Faith groups as agents of social change

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Graphic: Cihablog

When trying to bring out any form of social change it is important to recognise the presence of religious organisations and faith communities and, if possible, to enter into working partnerships with them.

Why work with religion at all?

Because the faiths are the largest organised sector of civil society worldwide so, whatever social change you wish to achieve, they could be important partners for success. Bear in mind:

- 85% of the world’s people describe themselves as belonging to a faith.

- The faiths own 7-8% of the habitable land surface of the planet, including 5% of forests worldwide.

- They are involved in more than half of schools worldwide.

- They are among the largest investment blocks on the global stock market.

- They produce more newspapers than the whole of the European Union.

How can religious organisations help bring about social change?

World Vision is honored to partner with President and Chelsea Clinton, and P&G to bring clean water to children through the Flash Flood for Good. Photo: World Vision

Most importantly they are trusted as a source (often the leading source) of wisdom, information and authority in communities in many parts of the world. Thus religious leaders are important role models for promoting (or resisting) new ideas and changes in behaviour. Crucially they can identify a spiritual need for change which can help resist the obvious material gratification of, for instance, unrestrained use of resources. They can also be highly politically influential in some countries.

Ways in which religious organisations can help bring about social change include:

  • There is a tradition of religious leaders providing education to and leadership within the community;
- Having a deep insight into what matters to their communities, their understanding of what people believe and their values means that religious leaders can be especially influential in motivating attitudinal change
- Changes grounded in belief systems and a sense of spiritual satisfaction (rather than material or practical incentives alone) are more likely to be sustainable in the longer term.
  • By virtue of their social influence religious organisations can be very effective at harnessing social resources to achieve change. This can be achieved:
- By using their own structures: regular meetings (services, youth groups, women’s groups, clubs etc)/schools/training centres. These things are already bringing people together in the community and opening them to learning new ideas. There are little or no cost implications in using these for disseminating ideas and information.
- Within poorer communities it can be that the religious leaders and organisation often have training in and access to particular resources like communication technology, that is not otherwise available in the community or even schools. This can be invaluable in linking to external NGO or funding organisations.
- Using their ‘people power’, motivated by a sense of spiritual obligation or fulfilment, faith groups can bring about real, pragmatic changes and sustain action and projects using surprisingly little resources.

What has religion to do with water and sanitation?

From the earliest traditions and texts all religions use water as a vital spiritual symbol, valuing it in many ways. In some faith traditions this has also led to ritual use and taboos around the use of water, sanitation and hygiene. In working in partnership with faith groups to improve water supplies and sanitation it is vital to understand the cultural context their religion places around these issues.

Faith communities and water

Water is central to many religions. In every major faith, there are creation stories that feature water as an essential element of the start of life on earth but also as a problematic one. Water issues are a large part of a broader holistic framework of a spiritual commitment to care for nature. This is not simply 'health and hygiene' but also a general understanding of careful use of resources and how things inter-relate.

Faiths guide and direct the way we think, behave, and live our lives. But the power of faith is not solely spiritual. Collectively, faith-related institutions own almost 8 percent of the total habitable land surface and constitute the world's third largest category of financial investors. Their determination to address climate change or to protect wildlife has enormous potential to influence the fate of natural spaces and species. (From WWF US Sacred Earth).

The act of recognising the belief system and the religious behaviours around water within a community can have a massive impact on the success of water projects in religious communities. We need to engage those religious leaders that understand their community’s relationship with water and have the power to influence.

Religious beliefs about water

The Hindu deity Vishnu on an ocean. Photo: Hari's Mind

In the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) water is both life-giving and life-taking. It is both an instrument of divine power (in some traditions the Noah Flood was sent as punishment of sinful humanity) and it is a symbol of rebellion. In the Book of Psalms, water is depicted as an unruly force associated with chaos and needing to have its boundaries set. It is also seen as a symbol of life giving gifts from God. For example, when Moses strikes the rock as the Israelites leave Egypt in flight from slavery and water gushes forth to stop them dying of thirst in the desert.

In Chinese mythology, the greatest hero of antiquity, Yu the Great, earns his title because for ten years without ceasing he fights the Yellow River, which had broken its banks and was destroying the land and people of China. Yet water is also the context within which the powerful and protector dragon deities live. And it is over the seas and oceans that the goddess of Compassion, Guan Yin, floats – the greatest of all Chinese deities.

In Hinduism, the world is born from an ocean upon which floats the supreme deity Vishnu and the end of the world will once again bring back this primal ocean which will give birth in time to all life again.

Water also features in many sacred rituals from baptism to offerings to the deities. Water is sacred because the faiths know, and have known for millennia that without water there is no life.

Hygiene, too, is sacred. The earliest examples of enforced hygiene are probably the codes written down in the 2nd millennium BC for washing your hands after touching anything that is polluting. These laws, to be found in the Laws of Mani or in the laws of the Old Testament, were designed to make unforgettable and unavoidable, the ritual of hand washing as both a sacred responsibility and a necessary health protection measure. In Islam this is manifest in the ritual washing before the five prayer times each day – wudu as it is known – and therefore in the need to provide running water and proper drainage in the mosques. In Japan, when you enter a Shinto shrine, you wash your hands and mouth and so running water and proper drainage are a central part of the shrine complex.

Secular organisations working with faith groups

Biodiversity Analysis and Technical Support program of USAID’s Africa Bureau commissioned a report on religion and conservation in Africa. This work, From Practice to Policy to Practice: Connecting Faith and Conservation in Africa, was written by Amy Gambrill of IRG, which explores some of the current practices of connecting faith and conservation, provides information on some of the faith groups doing conservation work, and presents several case studies on faith-based conservation. Photo: Africa Biodiversity Collaborative Group

Water playing a significant part in faith is nothing new. What is new is that this wisdom and experience has been reactivated by the major secular organisations working with water. Together in partnership, the potential for reaching millions if not billions of people through faith-based networks is now a real possibility. It could change the way ambitious targets such as the Millennium Development Goals or their successors could be achieved.

The Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) is a secular body that helps the major religions of the world to develop their own environmental programmes, based on their own core teachings, beliefs and practices. Water Schools is a joint initiative between ARC and the Ecological Management Foundation (EMF) to support faith schools to instigate practical water projects that draw from their faith teachings. As part of this we have developed a handbook for implementing water projects.

Over the past decade, conservation and faith organisations have made high-level institutional pledges to work jointly on conservation efforts. Some of these pledges are now finding their way to concrete action, often through smaller, community-based conservation interventions.

The USAID white paper 2010 titled From Practice to Policy to Practice: Connecting Faith and Conservation in Africa, explores some of the current practices of connecting faith and conservation. It provides information on some of the faiths groups doing conservation work, and presents several case studies on faith-based conservation, in an effort to discuss and learn how to best partner with faith communities on biodiversity in sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition, the UNICEF paper ‘Partnering with Religious Communities for Children’ in 2011, intends to strengthen those partnerships and make them more effective to improve children’s lives. It recognizes the huge importance of identifying common ground, open dialogue and developing partnerships with religious communities especially when addressing attitudes and practices associated with religious beliefs.

Equally WWF around the world has a history of working with the faiths. In 1986, HRH Prince Philip, then President of WWF International issued an astonishing invitation. He asked five leaders of the five major world religions – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism – to come and discuss how their faiths could help save the natural world. He decided to do this at Assisi in Italy, because it was the birthplace of St Francis, the Catholic saint of ecology. It was a unique occasion, involving some of the world’s leading environmental and conservation bodies sitting down for the first time with the world’s major faiths to discuss how they could all work together. This event along with WWF UK was instrumental in the founding of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation. Currently with the WWF US’s Sacred Earth program this link between the work of WWF and faith communities is growing.

Potential for action and change

The Faith Community Education for Sustainable Development Project, by Kenya Organization for Environmental Education. Photo: KOEE

Water, sanitation, children and faith were the focus when religious leaders, theologians, educators, environment/development specialists, water sanitation experts and innovators met for the first ever workshop on Faith and Water in Salisbury’s Sarum College in 2009. The immediate goal was to produce a useful guide to help faiths and secular groups work together to protect water resources and the environment, to preserve hygiene and promote the safe management of water and waste, specifically in the context of schools. In the longer term the meeting was intended to forge strong partnerships and reinforce the faiths’ ability to help communities improve their water facilities for many years to come, and encourage international secular agencies to see them as natural partners. As a result, water has become an integral part of the long-term commitments to tackle environmental issues made by the faith groups in attendance at this event.

There is a vast array of faith led community water projects that highlight the commitment of faith communities to water including:

  • The King of Thailand has not only added the environment to the curriculum, but he has also added it as a Buddhist criterion, on the grounds that throughout 45 years of his ministry the Buddha urged monks over and over again to be aware of using water and not to waste it. Today, if the King hears that the water in a lake near a village is dirty, instead of advising people to use chemical substances to clean it, he tells them that the best and costless way to sanitize the water in that lake is to introduce water plants known as Eichhornnia Speciosa into that lake. The dirty water is mitigated by these water-plants.
  • In the Batang Gadis National Park in Indonesia where Islamic students and teachers were so distressed that they could not get clean water for ritual washing that they campaigned and helped create a national park.
  • In Kenya, the Methodist Church, Anglican Church, Catholic Church, Presbyterian Church and the Muslim Supreme Council, are supported by the Kenya Organization for Environmental Education to promote faith-based teachings on the environment in faith schools and create an inter-faith resource for education for sustainable development with integrated religious values. The strong links between this initiative, Kenyan Ministry of Education strategy and the worldwide UNESCO promoted ESD programme highlights the common ground shared between secular organisations, government departments and faith communities and the strength of combining those efforts.