People of many faiths met twice early in March in Vancouver to show support for one another at well-attended public meetings that celebrated diversity and took a stand against acts of hatred.
Both gatherings were in reaction to concerns about an upsurge in anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of social conflict that seem to have accompanied the inauguration of the Trump administration in the United States.
That American political problems have spilled into Canada was suggested by a bomb threat the previous week which resulted in the evacuation of Vancouver’s Jewish Community Centre (no bomb was found), and by controversy surrounding a three-day campaign in Vancouver led by Franklin Graham, an American evangelist who once called Islam “a very evil, a very wicked religion” and supported a ban on Muslim immigration in the U.S.
Anglicans were involved in sponsoring both gatherings. The first took place March 7 at Vancouver’s Or Shalom Synagogue. It was sponsored by the synagogue and the diocese of New Westminster, and featured talks, chants, songs, meditation, and even dancing, from a wide variety of faith traditions.
It was followed two days later by a presentation at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church — involving a rabbi, an imam and a bishop entitled “Hope Amidst the Politics of Fear: Conversations for Creative Resistance.” This event was organized by St. Andrew’s and Christ Church Cathedral.
Rabbi Laura Kaplan, director of Inter-Religious Studies at the Vancouver School of Theology and a panelist at the event at the United Church, said she was thankful that hate-inspired acts, like the bomb threat, were so far at the level of “harassment.” She added, “It will be the strength of our community that keeps it at that level.”
Kaplan said she had experienced discrimination and insult during her lifetime and career.
“In the grand scheme of Jewish history I experience these as mosquito bites,” she said. “On balance I am physically safe. I am welcomed almost everywhere by strong multicultural community where people understand it’s the strength of our networks that keep all of us safe. It’s the connections that matter.”
Imam Mohammed Shujaath Ali Nadwi of Masjid ul-Haqq Mosque in Vancouver also said he had been encouraged by the reactions of “fair-minded “Canadians and Americans.
“Recent events have stirred more compassion and kindness in the hearts of non-Muslim friends. They came out in support of Muslims defending their rights,” he said.
Nadwi said one benefit of the controversy is that it has stirred curiosity about Islam and encouraged people to learn about the religion. People want to find out about his religion “from the right sources, not just the media. This curiosity has opened minds and hearts to learn the right things. This is something very positive.”
People from a wide variety of faith traditions during discussions held after the gathering at Or Shalom Synagogue. Photo: Neale Adams
The Rev. Dan Chambers of St. Andrew’s-Wesley, in introducing the speakers at the church, suggested many people are concerned not only with recent events but about the state of the world in general.
“When we consider the critical issues of a global nature-climate change, the widening gap between the wealthy and the not very wealthy, the rise of the threat of nuclear weaponry-hope flickers in the distance,” said Chambers. “It’s no wonder that for many, despair is right outside our door, and for some it has moved into the house. How do you speak of hope in such a way that it’s not Pollyanna, that’s grounded in reality and the generally possible?”
That challenge was taken up by Bishop Michael Ingham, retired bishop of the diocese of New Westminster, whose talk touched on the theology of hope. Ingham said that biblical hope is neither a passive optimism nor unrealistic wishful thinking.
Quoting British rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Ingham distinguished between hope and optimism. “Optimism is the belief things will get better. Hope is the faith that together we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue. Hope is an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope.”
Hope has an element of surrender, said Ingham. However, it is not surrender to fate or despair but an ultimate act of trust in God. He quoted a verse from the late Leonard Cohen-who, he pointed out, was Jewish: “Even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”
Cohen, he said, “captures this sense of emptiness before God, of having nothing to bring except our hope and trust in God-and this transforms everything.”
The earlier gathering at the Or Shalom Synagogue, attended by about 100 people, focused more on celebrating Vancouver’s religious diversity.
Fifteen faith leaders spoke, sang, chanted, or in the case of a Sufi devotee, twirled. Represented were Muslims (Sunni, Shia and Sufi), two Hindu communities, Baha’i’s, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Quakers, Lutherans and Anglicans, as well as the Jewish hosts.
“We are asked to be tolerant with each other,” said Firdosh Mehta of the Zoroastrian Society of B.C. “But tolerance is not enough. We need to elevate the understanding of each other for acceptance beyond tolerance-acceptance based on common values.”
Bishop Greg Mohr of the British Columbia Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada based his remarks on a United Nations call for accepting refugees. “I invite you to think of stranger not as one newly arrived in a country. Often times the stranger is one living next door to me to whom I have failed to provide hospitality and welcome.
“We are all considered strangers somewhere and we should treat the strangers to our community as we would like to be treated. We must challenge intolerance,” said Mohr.
Bishop Melissa Skelton of the diocese of New Westminster used her opportunity to speak by reading two poems, one by an Israeli and the other by a Palestinian. The late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai’s poem read in part: “The place where we are right / is hard and trampled / like a yard. / But doubts and loves /dig up the world….”
She then read from the Palestinian poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, which suggests true kindness and compassion come only after one deeply feels the sorrows of other people.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the man in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
As the evening at the synagogue closed, Rabbi Adam Stein of the Beth Israel Synagogue quoted a verse from Isaiah (56:7), which is on the doors of his sanctuary : “My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.
He added: “I think truly tonight this house has been a house of prayer for all peoples…we have caused God, the divine, godliness to come out in all of us, inside of us.”