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Chaplain Laura Gallo (right) talks to student Fredrick E. Shayo on the “Conversation Couch” at Montreal’s Concordia University in July. Photo by Neal Rockwell

Campus clergy

The need is great, but the budgets are small. Some days, university chaplains feel like they’re spinning their wheels.

By Samantha Rideout

One afternoon last October, students making their way across Concordia University’s Loyola Campus in Montreal spotted something unusual amid the elegant Gothic-revival buildings: a bright orange sofa. There was also a bowl of candies and a gameshow-style wheel with a word on each of its colourful panels: “Faith.” “Environment.” “Truth.” “Fear.” “Relationships.” “Life.” “Hope.”

A curious student spun the wheel, landed on the word “life” and accepted an invitation from Laura Gallo, the interfaith facilitator at Concordia’s Multi-faith Chaplaincy, to settle onto the couch and chat about his life goals. “Students sit down for half an hour, and at the end they often say, ‘This was amazing!’” explains Gallo, who takes turns with her colleagues hosting the “Conversation Couch” once a week during the school year, each time at a different campus location. 

It can be easy to forget — as one is rushing to classes, worrying about grades and trying to balance studies with other responsibilities — that higher learning offers a golden opportunity to reflect on life’s big questions. “University is a pivotal time in people’s lives,” says Gallo’s colleague, Rev. Ellie Hummel, a United Church minister and the chaplaincy co-ordinator at Concordia. “When they’re engaged in education, they’re open to learning, and often it takes place beyond the classroom. People have lots of concerns about meaning, value, purpose and all those basic questions that religions try to respond to.” 

This is just one reason, she says, why even on secular 21st-century campuses, we still need chaplaincies. Institutions may be non-religious, but students themselves “are not actually living that reality,” says Gallo. Although records don’t exist to show how many Canadian students identify with a religion, there are enough of them to provide denomination-specific work for over 50 Roman Catholic campus ministers and 20 United Church chaplains, for example. What’s more, non-religious students often seek out spiritual services, too — from ritual and fellowship to advice on ethical questions, help with developing a spiritual practice, and avenues for satisfying their curiosity about religions. With a multitude of needs to meet, campus chaplaincies are a challenging, stimulating ministry. It’s unfortunate so many are also struggling to get by with insufficient funding.  

 Concordia University’s interfaith facilitator, Laura Gallo. Photo by Neal Rockwell
Concordia University’s interfaith facilitator, Laura Gallo. Photo by Neal Rockwell

Historically, the campus chaplain was a priest or minister ordained by the denomination affiliated with a given school and based out of its chapel (hence the word “chaplain”). Because the majority of Canadian universities no longer have a religious affiliation, most schools host several chaplains, each ministering to students of particular denominations and faiths. The University of Victoria in British Columbia, for example, has Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i and several different types of Christian chaplains — including a United Church representative. 

Faith-specific chaplains are typically not the employees of educational institutions, in part because the latter are anxious about maintaining their religious neutrality. Instead, these religious professionals either volunteer or are paid by their faith group. Even so, universities appreciate them enough to provide space for their work.

“One reason for this is that universities are recruiting international students like crazy,” says Martha Martin, a diaconal minister who until recently was the United Church chaplain at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “And many of these students have strong faith backgrounds. They come to Canada, and there’s a cone of silence around religion. . . . They feel isolated in terms of their faith.” These students tend to approach the Dalhousie 
Multifaith Centre looking nervous or quizzical, she says. But they’re usually won over by a warm welcome and the chance to meet other people in a setting where talking about religion is okay.

In a busy hallway in one of the social-sciences buildings at McGill University in Montreal, two women — one in Japanese robes and a rakusu (the traditional garment of Zen Buddhists), the other in jeans and a T-shirt — begin their shift behind a table labelled “Meet Your Chaplains.” Above the noise of the crowd floats the voice of a student, who says to the robe-clad chaplain, “My friend told me about you guys because I was really stressed out about exams, like, I couldn’t handle it, and she said maybe you could help.”

Meanwhile, the second chaplain, Carlene Gardner, explains to me how she wound up here representing the Unitarian Universalists. “Our church decided to do more outreach,” she says. “I’d been working with the teenagers in our congregation for about 10 years, so this was a natural progression of my responsibilities as a lay youth leader, to try to bridge the gap when they go to university.”

Gardner puts in between three and five hours a week on campus, leading workshops, doing some informal spiritual counselling (“Chat with a Chaplain”) and working alongside her fellow chaplains on joint programs such as “My Neighbour’s Faith,” a popular series of guided visits to various sacred sites around the city for students interested in learning about other religions or just religion in general.

An unexpected consequence of Gardner’s campus involvement is an increase in the number of young adults attending worship services back at her church. “We didn’t expect students to get out of bed on Sunday morning and come to us. We said, ‘We’ll go to them instead.’ But maybe a lot of students actually miss the feeling of community.”

It would hardly be surprising if they do. With a few exceptions, universities in Canada are not the tight-knit, ivy-strewn idylls of popular imagination. A school with 10,000 students would be considered medium-sized. And the challenges facing students can be daunting. “There are a lot of recent immigrants, and they tend to have less social support,” Hummel says. “There are also a lot of people who come from tough families. It’s not uncommon to hear, ‘My dad just lost his job’ or ‘My mom and I are estranged.’. . . Not everyone can phone Mom and Dad and say, ‘I’m broke again, sorry!’”

United Church minister Ellie Hummel, chaplaincy co-ordinator at Concordia. Photo by Neal Rockwell
United Church minister Ellie Hummel, chaplaincy co-ordinator at Concordia. Photo by Neal Rockwell

This is why a typical offering of campus chaplaincies is food: emergency food funds, on-campus food banks or regular subsidized dinners that offer fellowship along with healthy calories.

Another rampant problem is stress. “We at student services looked at the numbers of people who say they’re overwhelmed and anxious, and it’s skyrocketing,” says Sara Parks, director of the McGill Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (MORSL). “Not just here but in general across Canadian campuses.” About half of full-time students are juggling their studies with part-time jobs, according to Statistics Canada. And this doesn’t count the internships and volunteer hours required by certain diplomas and degrees. Some students are also raising families. And on a bustling urban campus, it isn’t always easy to find a moment — or a place — to step back.

That’s why MORSL converted part of its space into an “oasis lounge.” Under gentle lighting, students browse books about religion, well-being or spirituality. Others grab short naps or chat quietly on the comfortable sofas, helping themselves to free tea, apples and earplugs. Next door there is a prayer and meditation room, with pillows, prayer mats and guided-relaxation headphone stations. Both facilities are gaining popularity among students. “They want healthier spaces,” says Parks. “They’re stressed out, and they know it.”

Mirroring the Canadian population at large, a big slice of students are in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp. Their distaste for or lack of interest in organized religion doesn’t necessarily extend to the campus chaplaincy, though. “Chaplains are experienced in listening to young adults and know that when students say they don’t believe in God, this can lead to a rich conversation,” says Rev. Tom Sherwood, a United Church minister and former ecumenical chaplain at Carleton University in Ottawa. “Often the chaplain doesn’t believe in that God, either.”

In what Hummel calls “a recent shift,” universities are coming to see the importance of addressing students’ spiritual needs. Sherwood thinks the tide began to turn in the aftermath of 9/11, when educational institutions relied on chaplains to organize rituals of commemoration. The attack also brought religious and non-religious students alike out of the woodwork, looking for help grappling with mortality and other difficult spiritual issues.

Another shift is that universities are starting to recognize the value of “religious literacy” — that is, a basic understanding of the major world faiths. “Even if you don’t want to subscribe to a religion, you still have to have the tools for talking respectfully to people with other world views,” explains Martin. “You can’t run and hide from it.”

For these reasons and others, a number of schools have hired a co-ordinator to oversee all the chaplains operating on campus. These employees also organize interfaith programs, look after the chaplaincy’s physical facilities, co-ordinate its promotions and liaise with other student services. The existence of these jobs reflects a renewed respect from university administrations for the work of chaplaincies.

However, “just as the schools are wanting chaplaincies more and valuing them more,” says Sherwood, “the churches are less able to deliver.” For its part, the United Church supports about 20 campus chaplains across Canada (including some ecumenical chaplains). This support is often modest and partial, says Martin, so that a chaplain will typically cobble a living together from various sources: teaching courses, applying for government grants, or soliciting donations from congregations, Presbyteries and individuals. Another strategy is to serve part time as a chaplain while working a second job.

A lucky exception is the United/Presbyterian Campus Ministry that serves the University of Calgary as well as the city’s Mount Royal University. The ministry is on solid footing thanks to ongoing support from St. Andrew’s United, a congregation that decided in 2013 to sell its building and use part of the proceeds to keep a campus ministry going for at least the next five years.

In general, though, the decision made in the 1990s to leave chaplaincy funding mainly to local churches and Presbyteries “has led to an increase in the fragility of our campus ministries,” according to Sherwood. Congregations, understandably, are focused on their own survival and might easily choose to sustain “the roof and furnace for a worshipping community of 30 people, rather than support a religious professional for a population of 20,000 young adults,” he says, adding that one direct benefit of participating in campus chaplaincies is an increased chance of attracting young new church leaders. “Many of us already in ministry would identify a university chaplain as influential on our decision. In fact, I’d be one of those people myself.”

It’s a spring Tuesday morning at the Concordia Multi-faith Chaplaincy building, and half a dozen international students are playing djembes in a drum circle in the basement, letting off steam. A young woman wearing a hijab and a worried expression steps into Hummel’s office, presumably for counselling. Upstairs in the kitchen, a theology student takes a break from studying to snack on some leftovers from a cheese-tasting and mindfulness workshop the day before.

Here and at other sites across the country, chaplaincies are creatively doing what they can, despite their limited resources, to be of service in today’s student reality. “Religion and spirituality are going to be important on campus in the 21st century; that’s a given,” says Sherwood. “Whether the United Church is going to be a part of that, it’s harder to say. But it seems like a good place for the church to be.”

Samantha Rideout is a journalist in Montreal.

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