March 13th, 2017

Marlie Whittle

Architects, urban planners, ministers, educators, environmentalists and people representing various faiths gathered on Saturday, March 11th at the University of Toronto’s Multi-Faith Centre for a seminar hosted by Faith and the Common Good and the Green Awakening Network. The 2017 Annual Forum, “Exploring Sacred Space; Regenerating Places of Faith,” provided insight and encouraged “winning” ideas for transforming buildings of worship and mission to better serve the broader community.

Dr. Stephen Scharper, a professor at the School of the Environment and Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto, spoke about the spiritual bond between humanity and nature. Through a thoughtful meditation, the audience was asked to reflect on their own childhood memories of nature and how these ecological sanctuaries have changed over the years. “Do these places still exist? If yes, how have they been saved?”

Next, Dr. Mike Wood Daly spoke about The Halo Project: a program that measures the economic value of a religious space to its surrounding community. In a political environment dominated by economics, the work done at The Halo Project provides religious institutions a way to articulate their contribution in economic terms. The statistics from the study of 10 of Toronto’s congregations are remarkable:

“The 10 congregations we looked at in Toronto spend a little more than $9.5 million per year in their direct budgets. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. The actual common good value those congregations produce, their “halo effect”, through weddings, artistic performances, suicide prevention, ending substance abuse, housing initiatives, job training – and a whole host of other areas that make cities so much more livable – is estimated to be more than $45 million per year.” (website: http://www.haloproject.ca/phase-1-toronto)

Later, four faith groups, The Hare Krishna Temple (Rosedale), Manor United Church (Leaside), Fairlawn Avenue United Church (Bedford Park), and the International Muslim Organization(Rexdale) shared their journeys to becoming more connected with their communities. They spoke about the importance of incorporating the community into their mission, their successful outreach initiatives, and the lessons they have learned along the way.

The Hare Krishna Temple was awarded the Greening Sacred Spaces Award which recognizes places of faith who have taken three environmental actions, held two educational events about the environmental movement and volunteers to help other religious organizations get involved in ecological programs.

After lunch, we heard from LoriAnn Girvan, an accomplished urban planner and the Chief Operating Officer at Artscape, about the importance of asking the right questions about how our spaces serve the common good. Instead of asking, “Why didn’t you do something?”, LoriAnn encourages us to re-frame the question in a positive light: “Why did you do something?” The mission and contribution of a place is found in what it does; not what it has failed to do.

Rob Dalgleish of the United Church’s EDGE, a Network for Ministry Development, talked about renewing ministries through mission. When working with churches on this renewal, he asks them to reflect on two questions: “What is breaking God’s heart in your community?” and “What is delighting God in your ministry?” The answers to these powerful questions begin to tell a story about the role of our faith in modern times.

Roberto Chiotti from Larkin Architects and Rob Pajot, Regeneration Project Leader from the National Trust of Canada, spoke about the benefits of restoring and re-purposing old faith buildings, like churches, to serve those who worship in their walls and those who live outside the walls. They asked the audience to think about ways of welcoming the greater community into the church building; ways of pulling down physical and mental barriers to the community outside the church.

In the afternoon, the audience was presented with a Case Study. Leaside United Church bravely offered to share its strengths and weaknesses with the group in hopes of developing strategies to renew their mission and outreach to their community. In our discussion groups we talk about community needs and the time and space that is available for use by the community. We talked about the importance of round table discussions with leaders in the community to identify services that are lacking in the neighbourhood. Visual assumptions of what the community needs are not always accurate. We brainstormed new programs that could be introduced at the church, such as offering space for English as a Second Language and Family Budgeting Programs. In the end, the discussion groups shared their ideas for renewing the mission of Leaside United Church with the group as a whole.

To conclude, this seminar was a comprehensive introduction to the programs and people in Toronto, and across Canada, that aim to find new ways of supporting social justice initiatives, both large and small. From empirical data on the contribution of faith-based organizations to strategies and ideas for expanding mission, this seminar highlighted the importance of reflection and renewal for those seeking and providing spiritual guidance.