In a Globe and Mail article, “Life of solitude: A loneliness crisis is looming,” columnist Elizabeth Renzetti began with this powerful statement: “Too many among us never pine for peace and quiet, because that's all we ever get.”
Renzetti shared how the Vancouver Foundation asked Vancouverites what bothered them. The foundation expected answers such as high housing costs, drugs and crime, but instead reported that “the biggest issues people had were that they felt lonely, isolated and unconnected to their communities.”
Renzetti expanded on the scope of the problem of loneliness with troubling statistics. In Vancouver, residents recently listed social isolation as their most pressing concern. More Canadians than ever live alone, and almost one-quarter describe themselves as lonely. In the United States, two studies showed that 40 percent of people say they are lonely, a figure that has doubled in 30 years. Britain has a registered charity campaigning to end chronic loneliness, and in the fall, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt gave a speech about the isolated many, calling attention to “a forgotten million who live amongst us ignored, to our national shame.”
The newspaper article spoke of loneliness as a social and public health crisis in which sufferers run the risk of illness including mental health and physical problems potentially culminating in premature death. Combatting this serious problem has prompted the Vancouver Foundation to award grants of $500 to people who will organize community events to bring strangers together for companionship and friendship.
As I read this article, it was not primarily a sense of “national shame” that troubled me, but a clear sense that the church can and must do better in introducing people to God's wonderful gift of community, where all are welcomed, where we can experience health and wholeness and where the dehumanizing effects of loneliness can be defeated.
The church has a critical role to play in the health of our nation. As beautiful as every other God-ordained institution is—whether it be friendship, marriage or family—they are still not inclusive enough for everyone to experience God's divine embrace of love and acceptance. All must be invited and welcomed into the fellowship of the church where everyone has significance in this community.
In community, we discover, to our amazement, that all our relationships take on deeper meaning. All relationships should be strengthened when we enter into the God-created and sustained reality of community. And where the church has fallen short of this ideal, let us seek God's forgiveness and people's forgiveness so we can do better.
Author Leslie F. Brandt paraphrases Philippians 1:1-11, capturing the Apostle Paul's love of the church and the beauty and power of community in this way:
I have met some beautiful people in the course of my travels.
They are my sisters and brothers in Christ, fellow servants in the kingdom-work of God.
Every time I think about them, I do so prayerfully, and a surge of joy fills my heart.
God spoke to me, comforted me in my despair, and through these people challenged me in my apathy.
I pray God will continue to use them to reach others even as he used them to undergird and uplift me and that what he has begun in us, he will continue until we are brought together in everlasting fellowship in that dimension beyond this life and world.
General Clarence Wiseman stated, “The Salvation Army exists for those who do not belong to it as much as for those who do.” In a beautiful way, this illustrated that inclusiveness should not be limited to membership, but ministry must embrace all who come under our influence. In this present-day crisis of loneliness, let us commit once again to the principle that all are welcome at the Army.
My prayer is that anyone coming through the doors of The Salvation Army would experience God's healing gift of community. Let's win this war on loneliness with the weapons of love.
*Read about how Salvation Army churches are reaching out to people experiencing loneliness in "Searching For a Connection".
Colonel Mark Tillsley is the chief secretary of the Canada and Bermuda Territory.