The Religious Social Action Coalition hosts its annual symposium on issues related to poverty. Submitted photo

Religious Social Action Coalition strives to end poverty in Newfoundland

The elimination of poverty is a bold goal, but it is the driving force behind every act of the Religious Social Action Coalition in Newfoundland (RSACNL).

An alliance of faith organizations based primarily in Greater St. John’s and the Avalon Peninsula, the RSACNL seeks to achieve a living wage for workers and the adoption by government of a “fairness prism”, in which all proposed legislation and policy is evaluated on the basis of whether it is fair to all members of society, from the richest to the poorest. Establishing a higher minimum wage is a key component towards its goal of a living wage.

The coalition aims to attain these goals by championing its policies of economic justice to government officials from all political parties, as well as municipalities, businesses, labour unions, and other advocacy groups. Their chief means for doing so are through knowledge sharing, public advocacy, and engaging with the wider community.

“We talk all about the elimination of poverty, rather than the alleviation of poverty,” said the Rev. Canon David Burrows, coordinator of the RSACNL.

“We don’t want to see less people poor at the same levels. Instead, we want to see an overall lessening of poverty, with the hope that it becomes the elimination of poverty, and that that gap no longer exists between the poor and the rest of us.”

The RSACNL has existed since 2007, emerging from annual interfaith dialogues in St. John’s between various faith groups. A particularly prominent topic of discussion was the shared concern of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus around issues of poverty.

One of the founding members of the RSACNL was Arnold Bennett, an activist and former advisor on health care to U.S. President Bill Clinton, who had started a Jewish community havura (group) in St. John’s. As Burrows explained, Bennett “suggested that the faith community should put their money where their mouth is and take some action rather than just chatting about things”.

The formation of the RSACNL aimed to make the elimination of poverty a permanent agenda item for governments in Newfoundland and beyond. In 2010, Burrows was appointed by the three Anglican bishops in Newfoundland and Labrador to the RSACNL as its Anglican representative.. He was appointed coordinator in 2012 following the death of Bennett.

Efforts to eliminate poverty have deep roots in the Christian tradition, Burrows noted.

“Jesus talks about money more than he talks about pretty much anything else, but we as Christian preachers sometimes ignore that fact,” he said. “But there are underlying themes within the scriptures and within the gospels, particularly around the difference between those who have and those who have not. Sometimes it has to do more with faith and understanding, or being at one with God. But a lot of it comes to do with socioeconomic challenges.

“It’s the people who are ignored in Luke’s gospel—those who are socially disadvantaged, like children and women, or who are pushed outside of the community, like lepers or people who have a job as a sex worker for example, and are ostracized by the Pharisees and others. For me, scripture’s focus on socioeconomic justice is an important piece, one that we need to translate and to integrate into our daily living as we live out our faith in the things that we do.”

The concern for economic justice is also a value shared by many different faiths. Those shared values made the elimination of poverty a natural focal point for the RSACNL.

Economic justice “is something common to all religions,” said RSACNL director Mohammed Nazir, a volunteer with the Muslim Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. “Whether it’s Catholics, Protestants, Baptists, Pentecostals, Muslims, Hindus, Jews—every religion has certain values, and not only these. There are other values.

“For example, [we] all believe in charity. [We] all believe in equality. [We] all believe in human dignity. [We] all believe in human rights. So we are trying to pick up things which are common to the religions […] [We] have a lot more in common than … differences. And out of these, we felt that this [economic justice] is something which deserves our attention.”

Fighting poverty is an interfaith endeavor

Each fall, the RSACNL organized a symposium and invites various speakers to discuss how to engage municipalities, provincial and federal governments on justice issues related to poverty. Past speakers have included professors from Memorial University and members of the group Citizens for Public Justice.

Throughout the rest of the year, members of the RSACNL research and engage in dialogue with government officials and community groups to advance its goals of establishing a living wage for Newfoundland and Labrador as well as a fairness prism for public policy.

The RSACNL has what Burrows described as an “ongoing open dialogue” with the province, meeting with government officials twice per year to discuss their concerns. In May, they met with then-Speaker of the House of Assembly Tom Osborne and interested MHAs.

The coalition has written two letters to the provincial government over the past four years, during which the minimum wage has increased from under $10 to its current level of $11.15. Its ongoing relationship with the government has also given the RSACNL access to the statistics agency of Newfoundland and Labrador, providing the coalition with information for specific municipalities around the cost of living and wage variance.

Through their shared work, members of different faith organizations in the RSACNL have drawn closer together. As a friend of the Muslim Association, Burrows attends Muslim prayers four times per year.

He often shares ideas and offers suggestions on how Anglicans might be able to support them in their own projects. For example, with the Muslim Association currently working on establishing the first Muslim cemetery in Newfoundland and Labrador, its members have approached Burrows with questions on how Anglicans have dealt with funeral processes and cemetery regulations.

“We see a lot more humanity and a lot more common themes among our differing faiths because of the concerns that we have, and the care that we have for each other,” Burrows said.

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