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.