe that we need to take a stand against the position of the government of Canada and say that we will not be bullied into even the appearance of collusion on this issue,” says Bishop Ronald Fabbro.

“We can make a powerful statement by saying ‘no’ to the conditions as set down by the government.”

I don’t know how many other groups made similar decisions. I am aware of one church organization in Winnipeg that decided not to apply.

Now that the deadline for applications has passed, what’s next? One possibility is court action. 

That’s what Lorna Dueck, CEO of Crossroads Christian Communications, told supporters in a letter earlier this month.

In the letter, she asks: “Is our Prime Minister and his government creating a climate of discrimination against Christianity in Canada?”

She notes that in the past ministries she has headed applied for funding from the program.

“Sometimes I got a grant, sometimes I didn't, but I always felt the process was fair,” she says.

But now, she states, “if we don't attest, our applications will be denied . . . we must now deny our own biblical beliefs to access the tax-payer-funded summer jobs program.”

Unless the policy changes, she says, “you can expect to see Canada's Christian leadership take the Canada Summer Jobs controversy to court to fight for our constitutional right of not being discriminated against for our Christian beliefs.”

Indeed, that is what’s happening; the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and Christian Legal Fellowship have announced they are “contemplating commencing litigation” against the government over the attestation requirement.

In order for there to be a meaningful challenge, they are a calling on “willing organizations” to lend their names to the  proposed litigation.

Meantime, at least one Parliamentarian has picked up the cause. Conservative MP Harold Albrecht of Kitchener-Conestoga has launched a petition calling on the government “to remove this discriminatory requirement.”

As of this posting, over 5,900 people had signed it.

While this situation has upset many faith-based charities, my own feeling is it will not financially hurt those that are rejected, or that didn’t apply, at least in the short term.

I expect that their supporters, and maybe others, will step up to make up any gap in funding out of need, principle, or in protest against the government’s action—or all three.

They might even come out of it stronger with new donors and higher brand awareness.

Another positive from the issue is how it has highlighted the role faith groups play in serving Canada’s neediest citizens.

To take one example, from here in Winnipeg.

At Winnipeg Harvest, the city’s food bank, about 58 percent of the groups that distribute food it provides are faith-based.

That number would be higher if programs outside of Winnipeg were included, according to Harvest spokesperson Donald Benham.

“We continue to count on those [faith-based] groups and those volunteers to provide a vital link to the people we serve, in the neighbourhoods in which they live,” Benham says.

In the weeks ahead, it’s going to be interesting to see the impact of the new policy. How many fewer groups received funding? Were services cut? And where will things go from here?

No matter what happens, I expect lawyers will be involved.  

Monday, February 19, 2018

Religion a Way to Combat Epidemic of Loneliness?

Last month, the British government created a new portfolio called the Minister for Loneliness.

The idea for the new ministry arose out of research that found about nine million Britons—14% of the population—are lonely.

Loneliness cuts across all age groups, but it is particularly hard on the elderly.

More than a third of older people in Great Britain reported being overwhelmed by loneliness. About half of people over 75 live alone, with many saying they can go days or even weeks with no meaningful social interaction.

The situation is similar in Canada, where as many as 1.4 million elderly Canadians say they are lonely.

Overall, between 25% to 30% of Canadians describe themselves as lonely, young and old alike.

Being lonely is hard on mental health, but also on physical health. Researchers say being lonely increases the chance of premature death by 14 percent.

What’s behind the epidemic of loneliness?

Some blame our high rates of mobility—people move a lot today, disrupting long-term relationships. And when children move to faraway cities, parents are left behind and on their own.

Others blame social media. Although it’s never been easier to connect with people, it can also lead to fewer physical encounters with actual human beings.  

And then there’s the general decline in participation in civic life—decreasing involvement in service groups, parent-teacher associations, labour unions, political parties and the like, as outlined in Robert Putnam’s groundbreaking book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

Thinking about the epidemic of loneliness, I wonder: Could the decrease in participation in faith groups also be part of the problem?

Many studies show that regular participation in worship services and other religious activities can protect against loneliness.

And being part of a worshipping community is associated with higher levels of social integration and support—things that help people feel less lonely.

As more and more people drop out of religious groups, perhaps loneliness is an unintended consequence.

But the studies about the positive effects of being part of a religious group only evaluate and measure how it feels to have someone to talk to, to be part of a group, or what it means to get a casserole when you’re sick.

There must be more to it than that; what about the spiritual dimension?

That’s the question I posed to Dr. Delmar Epp, associate professor of psychology at Canadian Mennonite University.

From a psychological perspective, he says, people do “have a need to belong.”

People of faith would call that “being created by God with a need to be in relationship with others . . . its fundamental to who we are as human beings,” he says.

But where does God fit in? His answer was to point me to Lee Kirkpatrick’s work on attachment theory as it pertains to religion.

I am not going to pretend I can do a good job of explaining attachment theory in a short column like this.

In short, it is that idea that humans form deep and abiding bonds with their caregivers when they are young. This provides us with a sense we are secure because someone who is strong will keep us safe.

In Kirkpatrick’s view, for believers God becomes an attachment figure—someone to have a relationship with, and to turn to when we feel unsafe or distressed.

“People can view God as their friend and companion, a comforter and protector,” Epp says.

Through prayer, worship and meditation, people can feel close to God and not so alone, he adds.

Of course, it doesn’t always work out so neatly. People who have bad experiences with caregivers when young can struggle to form an attachment to God when older.

And if your own parents were harsh and neglectful, it can be tough to believe in a heavenly parent who cares for you.

Places of worship aren’t perfect, either. They can be lonely experiences for those who don’t feel they can be open and honest with others about their struggles for fear of being judged.

Yet there’s still something about religion that seems to make a big difference in loneliness and overall health.

At a time when millions of people are looking for a wonder drug, therapy, treatment program or workout routine that will lead to better mental and physical health, it seems that one might already exist: Religion.

But I don’t expect it any western government to create a Minister for Religion and Health anytime soon.

From the Feb. 17 Winnipeg Free Press. Image from the Daily Express.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Rachael Denhollander's New Mission: Stop Child Sex Abuse in Evangelical Churches

Sexual abuse in U.S. evangelical churches "every bit as prevalent" as what happened in the Catholic Church

Like so many others in the U.S. and Canada, I was profoundly moved by Rachael Denhollander’s powerful victim impact statement at the trial of convicted sexual abuser Dr. Larry Nassar.

But as I listened to Denhollander—the first woman to go public with accusations against the former USA Gymnastics national team doctor—one short phrase caught me.

In a list of things she lost through the experience, she said, was “my church.”

Lost her church? What was up with that? I wanted to know more.

So I sent Denhollander a Facebook message, asking if she would like to elaborate.

Since messages between people who aren’t friends on Facebook disappear into a junk file, I didn’t really expect a reply.

But she answered back.

“I would be happy to speak to you,” she wrote.

It wasn’t long into our conversation last Monday before I understood why.

For Denhollander, a deeply committed evangelical Christian, the way evangelical churches are letting down victims of sexual abuse is deeply disturbing and profoundly disappointing.

Churches, she believes, should be havens for people who have been abused. All too often, however, the opposite happens; instead of protecting children, churches enable and protect their abusers.

She wants to see it stop.

*      *      *

Denhollander was first abused by Nassar in 2000. She was 15 years-old.

She was not the first victim; she discovered later he had been reported by four other gymnasts before her. But nothing was done to stop him.

She was sure she wasn’t the only victim. “It was clear to me at 15 that this was something Larry did regularly,” she says.

She told someone in authority about her abuse in 2004. Again, nothing happened.
It wasn’t until she went public in 2016 that a tidal wave of accusations joined in a chorus against the now-disgraced and convicted doctor. 

While angered by the abuse she suffered, she was equally upset that Nassar’s other victims weren’t believed or ignored.
So when her own church in Louisville, Kentucky began to actively support a prominent national evangelical ministry network that had been accused of covering up child sex abuse, she was very concerned.
“My own church was actively supporting a ministry whose leaders had been very credibly accused of failing to report child predators,” she says.

“They did not report him [the abuser], did not put any restrictions on him. He was allowed to continue abusing.”

She and her husband, Jacob, brought their concerns to leadership at their church. It went nowhere.

“This caused division between me and my church,” she says. “Even though this was one of the most well-documented cases of institutional cover-up I have ever seen, there was a complete refusal to engage.”

Instead, some of the leaders at her church raised questions about the quality of her character, and about her faith.

So in 2016, when Denhollander decided to go public with her story of abuse, she did not expect her church to offer much in the way of help.  

“We did not receive any support from the church when my story came out,” she says.

Her previous advocacy for other victims was “wielded like a weapon” by some of the church’s leaders in an effort to discredit her accusations against Nassar, she says.

“They essentially said I was imposing my own perspective or that my judgement was clouded,” she shares.

Within six months, she and her husband left the congregation.

“We were told it wasn’t the place for us,” she says.

*      *      *

In the two years since she went public, Denhollander has learned that the problem of child sexual abuse in American evangelical churches—and the subsequent cover-up—is more widespread than she thought.

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” she says.

In conversations with experts in the field, she was told that sexual abuse in U.S.evangelical churches is “every bit as prevalent, if not worse, than what happened in the Catholic Church.”

The problem is compounded by an unwillingness to hold abusers accountable and report their abuse, she adds.

“If you talk to prosecutors, to trauma counselors, and to activists on behalf of victims of sexual assault, they will all tell you that the Catholic Church and the evangelical church are two of the most difficult groups to deal with,” she states.

Instead of supporting victims, like people would expect, “they are supporting the perpetrators,” she says.

Why does she think so many evangelical churches are reluctant to report abusers in their midst?  

A big factor, she says, is “institutional protectionism”—churches believe that they have to protect their reputations as being holy, and not like the world.

This is especially true when ministries, churches and leaders that are prominent on the national scene are involved.

The problem with this approach, she says, is that perpetrators can continue their assaults.

“Research shows the average pedophile is reported approximately seven times before he’s finally caught,” she says. “The average number of victims a pedophile has is about 250.”
Not holding enablers accountable “is the foundational reason for why we have such an epidemic of sexual abuse, particularly child sexual abuse,” she says.

“People don’t understand that if you do not treat the failure to report sexual assault as a very serious thing, it creates a system where perpetrators know they are safe to prey on children.”

The result, she says, is that churches are often “one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse.”

For her, that’s a tough admission to make.

“That’s a hard thing to say, because I am a very conservative evangelical, but that is the truth. There are very, very few [abuse victims] who have ever found true help in the church . . . It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help.”

If churches really want to be positive witnesses in their communities when it comes to protecting children from abuse, “they must be “willing to deal with enablers,” she says. “They must be willing to deal with the failure to report sexual abuse as the very serious and critical issue that it is.”

*      *      *

Despite all this, Denhollander—a lawyer and mother of three children, with a fourth on the way—has not given up on her faith.

Today she and her family have found another church where they “feel blessed.” And she wants it to be noted that some people at her old church have apologized for how she was treated—something she is grateful for.

As for the wider evangelical church in the U.S., she still believes it can be better.

The church, she says, “should be the safest place” for those who have been sexually abused.

“Christ is the greatest hope, he is the greatest refuge for someone who has been wounded and betrayed. He defines what trust and security and love and compassion should look like for sexual assault victims.”

As for her own experience, she says that sometimes “obedience costs,” especially if you have to “speak out against your own church community . . . it will cost to stand up for the oppressed, and it should.
“If we’re not speaking out when it costs, then it doesn’t matter to us enough.”

Does this ring true for Canadians, too? Your comments are welcome on this blog or by e-mailing me at 
From the Feb. 10, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press. One source of information for how churches and other faith groups can respond to child sex abuse is Dove's Nest.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Aid Groups Need to Pay More Attention to Religion: Duncan Green

"We never talk about religion in the aid business . . . ‘why not?’”

In the world of international relief and development, Duncan Green is a rock star.

Author of the acclaimed book How Change Happens, Green has been Head of Research for Oxfam in Great Britain since 2004.

It’s a job that enables the highly-respected former aid worker and journalist to travel the world researching, writing and speaking about the best ways to alleviate poverty and combat injustice.

His popular blog, from Poverty to Power, is a must-read for people who work in the relief and development industry.

So when Green—who describes himself as an atheist—says that aid groups, and the governments that support them, need to pay more attention to the role of religion in eradicating global poverty, people take notice.

Religion, he says, “is central to the lives of poor people in a way that governments, aid and NGOs are not. All the research shows that poor people trust religious organizations, turn to them in times of need.”

Research on how poor people see their lives, he adds, “shows absolutely, without a doubt, that the institutions they most relate to . . . are faith organizations.”

When Green was in Winnipeg last fall to launch his new book, I had a brief chance to talk to him. Since our time together was short, we continued via e-mail.

During our exchanges, he noted that one of the first places people often turn to for help during a disaster are “their churches and mosques.”

He shared an example from Indonesia, after an earthquake in 2006.

In one village, Oxfam aid workers asked residents what they most needed to start the rebuilding process. Their answer? A new mosque, to replace the one destroyed by the earthquake.

This wasn’t what the aid workers expected. But they did it—and it made a big difference.

“The community in question was one of the success stories,” he says, noting it rapidly recovered from “both in terms of rebuilding its infrastructure, but also social cohesion and healing after the psychological trauma of the earthquake.”

Religion is also important when it comes to development—something aid groups spend a lot of time thinking about.

What are the best ways to help people change the structures and systems that oppress or prevent them from reaching their potential?

"As we think harder about how change happens, religion keeps cropping up,” Green says.

For him, this includes how religion influences social norms around things like the role of women. 

“Through worship and education they [faith groups] already play a major role in shaping and reshaping norms,” he says.

It is easier for faith groups, which are already respected by poor people, to change behaviours of their adherents than it would be for “secular aid agencies.”

Religion is also important in fragile and dysfunctional states, where government services are absent.

In these situations, “the role of non-state actors such as faith organizations becomes relatively more important in running society,” he says.

Faith groups, he adds, “are more likely to be in the really remote bits of those places, where the state barely penetrates.”

Of course, it’s not all good news; religion can have both a positive and negative impact on aid and development, he says.

Despite that, “if we [aid groups] are serious about development, we need to understand much more about the diversity, divisions and debates within each church on things like women’s roles.”

This is true, he says, “even if, like me, you are a devout atheist.”

But if religion is so important in development, why does it get so little attention in the international aid community?

“The aid system has a secular way of working,” he says, explaining that it has “an enlightenment, secular, rational worldview.”

As a result, the secular presuppositions they operate under can make “automatically alien to the majority of the people we claim to be working for and with,” he says. “There’s a profound contradiction in the secularism that is so deeply rooted in the aid business.”

The way aid groups ignore the role religion plays in the lives of the majority of the world’s poor “has always struck me as profoundly odd,” he says.

"We never talk about it [religion] in the aid business. The question I have is, ‘why not?’”

It would be interesting to hear the answer.  

From the Feb. 3, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press. Photo Credit: Xavier Cervera.