It was a few hours into our mission, after the temperature had dropped to around minus 20 and my toes went numb, that I started to think of Amit Robson as a saint.
On a February afternoon I and the two other volunteers huddled near the van door. Our group leader smoked cigarettes with homeless people like it was a spring day. He said we could wait inside, but no one wanted to look weak. We were bringing sandwiches and coffee to people without gloves or hats. Some slept on concrete beds.
My religious colleagues were practising "Tikkun olam," the Hebrew term for repairing the world. Agnostically, I was doing the same.
When I signed up for the ride-along in Toronto, I hadn't considered that there would be any religious affiliation. I was referred to Amit, who drives the van a few days a week, by a friend. We corresponded over email. Religion never came up. So I was a little surprised when the black minivan pulled up outside my house with a the black and yellow "Ve'ahavta" logo painted on the side.
Most non-believers are too busy hating religions to think of the good work they do. I'm one of them. Trust me, this is not a Jehovah's Witness-type plea disguised as a column. I'm as faithless as they come. I'm no fan of the dubious science of creationism, the hypocrisy of abstinence with a side of sexual abuse and the oppressive social constructs that lead people to say "God Made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve," with a straight face. It's enough to lead anyone off the holy path.
But when it comes to helping others, atheists and agnostics should take religious notes. As we work longer hours and live lonelier lives, we've become worse at dedicating ourselves to a cause.
Religion is a drill sergeant for charity. Whether the officer is Jesus, Buddha or Muhammad, helping others is fundamental to all faiths. And while those who go to public school learn the same, religion has institutionalized altruism with gatherings, scripture and prayer. If you've volunteered at a soup kitchen, it likely was named after a saint.
Almost 40 per cent of charities in Canada have a religious affiliation, according to Imagine Canada. Research shows those who regularly attend religious services are more likely to become the ultra-dedicated volunteers that charities depend on. If you were active in a religious organization as a kid, you're almost 15 per cent more likely to volunteer as an adult.
Meanwhile, a new generation is ditching divinity. More than half of millennials never attend a religious service according to a Huffington Post Canada survey. And while we should reject oppressive values from outdated books, we should not be put off by the many religious charities and organizations that do secular work. Shepherds of Good Hope in Ottawa runs a soup kitchen, drop-in centre and shelter programs, all without proselytizing. Yet according to CEO Deirdre Freiheit, of their more than 400 volunteers, almost all are religious (the majority are Catholic, but some are also Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish) and 80 per cent are older than 40.
That's not to say you have to be a mid-life disciple to help people; many volunteers are more culturally than spiritually religious, anyway. The Millennial Impact report found that last year, 73 per cent of young people volunteered for a non-profit. But it also describes a more selfish attitude toward charity: "Their interactions with non-profit organizations are likely to be immediate and impulsive. When inspired, they will act quickly in a number of ways, from small donations to short volunteer stints, provided that the opportunities are present and the barriers to entry are low." Millennials want to help, just on their own terms.
Some good initiatives have come from this spontaneous approach. RAK nominations (Random Acts of Kindness) are a great example of viral volunteering. People upload videos of themselves doing a good deed to YouTube (giving food to the homeless is common) and nominate someone else to do the same. But volunteering should be a routine rather than an impulsive act.
Every Sunday I visit a 12-year-old girl at a convenience store right by my house. Her parents are Chinese immigrants and speak limited English. She needs help with homework, but also some mentorship. I've been showing up intermittently for a few years now, but it's only in the past couple of months that I've dedicated myself to going once a week (trust me, that felt hard). The more I go, the more she trusts me. She now talks about her period. Boys. How scared she is of what will happen when her parents die.
The best part about the Ve'ahavta van is its consistency. People can rely on it five times a week, and not just for bagels and caffeine. They rely on the company. Amit talks to his clients like friends. They call his cellphone when they need help. They see him more than their own social workers.
There's a lot about religious culture we should throw away, but the dedication to helping others is a keeper.
*This article previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen
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