On Thursday, Dec. 3, Canadian Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, joined a video conversation with a select group of faith leaders in Canada on the topic of “The Contribution of Faith Communities in a Pandemic.” Moderated by Peter Noteboom, a commissioned pastor of the Christian Reformed Church and general secretary for The Canadian Council of Churches, the discussion was co-hosted by the Council, the Canadian Interfaith Conversation, and the Canadian Multifaith Federation.
Noteboom said about 450 people attended and the representation was "very broad and very deep" from across Canada. He called the conversation "in many ways historic," saying "I'm not aware of any time in the last 20 years that such senior faith leaders met together with the prime minister. I can't think of any time that that's happened in an interfaith setting," with any government, he said.
Noteboom said the conversation came together nine days after the Office of the Prime Minister had contacted The Canadian Council of Churches indicating that it would be interested in such an event. That was possible, Noteboom said, "because we now know each other across the faith communities, and we trust each other and we're friends."
Two of the partners had collaborated earlier in issuing A Message to Canadians from Religious Leaders in Canada in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
For the Dec. 3 conversation, each of the three co-hosts were welcomed to invite an equal number of participants from among their contacts and partners. The program, with simultaneous French to English and English to French translation, included nine different faith leaders speaking for three minutes each and the prime minister responding to each one. The conversation closed with a blessing spoken by a tenth participant. “The idea was to showcase the value and the contribution of faith communities as important places that foster hope and resilience in Canadian society, that deserve acknowledgement and recognition,” Noteboom said.
Darren Roorda, Canadian Ministries director of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, was one of about 20 CRC-connected people on the call. Roorda said he feels "that 'religion' in general does not get much air time in federal politics" since the dissolution of the Office of Religious Freedom in 2016. Because of that, he "was pleased that the diversity of faith represented at the meeting was given an ear by the prime minister" and wonders if "this could be a good beginning."
While this was a national conversation, it’s not the only instance of governments reaching out to faith groups in this time. "For many governments, trying to figure out how to connect with faith leaders is a challenge because they don't really know how to navigate the differences between different faith communities, and (faith) can be a bit of a lightning rod, so they're usually kind of hesitant, but in COVID times, it's actually opened a door," Noteboom said. "People realize that faith communities are important influencers, and they should be in conversation with each other."
Noteboom said he's aware of at least two or three interfaith initiatives in different regions that now have a bigger profile or started from nothing "to be a round table with government ministers and faith leaders" since the pandemic was declared in March.
Trevor Vanderveen, pastor of First Christian Reformed Church in Vancouver, B.C., participates in regular calls with faith-based leaders and B.C.’s Provincial Health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, Minister of Health Adrian Dix, and Premier John Horgan. The purpose of these phone calls, which have upwards of 100 participants, is to provide clarity regarding decisions about gathering and other guidelines. The calls prepare leaders as they in turn lead their congregations through this difficult time.
Vanderveen said, “There is always an opportunity for questions from a variety of faith contexts: How might a gurdwara (a place of assembly and worship for Sikhs) still serve pre-packaged meals (langar—a religious practice of preparing and serving free meals)? How may the Jewish Federation prepare guidelines for Hanukkah? How might the mass and communion elements be distributed safely?” For all faith-based leaders, the common point of concern is providing care, especially for the vulnerable who are isolated in this time.
First CRC’s worship services have remained online since the middle of March. Vanderveen told The Banner of the effects of the pandemic’s continued second wave on his congregation.
“We had a parishioner die of COVID(-19), and congregants have lost family members and have experienced the unpredictability of this pandemic. I am directing my energy towards positive and creative solutions of building connectedness as a congregation. Out of love for our neighbor, we are committed to seeking the common good. Even the church’s witness is on the line.”