Longhurst: Valuable social assets

Jul 31, 2017 by

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One and a half billion dollars. That’s how much the places of worship are worth in Winnipeg, Man., where I live.

John Longhurst


That figure comes from what is called the “halo effect,” the value of the social, spiritual and communal capital that places of worship contribute to their communities through various services, events and activities.

The calculation comes from Cardus, a Canadian Christian think-tank, which has created a Halo Project calculator to show the value of places of worship across Canada.

Using the calculator, one can find that places of worship in Canada’s 19 major cities produce an economic benefit of $19.9 billion.

(There is no similar U.S. calculator, but research in 2016 by Georgetown University found that religion in that country provides $378 billion to $4.8 trillion to the U.S. economy — more than the global revenue of Apple and Microsoft combined.)

Cardus began its research last year in Toronto, when it examined the economic effect of 10 congregations.
That study found that for every dollar of direct spending by a congregation, about $4.77 of common-good benefit — the “halo effect” — was generated in areas such as open space, educational programs, magnet effect (drawing people into a community for weddings, funerals, concerts, conferences and other events), individual impact and community development (soup kitchens, helping refugees, addiction programs, etc.).

“The value of religious congregations to the wider community is somewhere in the order of four to five times of a congregation’s annual operating budget,” said Milton Friesen, Cardus’ Social Cities program director. “This is money that governments don’t need to spend.”

For example, if a congregation with an annual budget of $250,000 should close, the Halo Project estimates a city or town would need to come up with about $1.2 million every year to replace what was lost to the community.

For Friesen, this is a new way for Canadians to look at the value of places of worship. It shows they are “important parts of the landscape” and should not be “ignored when calculating the social capital of a community.”

This is especially true for those who think places of worship get a free ride when it comes to taxation.

“What is not considered is the value to others in the community, and the community itself as a whole,” he said of those who say places of worship should pay more taxes.

“Imagine what it would cost for cities to replace the value of what churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other places of worship are providing,” Friesen said. “They could never afford it.”

Through the Halo Project, Friesen hopes to spark a “wider conversation about the role of religion in Canada,” including what places of worship offer economically, and to ensure “religion is part of the conversation” when talking about contributions to the social good.

With many places of worship in danger of closing across the country today, the work of the Halo Project is very important. It shows that if a place of worship closes, much more could be lost than many realize.

Sure, a historic church building might be saved if it is renovated and replaced by condos. But it’s a good bet the new residents won’t include a soup kitchen, youth drop-in or substance abuse clinic.

Or, to put it another way, maybe the crisis facing organized religion today in Canada and the U.S. isn’t just a concern for those who are religious.

John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

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