Bishop Vincent Nguyen (left), Imam Hamid Slimi and Rabbi Baruch Frydman- Kohl are dressed for action on the Habitat for Humanity site. Photos courtesy Habitat for Humanity

Hard hats, soft hearts

  • September 24, 2017

A bishop, a rabbi and an imam are building a house ….

This is not the opening line to a joke. On Sept. 13, leaders from faith communities across Toronto came together to accomplish one common goal: To build safe and affordable housing for 50 families in a Scarborough subdivision.

The build is part of a collaboration between Habitat for Humanity Greater Toronto Area and Cardus, a charitable organization that focuses on renewing social architecture and promoting the common good. The event was part of Cardus’ Faith in Canada 150 project, which celebrates the role of faith in Canada’s past, present and future development. Leaders from the Catholic, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu faiths worked alongside each other — hammering, drilling and carrying large pieces of wood around the building site.

It is a warm September morning and Bishop Vincent Nguyen is almost unrecognizable. He is wearing jeans, a neon orange vest and hard hat instead of his clerical collar.

“I have seen work like this done in my office and in my home, but today is the first time I am doing it with my own two hands!” says the smiling bishop, whose building team has been tasked with laying down flooring in several of the homes. His building team consists of several Christian faith leaders as well as a leader from both the Hindu and Muslim faiths.

“What makes today so powerful is that leaders and people from different faith communities are coming together for the single purpose of swinging hammers,” says Ene Underwood, the CEO of Habitat for Humanity Greater Toronto Area. “Everyone here today is lending a hand to help working, low-income families have a safe place to call home.”

Habitat for Humanity’s last interfaith build was in 2012. Underwood says Cardus’ work through Faith in Canada 150 inspired the organization to revisit the idea of an interfaith build.

Plans for the project began in April 2017 and the idea was spread entirely by word of mouth. “Anything that happens at Habitat for Humanity depends on people from the outside taking initiative and saying ‘let’s make this happen’, ” says Underwood. Faith leaders across Toronto began reaching out to other faiths and the response was overwhelming.

“We have an abundance of volunteers here today,” says Hamid Slimi, an imam and founder of the Faith of Life Network. “It has been challenging to find jobs for everyone.”

The volunteers range from experienced home builders to individuals who have never held a saw. Which is why Habitat for Humanity assigns a team leader to oversee each group and provide support when needed.

“For many here today, this is their first time working on a build like this,” says Nguyen, who enjoys rolling up his sleeves and describes himself as a handyman. “The build leaders instruct and guide us along the way. They are very helpful so you don’t have to come in having a lot of experience.”

While the interfaith build is achieving the practical goal of building homes, it also sends an important message to Canadians.

“We want to send a message of inclusion and respect,” says Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl of the Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto. “We don’t have to divide in order to build up our country. We have to look for commonalities while respecting our different traditions. When we’re on the job today, we’re usually asking each other about hammers, nails and saws. But at lunch, we discuss our experiences and our faiths. We’ve even put together some discussion questions to open up that dialogue between members of different faiths.”

The questions range from polite small talk to larger, hardhitting inquiries: What inspired you to become a leader in your faith community? Given our differences in theology, how can our faith communities work better alongside one another?

“It doesn’t matter what faith background you are from, affordable housing is a right for everyone. This is an issue we can all come together on. Not only can we literally build homes for people in need, but we can take that message back to our communities and ask ourselves what we are doing to help make affordable housing a priority,” says Neil McCarthy, the director of public relations and communications for the Archdiocese of Toronto.

They believe that the symbol of faith leaders working together to build the homes will foster an environment of inclusivity among residents as well.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how many wonderful stories I have heard about families in our community sharing their culture and experiences with one another on holidays,” says Noah Kravitz, the communications manager of Habitat for Humanity GTA. “Muslim families coming around the neighbourhood with food for Ramadan, Christians inviting their neighbours to Christmas celebrations. Everyone is open to learning about each others’ different cultures and traditions.”

The Pinery Trail housing project’s first residents will move in next month. Habitat for Humanity anticipates the project will be finished in 2019.

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