Hard times challenge the church

Published February 1, 2009

BAD NEWS ABOUT the economy has cast a dark shadow over 2009. As Canadians begin to see and feel the impact of stock market turmoil, cutbacks and job losses, people in the church are looking for ways to respond.

Communities that depend on manufacturing, particularly the auto industry, have been among the first to feel the effects of the downturn. In Oshawa, Ont., Canon Anthony Jemmott of St. George’s Memorial Anglican Church said only a few of his parishioners work for General Motors, but more are affected because their companies depend on contracts with auto companies. He describes the past Christmas season as an “eye-opener.”

The parish has always prepared Christmas baskets with items such as food, toiletries, clothes and toys for children for those in need. Typically, about six baskets might be given out to people within the congregation, especially to elderly people who live alone, but the focus was primarily outward. This year, organizers took a closer look at the congregation itself and were more conscious of people who might also be struggling.

“We took a breath and said ‘You know this family might, or that family might, and when I called discreetly, they were more than happy. Some broke into tears. Young families too,” Mr. Jemmott said. St. George’s gave out 21 Christmas baskets to parishioners this year. He described it as a moving, learning experience, and noted that stereotypical Anglican reserve or a sense of pride might keep people from talking about their troubles, so it is important to be vigilant and tactfully “sense things out.”

At the diocese of Ottawa’s Anglican Social Services Centre 454, the needs are easier to see. People who are homeless or at risk of homelessness come for employment assistance programs, counseling, crisis intervention, hospitality and practical supports such as access to telephones, personal hygiene and laundry facilities.

Director Mary Martha Hale says that the number of people coming to the centre hasn’t increased significantly yet but the impact of the economic troubles “ripple down to the folks here pretty quickly because they have very few other resources.” She’s heard the stories of people who are struggling because businesses they worked for closed without paying them, and she notes that the recent unemployment figures don’t tell the whole story because many people who come to the centre do piece work or work for cash.

Centre 454 reached its fundraising goal for the year, and Ms. Hale is hoping that funding from the United Way will be at the same level as last year or higher because she thinks that needs for services will grow. “Back when the tech sector went through a downturn (in about 1999), we experienced an increase in demand for our services. People were losing their homes, people were out of work in a shocking manner so it took time for people to recover emotionally and financially,” she said.

Ms. Hale notes that when she was hired at the centre in 1998, it served about 100 people per day. “Now we’re seeing 300 people a day – a big increase in demand – and the numbers stayed there, and we’ve had good years, really good years. So what makes me extremely nervous is now we’re going to see some more bad years, so is the same thing going to happen?”

Unfortunately, just as needs are increasing, revenues are decreasing. Jim Stewart, treasurer for the diocese of New Westminster, says the meltdown in the market meant that the diocese’s consolidated trust fund sustained losses. “The losses were moderate compared to other not-for-profit and charitable organizations due to a very conservative investment profile,” he said, but it does mean that both the diocese and the parishes will have challenges with their budgets for 2009. “If [parishes] have not put away some reserves, they may find it difficult to fund new ministries and, in some cases, if there are no reserves, they may have to cut some expenses somewhere,” he said, noting that the diocese itself avoids deficits and supports the national church’s efforts to reduce deficits.

The situation will be familiar to many dioceses and parishes across the country. Canon Jemmott in Oshawa said his parish is looking for ways to be more frugal and avoid spending money it doesn’t have. “We don’t know how it will be impacted in terms of people’s giving, and we feel that even before that happens we need to find other ways of trimming the budget.”

The diocese of Toronto has also been making efforts to influence government policy in order to reduce poverty. Ontario Premier Dalton McGinty’s government made campaign promises to reduce poverty, and Bishop Colin Johnson made a presentation to the finance minister during pre-budget consultations to encourage the government to follow through with its plan. “We want [the government] to continue to be engaged in poverty reduction, not only in spite of the economic downturn but especially because there is an economic downturn because it will have a significant impact on poverty levels, greater need,” Bishop Johnson said.

To further emphasize the point, the diocese took out a full-page ad in the Toronto Star with an open letter to the government and members of all of the other parties calling on them to “do the right thing and fully implement a strong poverty reduction plan, beginning with substantial measures in the Spring 2009 budget.”

The news is not all bad. Parishes contacted by the Anglican Journal for this story generally reported that givings did not seem to have been significantly reduced for 2008, even if there was uncertainty for the future. “I think people actually do see that there are huge needs and people want to respond to them,” said Bishop Johnson. “People want to be generous and responsive because that’s part of their Christian faith. They want to make a difference in people’s lives.”


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