Faith and Community Work

For twenty years I have worked for different social justice and community organizations that were founded by and have strong connections to Christian communities. I am currently the Executive Director of Logifem, a Montreal based organization that provides accommodation and support to women and children experiencing homelessness and that was founded by a group of parishioners from an Anglican church.

Back in 2018, I was having coffee with the director of another homelessness organization in Montreal and I talked about Logifem’s Christian roots and the way in which I saw those founding values as a strength for the organization to which he replied “You see that as a strength? Really? Because I would see any association between the church and any kind of social work as a huge weakness. In fact I think that the church has a lot to answer for. It’s the church’s attitude to almsgiving and charity that has kept poor people in poverty and stopped organizations looking for real solutions to poverty.”
This chapter is a reflection on my experience of the intersection between faith, in particular the Christian faith, and community work. On the one hand, I have witnessed faith communities mobilize effectively to do important social justice and community development work. On the other hand, I sympathize with the viewpoint of my colleague from the homelessness sector because I have also seen church based models of charity that were ineffective in reducing poverty and that were probably a lot more about making middle class Christians feel good about themselves. I’m sure many of these reflections could apply to other faith groups, but my particular experience is with Christian groups.

Books like Toxic Charity by Robert D. Lupton and When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert do an excellent job of explaining how the models of charitable works that are often pursued by faith groups end up doing more harm than good because of a lack of understanding of the realities of families and individuals experiencing poverty. Even worse than these ill-informed charitable models are the occasions when the Church has been a perpetrator of social injustice. In recent history we can note, for example, residential schools, sexual abuse scandals and active discrimination against women and the LGBTQ2A+ community.

Despite the failures and wrong doings of the church, ultimately I believe that faith groups can and do play an important role in social justice issues and community development. My reflections are informed from my work in Montreal and in the UK and would be different if I had been working in different parts of the world where the place of religion in society is different again.

 

Mobilization of resources

There are many examples in history of Christians who were motivated by their faith to mobilize for positive social change. We can think, for example of:

    • William Wilberforce, who was a leader in the movement to abolish the slave trade
    • Edna Ruth Byler who founded Ten Thousand Villages, one of the world’s biggest Fair Trade retailers seeking to reduce poverty through fairer trading relationships
    • Catherine and William Booth who founded the Salvation Army to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the poor, destitute and hungry
    • Millard and Linda Fuller who founded Habitat for Humanity, which has to date built or renovated over 400,000 homes worldwide for more than 2 million people
    • Pandita Ramabai who promoted education for women in India and set up many services for women

A key tenet of the Christian faith is the call to “Love your neighbour as yourself” and the bible is full of instructions to care for and defend the rights of the poor, orphans, widows, immigrants and other marginalized groups. At Logifem, our founder, Irvine “Benny” Benoy wrote about the way in which his faith led him to action:

“At St.Joseph’s church there were six or seven people meeting on Wednesday nights for bible study and prayer. We always included the needs of the homeless women in our prayers. One evening I was speaking to my [wife⦐ Mary and asked the question: “What are we praying for, for someone else to build the shelter? Why can’t we do it?” It seemed an impossible task for a group of older people with no money and no particular skills. As I was reading my bible, I came across many scriptures that seemed to be guiding me. In the book of Joshua, I noticed that Joshua was praying to God about the sorrowful condition of his Jewish brethren. God’s answer was very direct …: “Get off your face and do something” (Jos. 7:14). This is the way I interpreted God’s word.”

The religious convictions and sense of a bigger power behind action can be very useful in the beginnings of new projects. The people leading the project forward are motivated by their faith and their sense of calling. They also believe that because God has called them to this particular work, He will provide, which leads to perseverance through the many and great challenges of getting something new going.

Faith communities are also well placed to start new works because of the existing resources and infrastructure they have. This often includes buildings, some financial resources and most of all, people with shared values who are committed to each other, to doing good in some form or other and who have a diverse set of skills. Although some people now commute to their place of worship, most faith groups have local congregations resulting in deep knowledge of the local community and a strong commitment to that community.

When I still lived in the UK, I worked as the coordinator of a network called “Enabling Christians Serving Refugees” or ECSR which had been established by a coalition of organizations to support various church based efforts that had emerged to care for large members of refugees and asylum seekers arriving in the UK in the 1990’s and early 2000’s in particular from the Balkans, Iraq, Zimbabwe and Somalia. I met with many church based groups who had similar stories to tell. Asylum seekers were housed in their area. With little or no resources they recognized the local church buildings and knocked on the door to ask for help. Struck by the poverty of these individuals and families, church communities quickly mobilized to provide second hand clothing and food, but also to provide English lessons, activities for children and most importantly community and friendship. These churches owned buildings that were underused during the week where activities could take place and donations could be received and stored. Church members were willing and able to provide material goods but also to volunteer their time to help these vulnerable newcomers navigate life in Britain. Sometimes church members already had cultural links to the refugees and asylum seekers either personally or from overseas missions projects they had been involved with.

Church congregations are usually local, but church networks are national and international which means that local community work can be upscaled relatively easily into a national effort. Now in the UK, the organization Welcome Network has a vision for every refugee to be welcomed by the local church. Services provided to refugees can vary from offering community and friendship to offering material goods up to and including the provision of short and long term accommodation through hosts and landlords participating in the welcome homes project.

Spirituality in community development work

There have, unfortunately, been some very clumsy and even coercive attempts to bring spirituality into community development work. One example would be an organization that required people experiencing homelessness to participate in a christian act of worship in order to receive a cooked meal. At Logifem in the past a prayer was said before meals and before team meetings and whilst no one was required to actively participate in these religious expressions, for some people they were uncomfortable moments.

That said, for many who are suffering in different ways, faith can be a source of hope and encouragement. When we think of refugees and asylum seekers, this can be particularly true for those who have come from cultures where religion is central rather than peripheral. But it can be true for others too. In 2013 the research agency Lemos & Crane published “Lost and Found: Faith and spirituality in the lives of homeless people”, a research paper based on 75 in-depth interviews with people experiencing homelessness in London, UK. The report’s author, Carwyn Gravel is an atheist, but his research nonetheless led him to conclude that religious belief can be hugely beneficial to homeless people. He writes, “For homeless people, religious belief, practice and doctrine can help them come to terms with a past that is often characterised by profound emotional and material loss, enhance and give structure to the present where time hangs heavy for many, and create a purposeful future built on hope, fellowship and a sense of purpose.”

At Logifem in 2012 we offered a course called “Alpha”, designed to introduce people to the Christian faith through conversation. It was entirely optional and took place discreetly in our administrative building. For the residents who participated it was on the whole a rich experience. We were able to step out of our roles of the professional and the service user and instead explore big questions about life and meaning together.

Religion also offers structure and tools for processing difficult moments and marking important moments. In 2019 one of Logifem’s residents died of natural causes during the night. This was very distressing for the staff member who found the resident unresponsive as well as for the other residents and staff. Since the woman who had died was Greek Orthodox we held a service of remembrance for her at the shelter and the ancient readings and liturgies used brought comfort, meaning and closure. As well, when our newest shelter turned a year old we held a “Blessing Ceremony” and invited a local pastor to dedicate the building and its staff to the special purpose of serving women with children experiencing homelessness. This was a nod to the religious roots of Logifem. We made the language and expression of the ceremony inclusive, but it was certainly helpful to be able to lean on the old traditions of the Christian faith to temporarily remove ourselves from our everyday routines and think about our work in that building with a different perspective.

 

What happens when the work outgrows the community that founded it?

Many church congregations are well placed to start local grassroots community development projects, but in some contexts these projects grow to the extent that the church community can no longer sustain them. Often financial resources are required from outside of the church community. Governments and non-religious foundations will usually accept to fund community development work that has been founded by a church community as long as they are confident no proselytizing is happening in the context of the work. When a majority of financial resources come from outside of the religious community this might impact the extent to which the project or organization still identifies as religious.

It can be equally hard for religious organizations to find the right people to occupy the different staff and volunteer positions in their organizations from within their religious community. This was the case at Logifem. I became the Executive Director of the organization in 2011. Before this time, a majority of the organization’s staff was Christians, drawn to the organization because of its founding values, or through word of mouth from board members and other staff. However, as the organization grew, the ratio between Christian staff members and those of other faiths and none shifted so that whilst Logifem has more Christian staff than most other community organizations, they are no longer in the majority. In Québec where weekly church attendance is around 4%, it would be unrealistic to expect to fully staff an organization like Logifem with members of the Christian community.

Once faith based organizations are largely financed by non-faith based donors and to a lesser or greater extent staffed by non-practicing individuals, has the organization simply evolved into a non-faith based organization? Does the origins story become the only faith connection? Or can the organization retain religious faith as part of its identity?

In my early days at Logifem at times I felt like I was doing a dance of disappointment between our very religious supporters who felt that Logifem was losing its Christian values under my leadership and our secular staff and supporters who were uncomfortable with some of Logifem’s remaining Christian practices. There was no way that Montreal’s Christian community could sustain Logifem – our HR and financial needs were much too great for a relatively small community that was itself struggling as church membership decreased overall. A valid choice would be to let our origins story remain as our faith connection, but to consider ourselves a fully secular organization. Maybe this will happen in the future, but personally for the moment I think there is still value in acknowledging and nurturing our organization’s connection with the Christian faith.

Our organization’s connections with Montreal’s Christian community have helped us form many useful partnerships. Some of our volunteers were inspired by the faith and action of our founder, Benny Benoy and others are drawn to Logifem because of the sense of shared values and calling or because they have heard a representative from Logifem speak at a church or at another event. Many churches have helped us in practical ways for example by sending teams to paint, by collecting donations for us, by recruiting volunteers and by making donations. We have also received practical and financial support from other religious communities, in particular Montreal’s Sikh and Jewish communities.

Working with people experiencing homelessness is challenging and staff are at high risk of burnout, vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue. Personal faith is not a substitute for measures that should be taken to reduce these risks, including providing adequate support, training and working conditions, but it is often a factor of protection for workers. At Logifem, our Christian staff members have found strength in the practice of prayer, in their sense of calling or vocation and in encouragement from their church communities. Religious practices can shift our perspective from the immediate situation before us to the long term and can be a source of comfort and hope.

Central to Christianity and to many other faiths is the belief that each human being is deeply loved by God. The biblical story of the shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep to go and look for the one sheep who is lost is a beautiful illustration of this. At Logifem we don’t preach about God’s love for each of our residents, but our goal is always to treat each person who comes to us with dignity and respect and to show them that they matter. One of our residents who came to Logifem with her daughter after fleeing a violent relationship wrote:

I am a person alone with my 8 year old daughter. I don’t have any family, none. I really want to rebuild my life after four very hard years when I lost my joie de vivre. I lost friends, jobs, my house, my partner.

I need support. At Logifem I met an Intervention Worker who changed my life. Thanks to Adela, I believe again that I can be loved. This woman really knows how to get the best out of me.

By way of a conclusion

In many parts of the world it is a given that faith groups will be major players in community development and social justice work. In cities such as Montreal where a minority of people participate actively in religious activities, this is not the case. I think though that faith groups can and do play an important role in community transformation. Whilst organizations like Logifem may need to shift from the “Christian organization” identity of their early years, we can continue to benefit from partnerships with faith based communities and from the core values of love in action that were the driving force for our founders.

Sally Richmond
Executive Director
Logifem

Sally Richmond

Sally Richmond

Executive Director, Logifem