‘We're living in an age of permanent uncertainty’
A Q&A on economic inequality and spiritual malaise, with Reverend Christopher White
One of the things that the pandemic has made clear is that the problems of anywhere are the problems of everywhere. Right now, I could go to any number of smallish cities across the country, and report back on the destruction wrought by the housing crisis, the opioid epidemic, income inequality, precarious work, and increasing polarization and despair.
A snapshot of Oshawa, Ontario, proves this point. Oshawa, about an hour east of Toronto, was once thriving, thanks to a booming auto industry, but has struggled in the wake of deindustrialization.
Christopher White is the minister at Kedron United Church in the commuter town. He and I have kept in touch over the years, after I booked him on a radio show. White is the kind of religious leader who thinks deeply about the state of our society. So when he messaged me that a recent sermon had been about wealth inequality, I had to hear more. Here, Reverend Christopher White reflects on our current moment of spiritual malaise, and what’s giving him hope.
It’s been a long pandemic. Followed by a national emergency, and then the war in Ukraine. How are you feeling about the state of the world?
Fragile. I think Canadians are feeling afraid. I hear many, many reports of people having exchanges where people’s tempers are triggered easily. People are worn down. They’re hopeful that we’re coming out of the pandemic. But they’re also now very concerned about what’s happening in Ukraine, and what the consequences of that could be. We’re living in an age of permanent uncertainty. And that uncertainty is wearing. We’ve been incredibly resilient over these last few years, but the resiliency bank is empty. And now we have another layer of stress. I think we’re in a tricky place.
Let’s talk about your community. For people who may not know, describe Oshawa.
Oshawa used to be known as the General Motors capital. It was a strong working-class, blue-collar town. It was a very prosperous, middle-class community. People built economically stable lives through the auto industry. Over the years, those jobs began to decline. When I moved here in 1992 — I live in Whitby, right next door — there were 10,000 people working at General Motors, plus the multiplier effect of that. Then GM whittled that away, whittled that away, closed the plant (and now is just reopening to do trucks). So, you saw those solid solid blue-collar jobs evaporate. As in every other place, when you take away the manufacturing jobs, you see a rise in opiate use. You see a rise in homelessness, you see a rise in poverty. You see a rise in domestic issues. You cannot take away an economy and expect people to thrive.
Oshawa is fortunate in that the president of Durham College had a vision of a university in Oshawa. And it happened. So the largest employers now are the university, the college, and the hospitals.
What about housing?
It’s a commuter town, so people are driving in, or taking the GO train in, to Toronto. The price of housing is ridiculous. A house in Oshawa now is going on average for one million dollars. The vacancy rate for apartments is zero. One of the things I’m involved in is a homeless sponsorship program based on the refugee sponsorship model. Finding housing, if you’re poor, is hard. I heard yesterday that Habitat for Humanity is building here now and the family income in order to qualify is [up to] 80,000 a year. I just fell off my chair.
The church where I’m located used to be a rural church, and it’s rapidly being surrounded by suburbs. There’s a whole lot of subdivisions going up in the fields around us. I think something like 50,000 people are going to be moving there in the next five years. These are people who have a lot of money — because it’s the only way you could afford a house, or even a low-rise condo. The prices are just out of control. Forgive my rant, but we have allowed housing to no longer be about a place to live, but an investment vehicle. It’s causing an absolute crisis.
How is this affecting your parishioners’ lives? What stories are you hearing?
The major issue for my parishioners is their kids. I tend to have an older congregation. The major thing is the anxiety and fear for the millennial generation, and those behind. How are they going to find a house? How are they going to find permanent jobs?
You mentioned over email that you had recently delivered a sermon on wealth inequality. What did you say?
We have a mythology in this country: that we’re all stable and middle-class, that that’s all of Canada. And it’s not. But we cling to this mythology. I talked about the housing prices. Friends of ours live in Brighton, Ontario, which is east of Oshawa, just before Belleville. A house in Brighton just went for 1.5 million. How is this rooted in any reality?
If you look at what the differentiation between CEO pay and workers was in the 1970s, versus now … we are living in a deeply unequal society and that inequality is growing. This is something that, as a faith community, we need to be calling out. We need to be telling the truth.
We have to not only talk about this, but also have an understanding of how we are going to address this. Because you cannot have great periods of economic inequality without social unrest.
You can’t look at the pandemic, the epidemic of opioid deaths, without understanding economic inequality. Our society has high levels of anxiety, depression. If you’ve got a stable job and a pension, you’re not worried. But if you’re working contract to contract, you’re suffering. We’ve allowed this to be created.
What are the spiritual consequences of some of us having so much — and some having so little?
I think there has been a deliberate attempt over the last 40 years to de-emphasize community and emphasize the individual. So: “You are the master of your own fate. You are the self-realized individual. Community is a fiction.” That’s been fed to us and fed to us. There’s longer commutes, longer working hours, heavy levels of anxiety. There’s a spiritual emptiness. That’s at the heart of where we are right now.
People have not only been leaving organized religion, but they’re leaving institutions. There’s no trust in institutions. If we don’t trust the institutions, then we don’t trust each other. That is not a recipe for a healthy life.
We don’t have a story right now that brings us together. We just don’t.
I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been getting mail that reflects extreme polarization. People are anguished — fighting with their children and their grandchildren, or siblings, or neighbours, about politics. People are feeling desperate about how divided we are. How do we go about healing those rifts?
We need to get out of the place of reaction, to the place of interaction. This is what one of your previous guests said: We need to be intensely curious. We need to rediscover the power of listening. We need to develop empathy. Empathy is not automatic; it’s a skill we need to relearn.
We also need to acknowledge the level of stress and anxiety that we ourselves are experiencing. When you’re living in that constant state of anxiety, as we have for these last few years, it’s very hard to make good decisions. It’s hard to have good communication when you’re in a place of constant stress. So we have to find ways to de-stress. We have to find ways so that we can breathe, and take a step back, and get out of that reactive place, and into a place where we can listen.
My advice is reduce your interaction with your phone and your feeds. One of the changes I’ve made is I listen to classical music. I can sit on my Twitter feed like anybody else, but I’m trying to consciously understand that I need to be in a spiritually strong place. And that means reducing the bombardment that places me in a higher level of anxiety.
What’s giving you hope these days?
That’s a beautiful question. When things are difficult, people do rise to the occasion. I look at my own congregation. Our outreach in the middle of the pandemic, when we weren’t meeting in person, has been the highest it’s ever been. People continue to want to make the world a better place.
What gives me hope is all those Canadians who reserved Airbnbs in Ukraine so that the owners of those places can get badly needed currency to help them through this war. What gives me hope is the generosity of Canadians that will be there when we start to get refugees coming.
I really do believe that, at our heart, people are good. But we have to look to the good, not look to the conflict, the negative — not look to those places that reinforce our darker angels. Look for the helpers and go there. That’s where we need to focus. That’s what gives me hope.
This interview has been edited and condensed.