“God did this.” These were the first words spoken by Rev. Annabelle Wallace, as she shared how this incredible project began.
The story of what Westmount Presbyterian Church did, tearing down their building and redeveloping their land to make room for a smaller church structure and sixteen units of large family housing has made news all across the city. But it all began with an envelope that came across Rev. Wallace’s desk; an invite to an open house by an inner city housing organization addressed to the person who had been there two positions before her. She decided to open the envelope. Then she asked Les Young (an elder who didn’t want to be involved in any of the ongoing building discussions taking place at the church) to go check it out. If either of them had decided not to do anything, nothing would have happened. But God was on the move, and as the congregation stepped forward this sense of God’s Will and Presence became more and more clear to them.
The journey was not without its hurdles, of course. Andrew Gregory, one of the community members involved in the conversations describes this reaction in the local community: “In the early vacuum of information, fear of the unknown came to the surface. Concerns over increased density, impact on property values and increases in crime were imagined, shared and repeated. “There goes the neighbourhood…”
Andrew says It took dozens of meetings and hundreds of hours of focused effort on both sides to get to “YIMBY”. But Andrew’s pride for the process they developed and their journey together prompted him to write it all up so that it may help other communities and developers find their way on a similar journey together. You can find his blog at North Glenora Journey
On the morning of February 20, 2018, CRIHI hosted a tour and conversation at Westmount Presbyterian Church so that faith communities from across Edmonton could come and see what had happened. Around thirty people participated; going on a tour of one of the units that was home to a family from Myanmar; and then having a chance to have a conversation with those who did so much of the work.
Rev. Wallace and Les Young were able to share this journey from the perspective of the congregation. They talked about the challenges they had been facing as a small congregation in a large building that was not aging well. They also shared how their experience sponsoring a refugee family alerted them to the difficulty large families have in finding adequate affordable housing. These were strong factors in helping the congregation choose this direction for their future.
Peter Amerongen from Habitat Studios was able to share his perspective as a designer for the project and as a previous member of Right at Home Society’s board. He spoke with passion about the need to plan ahead and do things right the first time; especially as design changes and environmental efficiency goals are far more difficult and more expensive to meet after things are built. He also helped explain (along with Les Young and Rev. Wallace) the fascinating current arrangement that the church now enjoys.
The congregation retains ownership of the land, with a 52 year lease with the Right at Home Society.
The Right at Home Society operates as the developer and the landlord; doing all the work of building and looking after both the new church and housing.
The Mennonite Centre for Newcomers does the work of matching qualified families with housing as it becomes available.
The church reenters the space as a renter, with significantly reduced operating costs. No roofs to fix. No furnaces to keep going. The grounds are kept and the sidewalks are shoveled by their new landlord.
In that stretch of time when building was underway, the church did get punted around to a few places. But it was amazing to see how content and patient the congregation stayed through all of it; in large part because they knew that God was taking them on this journey and would see them through it.
Rev. Janet Taylor, the new Pastor for the congregation was able to share some of what she was seeing happen. She marveled at the community connection already happening for the new families. Families were getting involved in the community league, the kids were joining local programs, and relationships were beginning to grow with local neighbours.
Today, a new dynamic is settling in the community, and it is pretty fantastic!
The church has a new home, and is able to move forward with more time and energy for real church work. Sixteen large immigrant families are given beautiful homes in a lovely neighbourhood. The local school is no longer in danger of closing due to the influx of 35 new children (this year alone!), and the local community is excited to see new families already becoming involved in the community league and other neighbourhood programs. The wins just keep coming for everyone!
New homes for sixteen large families in the westmount neighbourhood.
What follows is a Christian prayer, but we invite you to speak the words and make it your own.
We come to you to seek your wisdom and guidance for the work ahead.
We are thankful that Edmonton is a wonderful city, known for its’ warmth and compassion, despite a cold and sometimes hostile climate. We are thankful for the energy and commitment of her leadership and her citizens. And we are thankful that we are together able to call this place home.
Lord God, life together is rarely easy. And despite our general warmth as a community, we acknowledge the presence of many walls that divide us.
Fear of difference. Fear of change. Fear of the other. Fear of the future.
Anger at those who have hurt us. Anger at changes we do not welcome. Anger at even our own loneliness, weariness, and sadness.
Father God, we know the future is in your hands, and yet we know you also call us to value wisdom, to live with generosity and compassion and to both do and seek justice. Today, we ask for your help with these things.
We pray for wisdom for those serving as our leaders in City Council and in both our Legislature and Parliament; as they craft policy and try to steer the narrow path to a healthy, compassionate and strong community of citizens. Give them clarity and insight in both defending the vulnerable, and encouraging the powerful in a direction that will see all flourish.
We pray for a spirit of generosity and sacrifice to fill the sails of community, and to propel our efforts to provide for those most in need of love and care. That efforts will not fall flat because we all say, ‘someone else will pay for it.’
And we pray you will strengthen your minds, hearts and hands to both do and seek justice. Make us good listeners to the cares and concerns of everyone involved. Give us clarity of sight and judgment as to what is good and right. And help us in every case to take the side of healthy, compassionate and caring community; where all are welcomed, are cared for, and are given space to live, work, play, heal, and contribute to our common good.
May your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,
In the mighty name of Jesus. Savior, Teacher, Redeemer, King, and Friend.
By Pastor Mike Van Boom, Christian Reformed Church
300,000 existing housing units repaired and renewed
385,000 households protected from losing an affordable home
100,000 new housing units (60,000 from Co-Investment Fund)
7,000 shelter spaces created or repaired
50,000 households benefit from an expansion of community housing eligibility
300,000 households to receive direct housing subsidy
50% reduction in use of homeless shelters
25% reduction, energy consumption and GHG emissions
20% of new units to meet accessibility standards
Observations: These targets show a willingness to tackle the challenges of housing affordability and supports from several angles: helping prevent homelessness, renewing existing housing helps, creating new spaces, and moving intentionally away from emergency accommodation (ie. shelters) to stronger and more effective solutions (ie. supportive housing). The intent seems to be in harmony with efforts currently underway by the City of Edmonton, which seems to be a healthy and well-considered approach.
The NHS describes a total budget of $37 billion dollars in federal funding to support housing and homelessness programs. The funding commitments described in the strategy include:
$15.9-billion for a new National Housing Co-Investment Fund
$4.7-billion in financial contributions & $11.2-billion in low interest loans
Must be supplemented (cost-shared) by Provinces/Territories
$8.6-billion for a new Canada Community Housing Initiative in partnership with provinces and territories, and $500 million through a new Federal Community Housing Initiative
$4-billion for a new Canada Housing Benefit:
To be launched in 2020
Up to $2,500 per family per year
Assumes $2-billion Federal funds matched by Provincial and Territorial means matching or co-funding
$2.2-billion to reduce homelessness:
Appears to be a renewal of the existing Homeless Partnership Strategy (HPS) program that is in the midst of a major review that will launch in 2019
$300-million in additional federal funding to address housing needs in Canada’s North
$241-million for research, data and demonstrations
$200-million in Federal lands transferred to housing providers.
Observations: Some of these dollars will be used to leverage supplementary investments by provinces/territories; so much will depend on the success of these negotiations. It is wonderful that the federal government is coming to the table with both land and investment dollars in hand. Now we will look for productive and fruitful conversations at those tables.
Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) is a frontline concern in our city; with close to one thousand new units desperately needed. Political backing and funding are lining up at all three levels of government to fill this critical gap in our response to prevent and end homelessness. These facilities are meaningful and effective solutions; provide safe and supportive community for people carrying some of the most difficult and complex burdens; barriers that continually jeopardize their health and their ability to retain work and housing. For these folks, a PSH facility is a space to find healing, hope and community.
But as efforts ramp up to build these facilities, questions abound: What might this look like? How will it fit into the local neighbourhood? What will be the impact be on the local community?
Today’s PSH story feature is Westwood Manor; located in the Westwood community, east of the old municipal airport. A few years ago, the Mustard Seed purchased and renovated a small ageing apartment building in the Westwood Community. It was fairly run down, and an eyesore in this mature neighbourhood. Today, this newly renovated facility is home and supportive community for twenty people with a range of complex needs, including drug and alcohol addictions, trauma and mental health barriers like schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, and chronic depression.
Westwood Manor is rated as a fairly high acuity PSH. That means they have some higher needs folks living there. As with all PSH, supports are located on-site; including 24-hour staffing. Westwood Manor is also a harm-reduction facility, which means that a person’s housing is not dependent on maintaining their sobriety or abstinence. Tenants have access to sterilized needles and other supplies that will allow them to use safely.
Mustard Seed owns the building, but staffing ratios and operating dollars come from Homeward Trust, with people referred through the Coordinated Access System; that links all such efforts across Edmonton.
A priority in this facility is the creation of intentional community for their residents; not only within the facility but in the local neighbourhood as well. The lack of community and healthy relationship has long been recognized as a root cause of both addiction and mental health challenges. Landon Hildebrand, the facility manager notes that they have seen exciting change already, with significant health improvements. He says, “Joy, community, attachment…when we provide these things, the addictions have less appeal.””
He notes that mental health concerns are present in every community, but are more raw and hyper-realized in the most vulnerable. The ability to hide it is just not there.
Their efforts at providing community include building a relationship with local neighbours. Westwood staff approached the Westwood Community League to learn about getting more involved, and they were welcomed with open arms. The Community League provided them with a family membership to cover all their residents, and now they are able to participate as volunteers and as full members in community league gatherings.
Westwood Manor staff also supported the creation of a resident’s committee (much like a condo board) that had authority to consider and respond to concerns. Staff agreed to take all new policy or rule changes to this committee for their consideration. This new way of doing things changed how residents related to staff and how they thought about their home. It prompted a sense of ownership and responsibility in the facility; prompting greater care for the space, the grounds, and each other. They want their home to be a warm, safe, and healthy environment. Residents in this kind of leadership role have even helped resolve interpersonal conflicts. It’s been a win, win, win for everyone! Landon credits the success of this kind of approach as a direct counter to the myth that people in PSH can’t make good decisions. “The more authority and leadership we give to our folks, the better they do.”
Westwood’s community-building efforts are a little tricky on some fronts, particularly as they have very little in the way of gathering space to hang out together. When a suite is empty, the staff will often transform it into a place to hang out, and the office is one place people stop in to chat constantly. They could also use a secure space where they can have those private and secure conversations, coaching, training, and supports.
But things get much easier in the summer, when they can host outdoor BBQs and feasts, and invite the neighbours. They also plan to start a community garden this coming year that they hope will promote natural connection between residents and local neighbours.
Is their approach successful? Landon shares the story of one gentleman whose almost daily ritual was being out panhandling for long hours, stuck in alcohol and substances. He would get dropped off by EPS almost daily and carried back to his unit. Now he is there at 3:00 everyday to hang out with the staff during shift change; so he can chat with both those going out and those coming in. He’s also working to start a local snow shovelling business, and because he is a community league member is able to share some of his posters on the local bulletin board and in the community hall.
Certainly not everyone succeeds, and evictions happen occasionally. Concerns around safety and difficult behaviors are usually the reason someone has to be removed. Unfortunately, there are not many places for people to go if they are evicted. The shortage of PSH in Edmonton means that few facilities are available and equipped to manage and care for people with more difficult behaviors.
Westwood Manor’s story illustrates the value and effectiveness of Permanent Supportive Housing as a meaningful and effective solution. She provides a place of healing, home, safety and stability for some of our most vulnerable people. And the efforts by her residents and staff are a lesson in the powerful need we all have for a community where we participate and can take responsibility in shaping.
Based on an Interview with Landon Hildebrand, A Registered Psychologist, Serving as Director of Housing and Clinic development.
CRIHI’s plenary gathering on November 28, 2017 was of critical importance for us as a movement. New changes and announcements were taking place in Edmonton and even across the country. So it seemed appropriate for us as faith communities to take a good look at what we have done, what we are doing, and what we would like to do together moving forward.
The Process – How did we get here?
In September 2017, CRIHI Steering Committee recognized that it was time to update their Call to Action and to align their action items alongside the City’s Updated Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness in Edmonton. In October 2017 CRIHI Steering Committee had a planning day facilitated by the City of Edmonton and Homeward Trust Edmonton to help design and organize a plenary that would sustain and grow CRIHI. The focus was to look at where the work of CRIHI fits with the three goals of the Update Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness. This planning session generated some new ideas for the movement to consider. This information was gathered and integrated with the CRIHI September 2017, Revised Call to Action. The information from the October Planning session and the integrated five approaches of Engagement, Advocacy, Education, Support, and Volunteer were brought to the Plenary Meeting for everyone to hear about, discuss and contribute their ideas. The goal and focus of the Plenary was to be participatory so that TOGETHER the faith groups would map out the prioritized action items.
More than eighty people representing at least sixteen different faiths and thirteen community organizations came to Beulah Alliance on November 28, 2017 to participate in a plenary gathering of the Interfaith Housing Initiative. We were greeted by Archbishop Richard Smith and Bishop Jane Alexander, and by our hosts at Beulah Alliance: Pastor Keith Taylor (pictured above), and Pastor Bonnie Hodge. Co-Chair Deborah acknowledged the presence of all the representation from the various faith groups and from the front line agencies. Rabbanit Batya refreshed us on the history of our movement as an Interfaith housing community and the work we have done so far together. She presented the updated Call to Action and informed us of the work ahead after we had heard a summary of the city’s updated plan to end homelessness. Our partners at Homeward Trust introduced us to updates. And then we moved to working groups to design practical actions in five areas of our work together: Engage; Advocate; Educate; Support; Volunteer.
Here are some of the highlights coming out of our five working groups. Each group was asked to focus on a specific task and dig into some practical ideas and suggestions.
Task: Build Network of faith, coordinated access screening, engage faith communities to become a stop-gap preventing potential homelessness.
The group considered how faith communities can be better equipped to address local needs.
One area that concerned the group was how faith communities could better be involved in preventing eviction; noting the plight of renters grappling with finances, cleanliness and pest control.
Suggested faith communities could provide funding and volunteers to aid tenants in crisis, and help them overcome barriers and gaps in knowledge or local services.
Task: Alleviate fear and misconceptions of permanent supportive housing.
The group recognized several key challenges, and suggested the best way to overcome fears and worries in the local community is to create opportunities for people to interact on a personal level with possible new neighbours.
Key action idea: Host a four part speaker series. Partner with local community league and faith communities to plan and host it. Learn and laugh together with music, plan and group building exercises Series to cover mental health, addictions, support for those coming out of prison, and affordable housing.
Task: Generate videos and media capacity.
Bombard people with current information. Outline what you can do and where to donate items eg. Furniture. Use one sentence/message every morning.
Link with city—other stakeholders for support and longer term social marketing plan.
Engage with university campuses, and work toward a segment on Primetime Alberta
Task: Host a large-scale event.
Host forums or presentations framed around a direct question. Raise awareness of unjust systems; casting light on the roots of homelessness.
Make the event fun and less threatening and advertise to the public. Incorporate music, poetry and theatre and other activities to help bring the message.
A barrier will be finding where the money is to support a large-scale event.
Task: Motivate and equip faith communities to connect with the local community.
Shared ideas and suggestions on how to nurture local connections between different faith communities, and also local organizations like community leagues.
Suggested meeting at different faith centres; finding joint projects (an interfaith version of “No Room in the Inn” campaign was suggested); spending time together so that we get to know each other, and inviting each other to special events and festivals.
Task: Action that will address the question: ‘What is Housing First?’
Identified a need to educate on why we use this approach as a city.
Suggested identifying key individuals to be spokespersons who are more publicly known and respected.
Develop a range of materials, questions, speaking notes and videos for all audiences.
Suggested tapping faith communities to share knowledge, fact sheets and information with smaller groups
Task: Sustaining and expanding the Welcome Home program (including funding).
Suggested having volunteers and participants be part of the public face of the program.
Considered how the program might partner with Abundant Communities (a city-supported neighbouring movement taking root in over forty communities across the city).
Story telling was identified as a powerful promotion tool, and they suggested utilizing existing faith community networks to promote the program, and find both volunteers and fundraise for specific needs.
Task: Actively working together as an Interfaith Community.
Prioritized enabling person to person first contact; equipping people for healthy engagement with people off the street or in social housing.
Suggested using social media to promote more volunteer opportunities, and setting up a calendar with various work taking place in faith communities.
Suggested hosting volunteer block connectors (Abundant Communities) within faith community to help grown and structure networks in local neighbourhoods.
The Governance committee will meet and discuss the full report and bring forward the suggested action items that are doable with suggested timelines and goals to the Steering Committee. The Steering Committee will then meet and the suggested ideas and decide on how to proceed. Participants are encouraged to watch for updates and opportunities related to this work in upcoming issues of The Neighbourly, and on CRIHI’s website and facebook page.
For the first time on November 22, 2017 the Government of Canada formally began speaking about housing as a human right. While this has been recognized by the international community for some time, this marked an important recognition of the obligation we have as a country to ensure everyone has a safe and decent place to call home.
To unpack some of the implications and meaning of this recognition, I sat down with Jim Gurnett, a longtime housing advocate and promoter of housing as a human right. Here’s some of what he shared with me:
“Human rights are always fuzzy and hard to pin down. All human rights today are based on UN declarations. The problem is that they don’t compel any nations to do something. They simply state an obligation.”
“With housing it gets more complicated. The rights language gives us a way of thinking about housing, but not a black and white pathway to answers about what governments or communities can do. Even if Canada signs on to this obligation, what are the measurables of whether that right is being satisfied or not? The amount of money you have as a state can make it impossible to do much.”
“It also doesn’t directly feed into legal obligation. For example, Ontario courts have noted of some other rights, that even if something is a right, it’s not something we can enforce. A legal obligation can materialize if there becomes Canadian legislation to enforce housing as a right. Our Prime Minister hinted at that possibility in his November 22 announcement, but it was very vague. Moving forward, the Government will be considering what that might mean. Currently there is no legisltation in action that you could bring to the human rights commission to say ‘my right to housing has been violated.'”
“But here’s what I like about it. It makes us uncomfortable with the fact that some people don’t have this basic need met, and gets us exploring how we can work to resolve that. It gets us talking about the fact that we are not doing a good job. If a nation has homelessness, it is not doing enough. It gets us talking together about why some people don’t have the help they need.”
As I concluded this conversation with Jim, I came to the understanding that human rights language serves to remind us of our obligations as citizens of earth; obligations that the world has said together are critical and necessary. Obligation to protect freedom of speech and religion, peaceful assembly and association, to combat slavery, and to provide each other with basic needs like food, water and yes, adequate housing (Article 25 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
Interview by Mike Van Boom, CRIHI Housing Ambassador
Housing affordability is a growing challenge for many of our Edmonton neighbours. Wages have risen more slowly than housing costs. The climb into home ownership is getting more difficult, and many low-income households are paying far more than they can afford in rent, with over 20,000 households paying more than 50% of their monthly income.
Some of our neighbours have a much harder time affording a home; especially those battling mental health challenges, disabilities, caught in an addiction or recovering from trauma. Over the last few years, we have learned how critical stable and affordable housing is for the health of an individual or family; especially in promoting healing and recovery. But helping these neighbours requires more than just more money to pay the rent. They also need supports, and (like all of us) a community of people who love and care.
Most everyone agrees that this work is critically important, but where it often gets tricky is when we are asked to make room in our communities and neighbourhoods. Then our ideals are put to the test.
On November 18, 2017, the Interfaith Housing Initiative hosted a workshop in West Edmonton called, What’s Your Wisdom on Affordable Housing? Community league members, local neighbours, non-profit housing providers, and a few faith community folks sat down for a healthy conversation. We talked about the challenges; looked at some of the solutions; heard from a housing provider and a young mom who needed help providing a home for her son; and then we had a chance to talk about how and where we might be able to make room in our communities for neighbours needing a safe, stable and supportive home in a welcoming community.
What we heard:
Those who were present for the conversation expressed that they were not worried about new neighbours.
“Affordable housing can be a bridge for a person to improve their life.”
“I am open to having affordable housing in my neighbourhood.
“We already have Habitat for Humanity in my area. I like it, and am in favour of the mixed market approach – no ghettos.”
They promoted a healthy posture/response when new developments seek a home nearby:
“Tell me more.” Promoted a willingness to listen, and be curious. Sometimes saying no isn’t the best option – how can both parties have a win-win?
Find out more about why they want to put things in – educate yourself about the project. Find common ground. Could end up bringing good things to the community.”
“Find out what has happened in other communities. Canora Place is nominated every year for Yards in Bloom, residents go out and pick up garbage in the area. They bring good things to the neighbourhood! Lots of added value to their community.”
We talked through logistical challenges; what will sensibly fit here? The group brought forward both questions and solutions.
“Challenge around neighbourhood design – fine with new neighbors, but problems with access to services traffic, etc. how can it fit within the requirements for the buildings (architectural guidelines). The area is very restrictive in how things look – fences have to be a certain colour, etc.” Maybe a senior’s support centre?
“Very open in our neighbourhood. Already have quite a mixed market in the area. Problem – very high property values. Would like to see more affordable housing in the area – would like to bring property values down.” – (Note of clarification was given that the research says, units of affordable housing will not impact property values any different than a comparable market development.)
“Question around back-lane housing – can we build back-yard suites and offer them as affordable housing? Lots of innovative possibilities exist. City is more open than it used to be – issue is more the neighbourhood push-back. Can we handle the parking, extra traffic, etc. Lots of people are buying houses in the area and renting them out.”
One challenge was noted, that lots of renting in an area leads to a more transient population. This can be a problem for a community. Suggested mixed market can help with that – people can transition from affordable to market housing without having to move. Active community leagues and good resources can help people to stay in a neighbourhood. How can we encourage people to stay in a community? Food for good (a program of Jasper Place Wellness Centre) – creating food stability so that people don’t have to leave to get food. Build relationships and a good foundation to keep people in place.
Lewis Estates – not much available land. People would need a certain basic level of income to live here. But, we can offer subsidized housing to bring more people in. Problem – access to services. On the flip side, bringing in more people with a need for services, could lead to more services being offered in the community.
The group did discuss possibilities in other parts of the city.
Many faith communities have land – it’s a great opportunity for them to be involved in creative new housing project (example from the Right at Home presentation: Westmount Presbyterian Church developed 16 units of large family housing). Lots of churches are dwindling but have great land packages. They’re often in better areas with more services.
What about Northlands? Lots of resources in the area.The group discussed the old Remand Centre – lots of potential with that area. Some housing, also lots of resources and services. Questions about the new arena – what will happen to Hope Mission and some of the other inner-city agencies? Can we build more of these agencies throughout the city so we don’t always have to go downtown to access services?
Some Advice on Consultation
There’s a surplus school site in the area; a tense conversation. Importance of consultation with the community – a challenge for the local community to figure out what the right questions are to ask.
The group discussed how change and transformation can happen: Some have been able to acknowledge their fear of change – recognizing the undercurrents in communities. People need a place to express their fears – we can often carry attitudes that we aren’t even aware of (e.g. racism). Once we acknowledge our fears, we can start to wonder why we have them in the first place. We don’t often have a safe place to do that – social media certainly isn’t a good forum for that.
Key Questions and Answers:
Will affordable housing affect neighbouring property values?
The research says, quality, well-managed units of affordable housing will not impact property values any different than a comparable market development.” If someone was to build an apartment complex in your neighbourhood, it may impact your property values positively or negatively; depending on a lot of factors. The research says it doesn’t matter whether that complex is affordable or not.
On the 10% guideline in every neighbourhood. “Can we understand the needs of the city on a geographical level? What’s the rationale?
CRIHI clarified that the city is working on sorting this out right now – they want to find sensible solutions. A decision like this is motivated by the desire to create well-integrated affordable housing options in all areas of the city. Observation by concerned neighbour: We need to figure out what will work in each area (sensible).”
There is more affordable land in industrial areas – how could this be used for housing?
Challenge: There’s no infrastructure. Needs planning to make it work.
How can we do better planning?
Millwoods was an example – they thought ahead in the planning stages. The stock is fairly old now, but it did work to provide for the development of a mixed-income community (discussed the loss of inclusionary zoning practice due to court challenge in the 70s).
CRIHI expresses profound gratitude to our hosts at West Edmonton Baptist Church, who took such good care of us. As well, we are grateful to those who came and contributed to this workshop, sharing with us their ideas, experience, wisdom and insight. As you can tell, we learned a lot together!
“Start the day with love; fill the day with love; spend the day with love; end the day with love—this is the way to God”. “Love is the source; love is the path; and love is the goal”. “The best way to love God is to love all; serve all”
These are a few quotes of Sathya Sai Baba. Sai Baba teaches us to see the oneness of all humanity through selfless service to others. We are all children of one God, he says. His quotes on Unity of Faiths, describe this oneness eloquently. He says, “There is only one religion – the religion of Love”. He teaches us to follow the religion we have accepted and practice it wholeheartedly as “All Religions are pathways to One God. If you are a Christian, be a better Christian; if you are a Muslim, be a better Muslim; if you are a Hindu, be a better Hindu”… and so on.
For 86 years of his life, Sai Baba taught through personal example how to Love All and Serve All. His own life is testament to these words. Through his teachings and humanitarian work, he has inspired millions of followers in 126 countries around the world establishing 2000+ centers. The main purpose of the Sathya Sai International Organization (SSIO) is to help one realize one’s innate Divinity by the practice of Divine Love through selfless service. This Divine love is unconditional, pure, selfless and directed towards God with one-pointedness.
Jesus Christ, also said, “Love thy God with all thy heart, mind, soul and strength; and love thy neighbour as thyself”. The apostle St. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians said, “Faith, hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is love”.
Recognizing that the people and the planet can only be saved through love, Baba teaches that it is only through individual self-transformation, can we achieve community and national transformation and bring peace to the world. Instead of proselytizing, he says we should transform ourselves by following the five fundamental human values of Truth, Right Conduct, Peace, Love and Non Violence. Each of us must first work on ourselves; confront and overcome our own biases to be an example that others may emulate. His statement “Be like the rose that speaks silently in the language of fragrance” sets the expectation of personal refinement first. The following declaration clearly explains this.
“Where there is righteousness in the heart, there is beauty in the character. When there is beauty in the character, there is harmony in the home. When there is harmony in the home, there is order in the nation. When there is order in the nation, there is peace in the world”
Food, clothing, health and education are the fundamental right of every human being, Sai Baba taught. He established completely free educational institutions from KG to PG (post-graduation); free tertiary care hospitals of highest standards to serve anyone in need. It is said that the only department not present in his institutions is the ‘billing’ department. Inspired by his example, his followers around the world are continuing to perform selfless service through the SSIO. The free medical and educational models Baba established can be replicated in the modern world only through selflesslove.
This love manifests itself through service to others. Selfless service is perhaps the single most efficient and universal tool for understanding, experiencing and expressing this Divine Principle of Love. Service is love in action. Sai Baba has made it clear that the quality of service is most important, not the quantity. The motive behind service is the deciding factor. When we render service, we should feel that we are serving God. Baba says, “Service to man is service to God”. “The act of service is not to be judged, according to the cost or publicity it entails; it may be only the offering of a cup of water in the depth of a jungle. But the need of the recipient, the mood of the person who offers—these decide whether the act is gold or lead. Fill every act of yours with love. Let no one suffer the slightest pain as a result of your thought, word or deed. Let this be your spiritual discipline”.
Mother Teresa was a stellar example of demonstrating her love for Jesus through selfless service. Mother Teresa believed, “the miracle is not that we do this work, but that we are happy to do it” as “each one of them (those she served) is Jesus in disguise”. There are many examples of others who served humanity and in their own way demonstrated Divine Love. The prophets and saints of the world’s religions operated from that fiber of Divine Love and served humanity. Some examples are St. Francis of Assisi, Prophets Mohammad, Buddha, Zarathustra, and the many Avatars of Hinduism. All these exalted ones served humanity believing in the fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man. Baba further exhorts:
“Serve everybody with the conviction that God dwells in all. As you serve others, you have to kill your ego. It cannot be called service if it is done with the feeling that “I am serving others”. Do all actions to please God. This is the attitude one should have while serving others”.
Here, Sai Baba cautions us about major obstacles that stand in the way of selfless service. They are ego and attachment. It is not what you do to others that matters, it is what that service does to you that matters, he explains. A true Sathya Sai volunteer strives to overcome these obstacles to selfless service through self-inquiry. The two subjects—love and selfless service—are, therefore, foundational and integrally related to seeing the oneness of humanity and creation.
Once a reporter asked Mother Teresa, as she was cleaning the hundreds of maggots off the body of a homeless person lying helpless in the streets of Kolkata, why she would perform such a repugnant act. The reporter expressed his disgust saying he would not do anything like that even for a million dollars. Mother Teresa lovingly responded. “Neither would I, for a million dollars, but I would do it for Jesus”. In effect, Sai Baba’s words “Love All Serve All’ has been demonstrated by the pure hearted souls mentioned above.
As we enter 2018, let us pray together to raise our own consciousness through the practice of these words, serve others with that Divine Love within each of us.