From Canada to Reunion Island: Finding common ground through faith and compassion

This week’s writer is Cora Siebert, advocacy research intern for the Ottawa Office. Cora is a graduate of the University of Guelph in political studies. 

Over the past year I spent seven months living and working on a small island in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Mauritius, La Réunion or Reunion Island. Now I’m sure you’re either wondering why you’ve never heard of this place before, or you’re having flashbacks to the major news story of Malaysian Flight 370, found on Reunion Island this past June. Even with this momentary claim to fame, Reunion Island really should be timelessly well known: because it’s amazing.

Takamaka Mountains. Photo by Cora Siebert.

Takamaka Mountains. Photo by Cora Siebert.

Yes, it’s amazing because it’s a tropical island with beautiful beaches, incredible mountains and tasty food fusions. But in my opinion, what makes it most amazing is the unique blend of people it holds. With a population of 840,000 there is a great deal of diversity within an island roughly half the size of Prince Edward Island. Ethnically, Reunion is a mix of people from African, Indian, European and Chinese origin who identify with a variety of different religions including Catholicism, Hinduism and Islam.

In such a small and isolated place like Reunion, I was not surprised by the great importance people placed in religion. I was, however, amazed by the sense of shared identity among people in Reunion Island no matter which religion they identified with. Some people practiced multiple religions, for example by attending services at both a church and a mosque. At the high school I worked at, one of my students told me that she had started to practice Hinduism as a personal choice, even though the rest of her family was Muslim. Most people were very open to talking about their religion and were interested to know about my beliefs.

Kavadi. Photo by Cora Siebert.

Kavadi. Photo by Cora Siebert.

On Reunion Island people were constantly celebrating some religious holiday, whether it be Easter or the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha. While I was there I attended Kavadi, a Hindu celebration of sacrifice, which involved a huge procession of different ceremonial rituals of offering. With a multitude of different celebrations and customs practiced, there was a sense that everyone did these things from a common starting point–faith. Religion wasn’t what divided people into separate communities, faith was what drew people of various religions together. I was told the reason behind its name, “La Réunion”, was to celebrate the coming together of many different peoples.

I thought about this shared bond of faith when I came across an article in the Globe and Mail in early September. The article identifies communities of different faiths from across Canada, creating partnerships in order to sponsor Syrian refugees. Mennonite Central Committee has partnered with the Islamic Family and Social Services Association in Edmonton, so far reconnecting 32 Syrian refugees living in Jordan, Turkey and Egypt to relatives in the city. This number will surpass 150 by the end of the year. Likewise, a United Church in Perth Road Village, Ontario was looking to sponsor a refugee family, but had a hard time fundraising with a congregation of only 50 people. After partnering with 21 churches, as well as the Islamic Society of Kingston, they were able to bring a refugee family to Canada — relatives of someone from the Islamic Society.

To me, the Globe and Mail article demonstrates the positive impact of people seeking to focus on common goals they share with others, instead of letting differences leave them to work in isolation. As Canadians, we tend to pride ourselves in being a multicultural society, which we are. Yet I think it’s easy to find ourselves living our day to day lives in more of a divided fashion than we give ourselves credit for. Canada’s metaphor of a cultural mosaic may lead us into living within the social and religious lines that have already been drawn for us. We’ve become accustomed to attending certain social gatherings or being members of associations in which we have commonalties with others. And we may not recognize the commonalities we have with those outside our regular routines.

Cross

A cross atop of Le Grand Bénare. Photo by Cora Siebert

These joint efforts to assist refugees demonstrate that compassion for others is another virtue all religions share. The notion that we should treat others as we would like to be treated is something agreed upon by peoples of numerous religious and ethnic backgrounds. And as we find ourselves living within a world which can appear to be plagued with violence and hatred between religions, this shared ideal of showing compassion to others should not be forgotten. If you haven’t heard of Karen Armstrong’s Charter of Compassion, launched in 2008, I highly recommend checking out her website or TED talk. Armstrong is a British author, known for her writing on the commonalities among religions. In her writing she calls for people to recognize compassion as a dynamic force in an ever so polarized world.

I think the Globe and Mail article portrays real-life examples of Armstrong’s idea of positive action brought about through the shared ideal of compassion. The joint projects to help refugees shine an encouraging light on ways in which we as Canadians have and should continue to reach out to those of other religions. Faith was what caused communities I found in Reunion Island to celebrate and worship together. Likewise, a common desire to help those in need is helping to build bridges between religious groups in Canada. Faith and compassion are principles shared by billions of people around the globe. I think that’s something to recognize, celebrate, and build on.

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