Spirit of the West

Vancouver may be Canada's least formally religious city, but faith still flourishes here

March 2, 2008

By Tyee Bridge / Photo: John Sinal

My father grew up in New Westminster, and on Sundays he and his brothers would trudge to the Protestant pews nearest their latest address—Knox Presbyterian in Sapperton, or Olivet Baptist on Queens Avenue. My grandparents were not devout, but this was the late 1940s, and among Scottish Canadians the seventh day was reserved for Sunday clothes, Sunday school, and Sunday roast. For my father, Salvation Army Sunday school involved cornet lessons, but he was performance shy and quit before he could be placed on a street corner with a donation basket. This was the end of his association with faith communities. By age 12 he was as churched as the next kid, but the experience failed to take. “The assumption was that you’d just grow into it, as if your parents’ religion would automatically rub off if you went every Sunday,” he said of his lapsed Protestantism. “But none of it had any lasting impression on me, except the smells of church basements, the complete dissonance of the hymn singing, and the waxlike women with their dusty men.”

The same was true for my mother. As seven-year-olds, she and her twin sister liked playing Sunday school games and memorizing Bible passages at the Anglican church. But when given the choice at age 12 whether to attend church or not, they both opted for Sunday morning ice-skating at the PNE over sitting in the pews. By the time I was born, revealed religion and houses of worship were a distant memory for my parents. Except for the odd wedding, my sisters and I grew up never setting foot in church. Where the family Bible might have sat in Christian homes—sandwiched among a few other select books on the living room hutch—in our house there was a boxed copy of Paul Reps’s Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.

My parents were pebbles in a secular landslide. In 1945, 60 percent of Canadians attended church weekly. But as the Boomer generation came of age, they stayed away from church in droves; Reginald Bibby, a sociologist of religion at the University of Lethbridge, notes that by 1975 the fraction of Canadians attending weekly religious services had dropped to 30 percent; and by the turn of the millennium, to 20.

To a sociologist like Bibby, my parents are “religious nones”—those who tick off the “No Religion” box on Statistics Canada surveys. This makes them not just lapsed Protestants, but typical Vancouverites. Our city, it turns out, is a special case when it comes to religion. British Columbia is the only province in Canada where “No Religion” is the top census response—religious nones amount to 35 percent of the population here, as opposed to 23 percent in Alberta and only 16 in Ontario. In Vancouver, we’re above the provincial average, at 39 percent. All of which apparently leads to an interesting conclusion: we live in the most godless city in Canada.

While this is a tasty little bon mot, it’s perhaps not quite true. Unpack the “religious none” category and instead of a voting bloc of atheists you find legions of what might be called formless believers. According to Bibby, 40 percent of adult religious nones say they believe not only in a God of some sort, but a God who cares about them. Thirty-five percent pray in private. Many more are, like my parents, agnostics who have little affection for “the desert religions,” as my father calls them, yet retain an appreciation of the cosmic mystery. So while the high proportion of religious nones makes Vancouver sound like Gomorrah on the Pacific, there’s another way of reading it: our city includes large numbers of what we might call the pewless faithful. Rather than simply spiking the sin index, this puts us on the leading edge of religious innovation.

“Because it’s so secular here, the church experienced the crisis of disinterest 20 years before the rest of Canada,” says Bruce Sanguin, minister of Canadian Memorial, a United Church on the west side. “We started doing culture-shifting stuff long before the rest of the country. And so there’s a sense in which we’re ahead of the game. Vancouver’s a tough gig, but we’re blazing a trail to new expressions of what it means to be religious.”

Faith leaders like Sanguin, and the other progressive spirits you see on these pages, find themselves at the helm of burgeoning congregations. Equal footing for women, ecological ethics, and interfaith dialogue are common themes of the new faith communities, as are contemplative forms of prayer, yoga, and meditation. Many formless believers—once alienated by the patriarchal crustiness and my-god-is-better-than-your-god exclusivity of traditional religion—are being wooed back to newly imagined temples and pews. Vancouver now includes a fascinating array of spiritual leaders who have opened the basement windows of their traditions and started what might be called—ironically, in this secular city—a religious renaissance.

1. Prameyaji Chaitanya

 

Priest, Shree Mahalakshmi Temple

Deciding on a deity can be difficult when there are 330 million to choose from. After meditating on the needs of the Vancouver Hindu community, Prameyaji Chaitanya chose Mahalakshmi, goddess of wealth and love. While we stand before her image, Chaitanya offers prasad—blessed water tasting of ginger, and a mixture of raisins, almonds, and rock candy—and explains his choice. “In the community the root problems were financial struggle. A lot of things can be solved by action, but you also need grace, and Mahalakshmi brings great fortune.” Priest of the temple since it was established in 1990, Chaitanya had come to Canada after training for five years at the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh, northern India’s holy city at the base of the Himalayas. “People have criticized Hindus for not worshipping one god, for having millions of gods. But every Hindu knows that ultimately these are all aspects of one power.” A member of the Multifaith Action Society since the ’80s, Chaitanya is patient in explaining his faith to non-Hindus. “We’ll all be better off if people of faith have good communication,” he says. “The Hindu religion is very broad-minded. The first concept is that every being on this planet is one of the children of the almighty Lord, and you should treat them equally.”

2. David Mivasair
Rabbi, Ahavat Olam Synagogue

“No religion is an island. Religions have acted like they’re islands, that they alone have the one absolute supreme truth,” says Rabbi David Mivasair. “They do all have the truth, but not exclusively.” Rabbi Mivasair was raised in a non-observant Jewish family in Baltimore. As a teenager in the late ’60s, with the Vietnam War on and the draft looming, he began attending synagogue on his own, attracted to the prophetic messages of peace in Isaiah and Micah, where lions will lie down with lambs and swords will be beaten into plowshares. The exhortation for social action in Torah—“Justice, justice you shall pursue”—moved him to want to become a rabbi.

Unable to find a rabbinical college with a progressive outlook, he set the dream aside until he was 30, when he stumbled on the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College during a conference for Jewish peace activists. Now the spiritual leader of Ahavat Olam synagogue, Mivasair and his congregation have broken rugelach with Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and Hindus. Rabbi Mivasair himself is a founding member of the InterSpiritual Centre, a planned “shared sacred space” that will provide a sanctuary for congregations of many faiths. This kind of cross-pollination, says Mivasair, is crucial for pursuing justice, whether in the Middle East or the Downtown Eastside. “Those of us who are attached to a tradition have a duty to get over the walls between us,” he says. “In our time there’s a kind of crisis. The damage we’re doing to the earth, for instance, is absolutely clear. Dealing with it takes a totally united approach. We can’t be divided up anymore.”

3. Guru Raj Kaur Khalsa
Co-founder, Raj Yog Nival

In her own words, Guru Raj Kaur Khalsa is “a Greek/Sikh gal born into 1950s Brooklyn, New York, who by some miracle ended up in beautiful Vancouver.” Part of the miracle stems from her encounters with kundalini yoga and Yogi Bhajan in the early ’70s. Yogi Bhajan was a Sikh householder, a former Indian government official who came to Canada in 1969 to teach kundalini yoga—not a traditional Sikh practice, but one he learned as a teenager from yoga masters. “He didn’t come to spread Sikhism but to make this ancient form of yoga public, because he saw a need in the West,” Khalsa says. “But some of us were also interested in the Sikh stuff as well, which kind of surprised him.” After adopting Yogi Bhajan’s mix of yoga and Sikh philosophy, Khalsa and her husband began teaching in Vancouver in 1973. Together they oversee Raj Yog Nivas, aka Yoga West, a Kitsilano gurdwara and yoga center.

Punjabi Sikhs arriving in the ’70s didn’t know what to make of their white-turbaned, well-toned brethren, but Khalsa gained their trust by offering classes to Punjabi youth while advocating for the right of Sikhs to wear turbans and ceremonial kirpan knives. Thirty years on, the Raj Yog Nivas community is an eclectic overlap of North American Sikh converts, Sikhs of Punjabi descent, and yoga aficionados with no ties to Sikhism. All are welcome, she says. “The Sikh faith was never meant to become another religion, rather to openly teach how to ‘do the sacred,’ how to have a sacred, integrated life, a meditative mind, and a fearless spirit.”

4. Fode Drame
Imam, Zawihay Foundation

Over honey-sweetened tea and a tray of pistachios, cake, and mandarin oranges, Imam Fode Drame explains the name of his congregation. “Zawiyah in Arabic means corner—where two lines meet. This is what we want to create. A place of connection between Earth and heaven, and a place where East meets West.” Descended from a line of Senegalese Muslim clerics, Drame moved to Vancouver in 1999. Until 2005 he was head of a mosque in East Vancouver; during his tenure it was the only B.C. mosque to allow women to attend and study the Koran. It was also one of the few to invite other religious leaders to talk about their traditions. This made him controversial. The B.C. Muslim Association locked him out, and Drame moved on to establish Zawiyah.

On Fridays the foundation attracts hundreds of Shia, Sunni, and Ismaili Muslims, and a smattering of curious non-Muslims. The congregation is young and progressive, drawn to the imam’s egalitarian teachings and emphasis on tasawwuf—Islamic spiritual disciplines by which “the individual discovers his own soul, his own realities, and who the Creator of his soul is.” He believes that “enrichment comes through dialogue. From past history, both Muslims and Jews engaged in dialogue in Andalusia to the great benefit of both traditions on one hand, and Islam and Christianity on the other. Vancouver presents the opportunity of another Spain.”

 

. Bruce Sanguin
Minister, Canadian Memorial United Church
An “emerging paradigm” Christian known to quote Rumi and Leonard Cohen in his sermons, Bruce Sanguin is not your parents’ United Church minister. “I take eternal life as a given. Immortality is not a reward offered for good behaviour, nor is hell punishment for bad behaviour. The question is not what is going to happen to us; it’s how are we going to contribute to the evolution of the universe.” After reading his book Darwin, Divinity and the Dance of the Cosmos, which sketches the foundations of an ecological Christianity—not to be confused with a Christian ecology— one of his colleagues called Sanguin a born-again pagan.

But Sanguin’s spiritual path didn’t begin in a hazelwood grove. As he tells it, it began in a University of Winnipeg locker room. Between games of volleyball he was suddenly struck by the “question of the meaning of life,” and it continued to gnaw at his spiritual fingernails. He experimented with Transcendental Meditation and other early-’70s offerings, until “an itinerant evangelist blew through Winnipeg” and told him that Christ was the way, the truth, and the life. “I did the traditional inviting Jesus into my heart, and I experienced an incredible infusion and outpouring of love.” The downside, he says, was that the authentic spiritual experience was quickly overlaid with fundamentalist dogma. “It took me a couple of years in seminary to sort of deprogram.” Thirty years later, Sanguin describes his approach as an open-hearted, open-minded Christian spirituality that takes the Bible “seriously, but not literally.” Currently he’s working on a city-wide ecological initiative called Be the Change, and a new book to be called The Emerging Congregation.

6. Louise Mangan
Minister, Pacific InterChristian Community
Louise Mangan spoke recently with kids at a local Jewish high school. “I loved them, they were brilliant. They asked me, ‘Wouldn’t it be better if we just did away with religion, and stuck to the mystic core of things?’ They had me by the coattails there.” Wrestling with the paradoxes of Christian religion—the way institutionalized churches can both enable spiritual awareness and stifle it—has been a theme for Mangan, and led her to a new faith community. “We’re post-denominational, you might say. We’ve stepped out the other side.”

Raised in Vancouver, Mangan served for 15 years as a United Church of Canada minister. Over the years, part of her congregation “found itself out of sync” with other members over welcoming gays, lesbians, and other minorities into the church. The difficult process led the group into the spiritual depths. “When you’re pressed, when you’re dealing with the struggle to be inclusive—well, we started to pray, and to meditate.” This in turn led to the “difficult clarity” that their spiritual goals, and those of others in the church, were mutually exclusive. In 2005 the group left the church, and after much soul-searching Mangan joined them.

Adapting Quaker styles of collective decision-making, Pacific InterChristian Community emphasizes interfaith collaboration, and personal intimacy with the Divine through meditation, prayer, and Sabbath rest. It is a “porous and receptive” community, she says, rather than an institution. “In institutions the norms and the forms can take priority over what is loving. We’ve concluded that we have to be radically inclusive and continuously open to change, as wisdom teachers like Jesus taught.”

 

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