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March 20, 2009
By Lorna Dueck CBC News
There was a time when Canadian churches knew how to help you face the worst that economic storms could wreak. In the Great Depression, for example, there were pockets of faith-based activists who launched social change on such a scale that much of it is still with us today.
The 1930s was a period — like today? — when the public expected religious groups to both provide for desperate people and encourage their spirit. At the peak of the Depression, 27 per cent of Canadians and 25 per cent of Americans were out of work.
The strongest example of this probably came out of Atlantic Canada, which was hit hard early in the Depression. The dire poverty, unjust "cod lords," and rock-bottom prices for fish, wood and farm products brought the Catholic church thundering to the rescue with what would become the co-operative movement and the genesis of credit union banking.
Today at the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., you will discover the words of its late founder, Rev. Moses Coady still branding its website with his motivational style: "You are poor enough to want it and smart enough to do it."
This social entrepreneurship, however, wasn't what most expected from clergy at the time, allows Mary Coyle, the current director of the Coady Institute. But it grew out of the Catholic board of governors at St FX who asked Coady to establish an Extension Department fuelled by clerical thoughts on work and the dignity of people.
Birth of a movement
"His idea was to bring people together in schools, study clubs and kitchen meetings and let's do two things: help people understand what's going on and mobilize people to do what they want to do practically," said Coyle.
"There was a study club to start up your own credit union, your own co-operative canning factory for your lobster, how to establish a dairy co-operative, a housing co-operative. Today we'd call them social entrepreneurs."
Coady's visionary book, Masters of Their Own Destiny, summed up his approach: people in poverty have the capacity to be masters of their own lives if they are supported through education and expertise. He leveraged that vision with a little economic help from on high when American industrialist Andrew Carnegie became one of the earliest funders of the study groups. The project is still known as the Antigonish Movement and still trains leaders from around the world on a people-based approach with deep theological underpinnings.
In Western Canada, Protestants had their own social gospel study groups launched by Alberta's evangelical radio preacher, William "Bible Bill" Aberhart, and his assistant, Ernest Manning. Saskatchwan premier and former Baptist minister T.C. Douglas, the pioneer of medicare. Aberhart's Prophetic Bible Institute found that its soup kitchens needed more nourishment than just a refillable bowl. Their study groups began organizing for political office.
By 1935, preacher Aberhart had become a reluctant premier swept into power with his new Social Credit Party. It would hold office for the next 36 years, one of the astounding feats of Canadian political life.
Meanwhile, next door in Saskatchewan, Baptist preacher Tommy Douglas was taking Christianity into a different form of frenetic activism. He described the church in the early thirties as "dumb as an oyster to the poverty and misery all around" and pushed for fresh interpretations of old faith that organized the unemployed, created job agencies to shovel snow and shipped B.C.'s excess fruit and Ontario's leftover clothes to those in need.
He also launched study groups to train new leaders and inspire hope. And he fought against the tendency of preachers to "get back to nice generalities" so that, eventually, ministers — not of politics but of the cloth — tackled tariffs, grain trading and railway rates.
Douglas would have to resign the pastorate to become Saskatchewan premier and then the first federal leader of the NDP.
Today in Canada we seem to have built high walls around faith in public life. Canada has secularized social activism and the church is in a long recovery for past sins. Problems at residential schools and sex abuse by small but not insignificant numbers of clergy will likely take a century or so to heal.
Religious fundamentalism is undergoing massive revision at the moment and yet we still we have large numbers of people going to church. In fact, there's anecdotal evidence to suggest there is an increase in the number of Canadians attending church each week, which brings us to wonder how our ubiquitous places of worship may be of help in this economic downtown?
Nationally, church groups are well organized and sophisticated in their approach to asking governments to deal with such important issues as poverty reduction. In May, the Canadian Council of Churches will hold an Ottawa forum on "Faith and a Sustainable Economy." Part of its ongoing concern is the estimated 750,000 children in this country who are "limited by conditions of poverty."
Every preacher I know has brought the issues of this economic meltdown into Sunday sermons but it is not clear at all at this juncture if these spiritual teachings — or the national organizations — are making a difference.
Former Reform Party leader Preston Manning (the son of Ernest, Aberhart's successor as Alberta premier) wonders if faith leadership is not caught up in a bad 2009 rewrite of the Good Samaritan story.
"Today, they leave the guy lying on the road because they're going to a government meeting to find out what to do with improving the Jericho road conditions when in fact the state can't be the good neighbour on social services. People have to do this for themselves. Look after themselves," says Manning, whose life bridges past and present church activism.
He challenges today's church to use spiritual truth to teach that "man will not live by bread, oil or auto parts alone in this economy," but with a resurgence in the relationship with God that will sustain and instruct, particularly when it comes to how-to.