Mike Van Boom, Interfaith Network Animator at the Capital Region Interfaith Housing Initiative, reminisces about a Habitat for Humanity build, but it’s not the actual construction of the home that he remembers best. Rather, it’s the food brought to the kick-off and wrap-up, with participants bringing everything from kugul, to spring rolls to rice crispy squares and kebabs. There were even huge platters of food brought by some volunteers who couldn’t eat what was on them. as they were fasting for Ramadan.
The variety on the table reflected the diversity of those involved. For the past eight years, faith communities from across the city — including Jewish, Islam, Christian, Mormon, Unitarian, and Scientology to name a few — have come together to build homes for the homeless as part of the Interfaith Housing Initiative’s partnership with Habitat for Humanity.
In 2009, when the city rolled out its plan to end homelessness, explains Van Boom, faith communities came together and asked what they could do to help. Beyond building the homes, they also realized there was a need for community support, which they aim to provide through the program, Welcome Home with Housing First. Newly housed individuals are paired with existing community members, who provide them with friendship and a sense of belonging.
“When we’re talking about faith communities—we don’t all believe the same thing but we do all agree very broadly in the need to love and care for our neighbour, and that’s lots of common ground for us to work together on,” says Van Boom.
That common ground is integral, believes Netta Phillet, office coordinator for the Edmonton Interfaith Centre for Education and Action. But so is having open dialogues about all aspects of religion — even by critically looking at historically bad parts — with all members of the community who are not afraid to tackle tough issues, regardless of their beliefs. The centre is run through a board of volunteers from diverse backgrounds including Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Jewish and Christian and others with a current Métis elder president.
Phillet says openness helps fight ignorance and prejudice while paving the way for community growth and togetherness. The centre hosts Lunch and Learn, featuring individuals from diverse faith groups speaking on topics of relevance to their religions. Meanwhile, members of the community can attend various religious services and learn some fundamentals of a different faith.
Sol Rolingher, Honourary Chair of the Phoenix Multi-faith Society, believes Edmonton’s history is full of stories of interfaith harmony and friendship. And he has a collection of stories to prove it—a booklet published by the Phoenix Multi-faith Society, full of interactions between different faiths, which will now be part of the Edmonton Public School Boards social studies curriculum. He believes being proactive—the society has run programs called Walking Together whereby children and families could attend various religious services regardless of their background — is really key in fostering acceptance.
“Where you have a void of knowledge, something else will come and fill that void, and it may be misinformation. So, we feel very strongly about that,” says Phillet.
The Interfaith Housing Initiative starts the conversation early about affordable housing, and helps communities talk through their fears and ask questions. “We can all say: ‘people need homes, and can we give them real help, not just hand out sandwiches or put mats on the floor?’ But sometimes the resistance came when it’s in their neighbourhood. You want to put that on the corner of my park? My kids have to walk by that all the time on the way to school,” says Van Boom. But having an opportunity to meet someone who needs a home, to see their humanity and hear their story, prevents fear from dictating their response.
It’s much the same with people working together from different faith groups. “All our of members feel enriched by all the encounters they have, because it puts a face to a name,” says Phillet.