Podcast: The Public Discourse

Episode 5: Hope and Solidarity during COVID-19

We talk with Rabbi Dr. Laura Duhan-Kaplan and Peter Noteboom about the ways in which religious communities in Canada are fostering hope and solidarity in a time of coronavirus. Noteboom is the General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, and Rabbi Dr. Duhan-Kaplan is Director of Inter-religious Studies at the Vancouver School of Theology.

Read the Transcript

The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity

GEOFF CAMERON (Director, Office of Public Affairs): I am delighted to be joined today by Peter Noteboom and Rabbi Dr. Laura Duhan-Kaplan. We will be exploring how religious communities are feeling the effects of coronavirus and what they are doing to contribute to resilience and solidarity at this time.

Laura and Peter, would you please briefly introduce yourselves before we start the conversation. Laura would you please go first?

RABBI DR. LAURA DUHAN-KAPLAN (Director of Inter-religious Studies and Professor of Jewish Studies, Vancouver School of Theology): Sure. I'm Rabbi Laura Duhan-Kaplan, and I work as Director of Inter-religious Studies at the Vancouver School of Theology, which is an ecumenical Christian seminary located on the campus of University of British Columbia with programs in Indigenous studies and inter-religious studies. I am the only Jewish faculty member, so I enjoy the challenges and blessings of an inter-religious environment every day.

GEOFF: Thanks Laura. Peter, what about you?

PETER NOTEBOOM (General Secretary, Canadian Council of Churches; Co-Chair, Canadian Interfaith Conversation): I work as the General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches. The Canadian Council of Churches is a Christian unity and peace organization; that's our main purpose. We also say that we seek Christ's truth with an affection for diversity, and that we act together in love through prayer, dialogue, and witness to the Gospel. It is my privilege to serve as General Secretary there. I have also recently been appointed, or asked to serve, as the co-Chair of the Canadian Interfaith Conversation.

GEOFF: Wonderful. Thanks, both of you, for joining us today. Peter, I would like to start with you. You helped to coordinate an interfaith statement called "Hope, Gratitude, and Solidarity." That was signed by dozens of religious leaders and endorsed by the Canadian Interfaith Conversation. Could you talk about the motivation for creating a statement like this? And why you think it is important for religion to speak with one voice at a time like the one we are living through right now?

PETER: Thank you. That is such a good question. The first thing I thought of is that there is a pre-existing desire among the participants in the Canadian Interfaith Conversation, and many religious communities, to act together. In the Canadian Interfaith Conversation, we have ten years of relationships, ten years of learning from one another, ten years of working together on some shared projects, and so through the friendships and the mutual respect that we have developed over the years I think we've had a pre-existing desire to speak together at a time like this.

When I first got word of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus proposing a statement that would be for religious leaders in the context of COVID-19, it just appeared natural to me that we could call up our friends and say, "Let's do this together." Let us work through the text and what we would like to say. Let us draw on our expertise from our various religious communities to try to sharpen what we can say together. And so it felt, in a way, natural. It didn't feel forced. It felt like it was the fruit of many years of cooperation and collaboration already.

GEOFF: Thank you. Now Laura you are, as you mentioned, the director of inter-religious studies at the Vancouver School of Theology. What Peter was just describing was an inter-religious approach to the contribution of religion to public thinking at the time of coronavirus. Could you say something about how taking an inter-religious approach to this crisis gives us added perspective? The way in which our thinking can be enriched by looking at what different traditions have to offer?

LAURA: For sure, and I will say two things. One, really building on what Peter said, which is that each tradition has a tremendous history and storehouse of spiritual and psychological support resources. We each speak a slightly different language, but we each have a piece of the puzzle for hope and inspiration and support. Some traditions connect us with a sense of unity of all being that runs through all life. Other traditions focus on connecting with a specific figure that provides us with support and guidance. And when we start to open the door to learn from one another, we get a greater inner set of resources that we can draw on. So, that's one piece.

The other piece is that it is hard to run a religious organization. It is very time consuming, and it is very time consuming to be a member of a small religious community; even in one faith tradition. So, we don't usually spend a lot of time investigating the ideas, and tools, and teachings of the different traditions. Yet, when something like a crisis brings us together, it opens to doors for the relationships that will allow us to continue learning from one another.

GEOFF: Thanks Laura. You know, Peter, many people will recognize the role of religion and spirituality in helping people to get through a crisis at a personal level. Whether this be through prayer, or meditation, or personal faith, these are powerful reservoirs of resilience for people. But religion also has this role to play in how we think about society – in many of the ways that Laura has just touched on. I wonder if you could speak a little bit to this. How do faith and religion influence our approach to social questions in the context of this crisis? Whether it relates to questions of justice, how we treat vulnerable populations, or even how we understand ourselves at this moment in history when we are rethinking many foundational questions about what kind of society we want to be?

PETER: You know it is such a good question. I'm struck even in the way you ask it, about how you're naturally using the plural form: “How will ‘we’ do it?” I think frequently people see religion as something personal, something private, something you work out on your own. It is true that faith is personal, and that it is about one's deepest convictions, and it is about personal and spiritual practices. But, faith and religion is really a communal enterprise. It's really a community project. So, when people work out their faith together with other people, then those faith communities also have practices for how they do their work.

I think I mentioned before that gratitude and blessing are natural languages for faith communities. There’s another important language in the ways that faith communities approach social questions. I think I also mentioned the good fortune that we have in Canada of a tradition of listening to those who have the lived experience of discrimination, or of scarcity of one kind or another. I think that alertness is something I have learned a great deal about from other faith communities, and I think it's a kind of underappreciated religious value, or spiritual practice, of being alert to what is going on and what is happening around us. When faith communities do their work well, they are alert.

I think another thing that often comes up – at least, I experience it in the work that I do, which often is about bringing different faith communities to speak together or act together on something – is that there is an overriding concern for inclusion. How will we include everyone? How will we strike some balance? How will there be harmony in what we want to say in the way it lives out our values? So that comes through, usually very strongly. But really, it's about testing out our deepest values and our deepest convictions. And, not doing that on our own, but with others and in community. So, I think that bringing our deepest values and deepest convictions to bear on a particular context with a particular challenge, with others, is a gift that, dare I say, few other communities in society offer.

LAURA: Geoff, your questions are so excellent that I find myself wanting to answer all of them. So perhaps I could continue on a couple of the themes that Peter highlighted in his answer.

I want to echo the idea of gratitude. I read it so beautifully stated in a Benedictine text, that gratitude establishes our relationship with God because it helps take us out of the funk that we are in when we turn our attention to the things in our lives that we can be grateful for. When we get a little bit out of being sunk into ourselves, we begin connecting with something larger than ourselves: something that transcends that moment and begins to connect us with a larger feeling of the transcendent. In religious communities, we practice gratitude, blessing, and feeling transcendence in a way that makes life more meaningful, more bearable, and often more joyful.

In 2017, the Angus Reid foundation partnered with Cardus to study Canadians’ experiences, perceptions, and attitudes around religion and public life. One of the things that they found in their research was that the 30 percent of Canadians who are religiously committed – that is, participate regularly in spiritual communities – this 30 percent report themselves happier on indexes of happiness. They are more engaged with their communities and the larger community as volunteers, and they are much more likely to say that having care and concern for others is a fundamental life value, and that it makes your life better. We practice that particular value of caring for one another, both within communities – for the members of our communities – and also as each community does outreach into the larger community. And, it is really notable that people report that caring for others makes them happier. I think that religious communities could do a much better job of exporting that value throughout our society.

GEOFF: You know in the Bahá’í community, we often talk about having a two-fold moral purpose. On the one hand, one of our purposes in life is to improve our own character. But that's also related to our contributions to the community around us: the extent to which we are serving our community. One can't necessarily be done without the other. There's a relationship between our own personal spirituality and our own active concern with contributing to the common good.

That's something that I heard come out in both of your comments. But maybe we can take the reflection you were just on, Laura, a little bit further, because one thing I have been noticing in a lot of the public conversation around our response to coronavirus is a kind of rejection of individualism and selfish action. These are sometimes qualities that are tolerated and even praised in our society. However, it seems that there has been a new mobilization around working together. You know there is this phrase, "We're all in this together," that has become a sort of mantra of our response to this pandemic.

So, maybe if I could ask you to speculate or think ahead a little bit. What potential do you think is there that we can come out of this time with a different attitude towards solidarity, unity, and collective action?

LAURA: Peter, do you want to go first?

PETER: No, please. I love to listen to you.

LAURA: I think that people of all faiths and people of no faith are – even in the short weeks so far that we've been very serious about physical distancing – people are really coming to understand what is most important to them.

The most important things to us are keeping alive the connections with family and friends coming together for spiritual support. I'm a member of two synagogues and both of the synagogues are having much greater remote participation than they typically have in person participation, because people are really realizing how important spiritual support is to them. We're also coming to see that artistic creativity is important. People are taking up the arts and posting their beginner efforts online for all of their friends to see. I'm hoping that one of the things we take away is a desire to spend more time developing interpersonal relationships, deeper parts of ourselves and our personal creativity.

I will add that, as I see the world, creativity also opens us up to our imagination. This means we are more primed to enter into those hopeful spaces Peter was talking about, and that you are hinting at in all your questions Geoff; those spaces where we can really envision things being different and better.

PETER: Yeah. I will echo many of your themes. I think we are weaving through each other nicely. Just to say a bit more about time: we are on virus time, not human time. We are on Mother Earth time, or Creator time, which is a little different. It sets us up for realizing that we are not in control, and I think it holds the potential for us to emerge a bit more humble, a little more aware of our place in creation, our place in the cosmos, maybe a little more aware of our own vulnerability, maybe a little less prideful, maybe a little less certain, maybe a little more curious. I think there is potential for that.

I think a crisis like this also shines a light on those areas where things were a problem before, but we were content to scan over them, or gloss over them. Whether it is care for the elderly, or care for those suffering from domestic abuse, or care for migrants, or other parts of Canadian society where folks were having a difficult time, but we were used to walking past them. It's now clear that they are there and we are more aware. Hopefully, we can be more alert to those things.

LAURA: I just want to echo and extend one of Peter's themes again. I think that a pandemic also shows us how biologically connected we are. We can't ignore some of the people and the problems that, in a safer time, it might be easier to push to the margins of our thought and our visibility. For example, if the virus runs in a homeless encampment, then the virus is going to run through the city. It's not a separate strata of existence that those with money, and policy, expertise, can ignore. Because what happened to the least of us now happens to all of us.

GEOFF: Yeah. It seems like there is something about a pandemic and a virus that exposes a reality that was always there. In the sense that it has always been the case that we have been interdependent. That we, our own individual actions have some impact on people who we might not even know in the world around us. Whether this be through our economic choices in our lives, or our personal actions when we are in public, or our professional actions. These are never really private things. They all in some ways influence those around us.

But there's something about a virus that is a kind of signifier or symbol of this reality, which as you say, is that we are biologically interconnected, and therefore also interdependent. Perhaps this can give rise to a greater consciousness at some level of our - you might say - our fundamental oneness, our shared humanity, our interdependence. And that might influence the way in which we look at problems in the future.

So I wonder, before we end this conversation, perhaps you might each share what your own hopes and aspirations are for how – we can start with Canadian society, but we can even extend our vision to all of humanity – how could things be different coming out of this?

You know, a moment of crisis is a time for reflection. It's a time, in a way, when things end at some level, and new beginnings can come forward as well. So, to the extent that this may be a turning point for our society and for humanity, how might we hope things could be different?

So that's a big question, not a small one. I’d like to invite either of you to share your closing reflections on what we might hope the future could look like as we emerge from this crisis?

LAURA: There is so much talk at every level of our society about putting aside differences, focusing on what we have in common, and working together. On the call with religious leaders, our Premier of British Columbia, John Horgan, laughed a little bit and said: "You all know that I don't see eye-to-eye politically, or necessarily personally, with the premiers of the other provinces. But because of us focusing together on the emergency and sharing information, we are actually becoming friends.”

That is a different approach to politics than we have seen in Canada before. And I am hoping that when the emergency fades, what will stay with us is the sense that we are all in this together; the friendships that we have created, the new knowledge we have about how much each tradition has in common, how different parts of society are connected, and that our motivations for living together will evolve to something kinder, and gentler, and calmer.

GEOFF: Thank you. And Peter?

PETER: You know, just to model what we're talking about, I think it is religious symbols that come to mind for me first. One of my favourite phrases comes from the Book of Revelation – and I am not even sure what it was meant to say, but it has lived in my imagination for many years – which is: "Behold, I am making all things new."

When I think about what that means, to be renewed, the renewal of all, I think about a place for each and all. I think about a shared sense of mutuality – of interdependence, was I think the language you used, Geoff. I think of being less preoccupied with ourselves and more aware of Earth time, and tuned into that. I think about recognizing and acknowledging the divine in one another and getting the glimpses of the divine from one another's traditions and our own; that divine, that transcendence, that glimpse of beauty, that glimpse of a sense of beyond what we can see and feel and touch. I also look to that as part of the future – of the kind of change that is possible.

GEOFF: Well, I would like to thank both of you for this very rich and deep conversation exploring these themes of hope, solidarity, gratitude, and interdependence, in the context of the coronavirus. And I'll leave it there. Thank you both so much.

PETER: Thank you.

LAURA: Thank you.