“Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11)
Concern for the poor has been a hallmark of living faith from Biblical times to the present day. Jesus’ remark, “The poor will always be with you,” is not a justification for ignoring the needs of the poor, but recalls God’s command to His people in Deuteronomy, exhorting them to open their hands to their neighbours in need.
In Ontario, the poor continue to be with us. Social assistance rates are deeply inadequate to meet the basic needs of most recipients, with increases below the rate of inflation. Thirty of the 59 federal ridings in the Diocese of Toronto have child poverty rates above the national average. Overall, more than 26 per cent of children in Toronto live in poverty, while in the riding of Toronto Centre, the child poverty rate is 40 per cent – one of the highest rates in Canada. A recent report from the Ontario Association of Food Banks pointed out that over half a million people in Ontario used a food bank in the last year. One-third of them were children. Worryingly, the number of seniors using food banks jumped by 10 per cent.
Recently announced changes to social assistance will make it more difficult for people to qualify for the higher rates offered to those with disabilities, and increased clawbacks will mean people lose the benefit of additional earnings even earlier, becoming ineligible for assistance while still making far below minimum wage. Minimum wage itself has been frozen until October 2020, and protections for precarious workers have been rolled back. Even the federal government’s seniors’ benefits, which for decades helped to ensure income security for the elderly, have failed to keep pace with the cost of living. The federal government has introduced a national poverty reduction strategy but has not yet introduced any new programs or funding.
Each year, the diocese’s College of Bishops approves a motion prepared by the Diocesan Social Justice & Advocacy Committee for parishes to consider at their annual vestry meeting. The Social Justice Vestry motion for 2019 calls us to stand in solidarity with those living in poverty in our communities. Usually the motion contains a specific policy request of one or more levels of government. This year, however, the motion is constructed somewhat differently, inviting parishes not just to assent to a resolution, but to take on specific advocacy and action steps of their own.
We recognize that poverty is the result of multiple factors that can be addressed by policy measures on the part of government, but such measures require political will and cooperation over the long term. In the meantime, people in our communities are living with real needs that must be met.
As those who follow Christ, we resist the notion that our society cannot afford to protect the most vulnerable, and we continue to call on our governments to establish policies that reduce inequality, so that all can live in dignity. This year’s vestry motion invites each parish to consider and adopt at least one way of increasing its advocacy on behalf of those in need. A list of suggestions is included with the motion, with more details provided on the diocese’s website, www.toronto.anglican.ca. The Diocesan Social Justice & Advocacy Committee can also assist parishes with writing letters and organizing visits with local elected officials.
While we continue to advocate for systemic change, we are also called to demonstrate our solidarity and concern directly. Again, the actions taken will be different for each parish. Some parishes may choose to explore a new outreach ministry, while others may choose to expand or enhance an existing program. Still others may take the opportunity to increase their parish FaithWorks commitment. By giving our time, money and presence to those whom society sees as expendable, we resist our culture’s glorification of wealth and power, and bear witness to Jesus, who identified with “the least of these”.
Reaching out, speaking up and standing in solidarity with those in need, we commit our parishes to fulfilling the law of Christ.