Building Community across Different Faith Groups

Submitted by Rachel Elizabeth on November 20, 2013 - 11:46am

This past week we had the great opportunity to have a conversation with the Interfaith Halton group.  I always love these interfaith dialogues because there is such a great diversity of perspectives in the room. Despite the diversity of cultures and belief systems, there always seems to be commonalities that emerge. This group was no different.

We talked about how, in the past, the faith building and the community that surrounded it were the center of a neighbourhood or a town. Everything would stem from this place from social groups to soup kitchens, from children’s programs to seniors bingo nights.  People would organize their lives around it this centers.

Now, these places don't seem to be as centralized or draw people together as often. The decline in attendance and general interest has been quite pronounced in church communities and in other faith communities, as well. Faith communities are no longer the a central gathering place for communities.

We have become a service stop for people’s spiritual needs but not a community that plays a large role in their lives.  We see spikes in attendance around holidays or during times of crisis, but when times are good people disengage.

Another interesting shift that we noted was that it used to be the faith community was a large family, literally.  You went to the synagogue with your parents and grandparents, aunts and nieces.  It served as a chance for these families to reconnect with each other on a regular basis and this family connection served as glue for the community.  Now, with families being more spread out and diversifying their faith preferences, it is less common to have large families within the same faith community. This has leads to a weakening of the bonds of faith communities.

This shift is a big concern because we all feel that these multigenerational spaces are really important.  Where do kids now get a chance to interact and build relationships with seniors?  What is lost with this?

We then talked about the difference between rural and urban faith communities.  Rural faith communities still have many of these strong familial connections.  In urban centers is where you see them disappearing.  Halton is, for the most part, urban. Rabbi Stephen Wise talked about how despite being in an urban area, his synagogue still has a rural feel to it because there are only 120 Jewish families in all of Halton.  You feel a greater sense of community when you are a small community because you cling together more.  I found this insight to be very interesting. 

We talked about how people are now looking for communities with a purpose.  This approach bleeds into how they approach faith communities.  "What does this do for me?"

We then shifted over to talking about the internet.  For the most part, faith communities have ignored online spaces.  Instead, they have really emphasized the importance of coming together in person. This is shifting. One person in the group talked about how they are using facebook to support one of their members across great distances. It allows them to stay in contact with the greater community and facilitates the sharing of stories and resources.

We then shifted to talk about how threats and loss forge a deep and strong community.  There were several examples that came forward from the group including Kerr Street and their fight against the Methadone Clinic that rallied the local community.  Most poignantly, interfaith Halton was created in response to 9-11. I often wonder how many multi-faith relationships were formed in reaction to that tragedy.

We talked about how when you identify with a group, even if you do not know the specific person who has felt that loss, you are able to identify with it as part of the larger group.  As an example we talked about the loss of an officer in Guelph and how emergency workers felt that across Canada.  Even though they did not know the officer who perished they felt the pain at a very deep level.

Rabbi Wise talked about the importance of a cause to help bring people together.  An example he mentioned was the fight against the proposed power plant in the area.  Everyone likes to be part of a cause.  The common vision or focus makes you feel like you are a part of something special and you are able to quickly connect with others around that same theme.

This proved to be a very rich conversation; these are only some of the highlights.  I look forward to the next one.