Bishop Paul Terrio of St. Paul, Alberta, talks with Deacon Raymond Chan, who serves at St. John the Baptist Parish in Fort McMurray, Alberta, after Mass May 8 at the Church of the Resurrection in Edmonton. CNS photo/Courtesy of Lorraine Turchansky, Archdiocese of Edmonton

Giving back fully

  • May 19, 2016

The question, Rabbi Kliel Rose says, is not whether to help. It is not even how to help in the most efficient way. It is how to help in the fullest way.

“The problem is when good-hearted people want to help but aren’t sure what is best for them to do,” Rose says. “The Jewish community, as always, gives generously. But is it giving the way it should be giving?”

We are seated at the large table in his office at Beth Shalom Synagogue in Edmonton in the aftermath of the wildfire that displaced more than 80,000 people from Fort McMurray. The historic magnitude of relocating so many people so quickly has not, I think, truly sunk in yet for Canadians. Albertans, tapping into their seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of community get-it-doneness, have actually abetted our lack of full understanding by making it all look so easy.

One measure of the accomplishment is that less than 10 days after much of Fort McMurray literally went up in flames, with all its residents safely evacuated, sheltered, fed, clothed and given the necessities of daily life, there was time to reflect on the charitable essence of the whole relief effort. Rose was one of many examining the catastrophe as a means for the recovery not just of well-being, but of our full humanity.

“What I would like to see, not just in the Jewish community but in the community at large, is for us to come up with more opportunities to share in the experience of those we are helping, to be reminded that what is happening to them could have happened to any of us,” he says.

He cites a discussion earlier that day with a local businessman who was happy to write a substantial cheque to the Red Cross for the relief efforts. The rabbi, while appreciative, couldn’t help asking the businessman if it might be better — fuller — to give time as well, and so have direct contact with those receiving help.

It is not a question approached abstractly. Rose lived through hurricanes in Florida, floods in Nashville and in New York City during 9/11. He knows how the human spirit rises to the challenge of aiding fellow human beings, and how dangerous upheaval can, with paradoxical beauty, bring faith shorn of political or ideological encumbrance to the fore.

“The best of us comes out in response of catastrophe,” he says. “Faith can function at a higher level, not as faith worn on the sleeve, but in actions directed at helping others regardless of who they are.”

The conundrum, he points out, is that the power of the drive to bring immediate relief at necessary and practical levels — e.g. writing a cheque to help the Red Cross supply clean drinking water — risks inadvertently foreclosing the fuller contribution of community, tempting a kind of stand-back-others-are-in-control mentality.

As a chaplain ministering to those dispossessed by the wildfire, Rose has so far experienced the opposite effect. A family driven from their home was vowing within two days that, once back on their feet, they would be volunteering to help others. Syrian refugees who landed in Fort McMurray mere weeks ago, and were forced to flee along with everyone else, were already pitching in.

“I sat with a couple with children who said ‘we are so much more fortunate than others — as soon as we’re settled we need to do something.’ I have five children. I know what it’s like to travel with children. These were people whose whole lives were overturned. It was so moving to hear them face-to-face.”

Community, full humanity, Rose says, can emerge from just the opportunity to be moved by active participation with those who need our help. It’s a refrain I heard repeatedly in a week of talking to Albertans about the response to the fire.

None was more profoundly phrased than by Jacquie Nowlan, a parishioner at Corpus Christi Church in Edmonton, who swung into action to gather donated goods for the relief effort. Her work filled about 10 pickup trucks.

“I’ve always admired first responders to emergencies,” she told me. “I realized I am a first responder to the Holy Spirit.”

Now that, from a Catholic perspective at least, is fullness indeed.

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium magazine and a senior fellow with Cardus.)