When religion makes news headlines, it is often to discuss discrimination, violence, or scandal.
However, hundreds of people of different faiths came together April 16 to discuss religious freedom and the challenges to it, to pledge support for Edmonton’s homeless, and to share together the joy of believing.
Archbishop Richard Smith urged participants to show the world the “unifying power of religion” especially at a time when the world is longing for peace.
He noted that religions have often failed in this area, both within their communities and with other faiths. However, he challenged participants to draw closer together, and to point society to an authentic and lasting unity.
“The faith communities of the Edmonton area have already made great strides in this direction,” he said. “There is an opportunity here to forge a real beacon of hope, yet we must remain deliberate about it.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) hosted the Religious Freedoms Interfaith Discussion featuring, as guest speakers, Archbishop Smith, Stacey Leavitt-Wright – chief executive officer of the Edmonton Jewish Federation – and Steven Collis, a law professor and renowned freedom of religion scholar.
Collis stated that religious warfare and genocide have been widespread throughout history and continue to this day. He emphasized that people must be free to seek the answers to life’s most important questions, without force or fear of punishment.
“Compulsory unity of opinion only results in the unanimity of the graveyard,” he said, underlining that religious freedom sought for only one religion will always result in the oppression of others.
Leavitt-Wright voiced concern for the alarming rise in antisemitism, noting that the biggest threat to religious freedom is misinformation and a lack of education.
“When you’re on social media channels,” she said, “you often lose perspective of what it is like to engage with people on the ground.” She encouraged participants to “Speak up and speak out.”
In contrast to the current attacks on religious freedoms throughout the world, it was notable that participants of this event gathered in profound mutual respect and solidarity.
During the intermission, event participants assembled baskets of toiletries and other items to give to people in Edmonton who have recently left homelessness.
The project is part of the Welcome Home initiative by Catholic Social Services. As participants worked alongside each other, wrapping items, and helping each other curl ribbons, there was a tangible sense of joy.
To Chantelle McMullin, one of the event organizers, service was an essential element of the event.
“We’re not just sitting around talking about religion. We are practising religion,” said McMullin, the director of communications for the LDS Church community in the Edmonton area.
She said that the hope is to one day form an interfaith service council. This would allow for the quick mobilization of volunteers and resources when needs arise in the community.
In his presentation, Archbishop Smith began by thanking the LDS community for offering hundreds of volunteers during the visit of Pope Francis to Canada in July, and for their support of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, including the purchase of 500 mattresses for families in need.
At the end of the event, guest speakers were invited to walk across the parking lot and visit the temple of the LDS community. Members of the community showed the temple areas permitted for visitors and took the time to explain the significance of the sacred space.
When speaking about the purpose of the event, McMullin underlined the desire to dialogue with others, and most of all, to build relationships.
“That’s really our goal,” said McMullin. “We want to bring people of all faiths together and to have them respect and honour other faiths, to understand other faiths, to open their minds to the goodness that’s in all people.”
-Danielle Godin is a freelance writer in Edmonton. She is also the marketing and student recruitment coordinator at Newman Theological College