Bad times spell boom for religion

Singapore City, Singapore - Since news of layoffs began making it into the papers daily in the past month or so, housewife Elizabeth Tan has been making weekly trips to the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple in Waterloo Street to pray.

Her 34-year-old son works in manufacturing, which has been one of the hardest-hit industries in this financial downturn.

'I don't ask for much, just for him to be able to hold on to his job,' said Madam Tan, 65, who said she had never been very religious before.

Bad times for business, good times for religions? In the United States, churches have been filling up as rapidly as its economy has been unwinding since September.

The same seems to be true here, too.

Of the 30 temples, mosques and churches that The Sunday Times checked with, 19 said they have seen a jump in the number of worshippers showing up since the recession hit.

At the Church of the Holy Spirit in Upper Thomson Road, the 4,000-strong congregation has grown by 20 to 30 per cent in the past six months.

'Definitely more are coming. People are more fervent and prayerful now,' said parish priest Reverend Andrew Wong, who last saw a spike in attendance during the Sars crisis in 2003.

'All the pews are full and people are standing. You also see more migrant workers,' he said of the church's Sunday service.

Ms Angie Monksfield, president of the Buddhist Fellowship, has also seen her group grow from 2,000 last year to almost 3,000 - mostly in the last six months.

Last month alone, it welcomed 150 new people.

'When things are not going well, people look for deeper meaning to life because materialism doesn't hold,' she said.

In the last Census in 2000, Buddhists and Taoists made up 51 per cent of the population aged 15 years and over. Christians and Muslims made up 15 per cent of the population each while 4 per cent are Hindus.

Mr Avinash Mathur, a volunteer at the Shree Lakshminarayanan Temple in Chander Road, said that while he has not seen a significant increase in the number of devotees coming to the temple, he believes religion is one of the first things people turn to in bad times.

'We have a saying in Hinduism that if the good times don't stay, the bad times will also not remain. It preaches positive thinking, faith, patience. Religion is the only thing we can fall back on.'

Many of these believers will probably be turning up today for Thaipusam, said Mr S. Nallathamby, chief executive officer of the Hindu Endowments Board.

Given the shaky economy, he expects a bigger turnout this year at the annual festival where devotees seek blessings and make vows.

Psychiatrist Lionel Lim, who is in private practice, said people often seek solace in religion during a crisis, whether it is personal or something bigger like the current economic troubles.

'When we have issues, there is a human desire to want an answer. Religion provides the framework for that certain understanding of the situation,' said Dr Lim, who has been seeing patients with problems related to the recession.

He encourages his patients to find comfort in their own religions.

'It really doesn't matter which religion they turn to. The important thing is what is relevant and helpful to them.'

Besides providing emotional and spiritual uplifting, religious networks can also provide economic possibilities, which may draw people in, said Singapore Management University sociologist Paul Chang, who studies religion.

'During hard times, people tend to pull back into their close network community. Religious communities tend to be your personal network too,' said Assistant Professor Chang.

'For example, if someone needs a loan and he can't get it from the banks, he turns to interpersonal networks.'

Some religious groups say they have been seeing more worshippers approach them for financial aid or advice.

'Their concern is about how religion comes into play at a difficult time like this. They want to know how, as Muslims, they should react to it,' said Ustaz Muhammad Saiful Alam Shah of Kassim Mosque in Changi Road.

Given worshippers' increasing fears about the recession, most of the religious leaders interviewed say they have devoted parts of their sermons to dealing with the gloom.

Sermons, too

Kassim Mosque had a series of sermons in December geared towards handling the economic crisis.

'It had a religious component but at the same time we encourage our congregation to pick up life skills like upgrading themselves with courses and be more prudent financially. These are things that need to be addressed urgently,' said Ustaz Saiful.

Many churches, mosques and temples have also gone one step further by organising workshops and talks that dispense practical tips.

The Buddhist Fellowship has two upcoming workshops: one to be held tomorrow to coach job seekers to write resumes and prepare for interviews, and the other on Feb 17 to equip people to help their friends in distress.

When bad news from the United States started coming in fast and furious last September - like Lehman Brothers' collapse - Mr Ronald Seet, who is in charge of Grace Assembly of God's marketplace ministry, decided to run a series of workshops addressing the church members' increasing fears.

He also began a counselling service for those with specific financial concerns, tapping volunteers within the church with the appropriate professional experience to give advice.

'These are hard times and we have to do what we can to help members understand that someone is there to listen to them and to hold their hand in times of crisis,' said Mr Seet, chief executive officer of KeyPost International, a provider of personal safety solutions.

Not only are people thronging temples and churches for hope, but kitchens at some temples are also busy dishing out free meals.

Singapore Buddhist Lodge is feeding at least 300 people more than the daily usual of 1,000, and it has had to increase its food supply, said chairman Lee Bock Guan.

The Kim Yam Road temple now spends $210,000 a month on its daily buffet and will have to dip into its $10 million reserves to feed more, he said.

It has also increased its education bursary budget this year from $1 million to $1.2 million, even though the organisation expects donations this year to dip by about 20 per cent.

Observers say it is hard to tell if the spike in attendance numbers in churches, mosques and temples will be only temporary or amount to something more long-term.

New Creation Church's Deacon Matthew Kang said the church saw a surge in numbers immediately after the Sept 11 terror attacks in 2001.

'It tapered off after a few Sundays. We understand that this was a phenomenon observed at that time by many churches around the world,' he said.

The same happened after the Sars outbreak five years ago, said the groups.

But religious leaders say they hope those turning to religion now will not be fair-weather worshippers.

'Of course, some people will forget about religion in good times,' said Venerable Kwang Sheng, abbot of Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery and president of the Singapore Buddhist Federation.

'But religion is always there for people.'