Strictly speaking, neither gods nor prophets inhabit the civic infrastructure.
The City of Edmonton is a secular institution. Civic services, statutes and levies apply equally and without prejudice to Edmontonians of any and all religions, or no religion.
Which is why John Dowds’ role is a curiosity. Dowds, a former Presbyterian minister, is the City Chaplain. His ‘flock’ is the 10,000-strong civil service and he tends it with uncommon grace and humility.
“No proselytizing,” he says with a laugh.
Dowds grew up in Belfast, Ireland and arrived in Canada with his family at age 16. As a self-described introvert, he longed to fit in. So with diligence and practice he polished the brogue and the lilt off his speech.
City Chaplain John Dowds, left, discusses the annual Wellness Fair he organizes in City Hall with Councillor Amarjeet Sohi.
The soft-spoken Dowds says that as a lad he wanted to be a lawyer. Then came what he can only describe as a ‘shift’.
“It wasn’t dramatic,” he says. “For me, it was more of an evolution.”
In Ireland, during the troubles, the church for him and his family was always more than a place of worship, he says. It was social centre, recreation centre and safe haven.
As a young man, an old feeling reasserted itself — church, as heart and soul of community — along with a desire to work with and help people. So, he gave up the bar for the pulpit and in the early 1980s became a Presbyterian minister.
“I loved the work,” he said. “I loved working on worship services, teaching and being with people — offering spiritual care.”
His ministry eventually brought him to Edmonton where in 2003, he suffered a measure of spiritual burnout. He felt drained and knew it was time to take on another calling.
He applied for a few different secular jobs, but wasn’t chosen. Doubts arose. Anyone who has left a long-time career understands the feeling of being unmoored, adrift and worrying: Who am I now?
Then he saw an ad in the paper. The City of Edmonton was looking for a chaplain. He applied, was interviewed and hired. He’s been in the role seven years now. His neat and cozy office on the main floor of City Hall is devoid of religious signs or symbols.
The art on the walls, including a quote from Einstein, are steeped in spiritual meaning, however.
It is a fine and graceful line Dowds must walk. Some will argue Christianity is Canada’s founding religion — that he should rightly be preaching the bible as City Chaplain.
But, as Dowds says,Canada’s First Nations might quibble. Aboriginal spirituality was worshipped on this land before Christianity.
Meanwhile, Jewish people are part of Edmonton’s early history. Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists — and those of myriad other religions — weren’t far behind.
To honour one faith is to risk alienating another. So Dowds is careful not to favour one or debate another. Followers of any and all faiths — as well as agnostics and atheists — are warmly welcomed into his humble office.
“For me, Jesus is the way — the way I choose to practice my faith,” says Dowds. “But to me it’s not right or wrong. It’s just different than others.”
He says those views are heretical to some of his Christian friends. “But I don’t apologize for it,” he says. “We don’t have a corner on the truth.”
In times of crisis, all people need support, he says. In some cases, that support is in a religious context. In others, the context is spiritual.
Mostly, his role is about listening and offering some old-fashioned loving kindness. He offers it to any civil servant who phones or shows up at his office. Might be an employee in grief or crisis. Might be an employee with mental health, addictions or relationship issues. Might be an employee stressed about his or her work.
He stresses that he is not a psychologist. His counseling is short term, as a generalist. He refers people to more specialized services when required.
Chaplains in police services are not uncommon. But as far as Dowds knows, he is the only municipal chaplain in Canada.
As a taxpayer, it pleases me to know Edmonton is leading the way in this regard. To me, the job of City Chaplain signals a government that lives and breathes human values. It reminds us, just as it reminds civil servants, of the essential nature of government work.
As the job title suggests, they are in service to their community. Done with conviction and humility, it is god’s work.
The City of Edmonton's first-ever blogger in residence is long-time city writer and journalist Scott McKeen. McKeen is best known for his stint as The Edmonton Journal's civic affairs columnist, a position he held from 2002 - 2010. He won a number of awards during his 24 years at The Journal, including an international writing prize for his investigative work on a growing Edmonton cult. McKeen left the paper in 2010 for a shot at politics. He came out of that experience, he says, with much greater humility and respect for those who run for public office. McKeen is now a freelance writer and communications consultant. His hobbies include guitar, photography and napping.