Religion and sports: unfathomable feelings and community

The first of three pieces on the connection between religion and sports

Religion and sports: unfathomable feelings and community

In the 1992 film A League of Their Own, Jimmy Dugan prayed to God in a pre-game talk with the Rockford Peaches: “May our feet be swift; may our bats be mighty.” Although the prayer piqued confusion from the players, and laughter from the film’s spectators, it reflects a connection that is prominent in the world of sports: its connection with religion.

NANCY JI/THE VARSITY

NANCY JI/THE VARSITY

A trend has been growing where athletes will start off their victory speeches by thanking their respective deities before thanking teammates, coaches, the organization, and of course, “the [winning team]’s fans: the greatest fans in the world.”

Charlotte Marcotte-Toale, a member of the Varsity Blues cross country team and member of the Christian athletic organization Athletes in Action, stated that: “The gift of God’s love in Jesus allows a student or an athlete to perform out of an identity of love that they didn’t earn, and that isn’t going to change, which frees them from worries, insecurities, fears, and doubts.”

Marcotte-Toale, like many other athletes, relies on religion to continue competing in her sport with the highest amount of effort that she can possibly exert. She believes that university athletes and professional athletes often use religion as motivation to compete, to continue to compete, and to “compete with heart and soul.”

Beyond the direct influence of religion on athletes, however, other connections can be drawn between the two traditions. One possibility is the experience of inexplicable sensations brought about by religion, and similar sensations prompted by events and moments in sports.

In New York University President John Sexton, Peter J. Schwartz, and Thomas Oliphant’s book Baseball as a Road to God, the writers explore experiential connections found between baseball and religion through chapters discussing such topics as miracles, faith, and doubt.

One prominent theme discussed in the book is a type of experience shared between religion and sports, the ineffable: “It’s really our moments in life that analysis and cognition can’t capture,” explained Schwartz.

Just as the enlightenment and lessons that come with religion may cause this sensation, so too may success in sports. When Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in game 5 of the 1956 World Series, the Yankees and their fans were undoubtedly overcome with a feeling unlike any other — a combination of joy, relief, and the inexplicable.

With these shared ineffable feelings also brings a coming-together of fans and players alike. This unification of people in a community is one major theme promoted by most religions, and is seen in the confluence of sports fans on municipal, national, and international levels.

“There’s something that a community identifies with in a sports team in a manner probably more closely than other aspects of civic life,” posited Schwartz.

On a daily basis, fans wearing a team’s colours or logo will exchange nods on the street, and will cheer in unison in the stands of a stadium or arena. Beyond these traditions, sports have the power to unite a more substantial group of people and provide them with feelings of security and comfort.

In 2009, the New Orleans Saints appeared in and won their first Super Bowl Championship. In the summer of 2005, Hurricane Katrina rushed through and destroyed much of their city, killing many of its citizens, and leaving many homeless. During the storm, the Louisiana Superdome, where the Saints play, provided shelter for over 26,000 people.

When the Saints won the Super Bowl, fans of the Saints, citizens of New Orleans, and those watching across the globe were united by joy for the team and its ability to overcome the effects of the tragedy and bring something to be proud of to their city.

The feeling of community that arose from this championship victory was on a monumental scale, similar to religion’s ability to bind together millions of people around a common cause.

“There’s an ability to unite about a common cause, and sports seems to be a medium where that seems to be more acute than other aspects of life,” added Schwartz.

 

Peter Schwartz will be giving a talk on November 20 at 7:30PM at 1700 Bathurst Street in the Hurwich Boardroom as part of a series of talks entitled “Jews in Sports.” 

Penn Jillette talks atheism

Showman stops at U of T as part of book tour

Penn Jillette talks atheism

Penn Jillette has made a career of challenging “Bullshit,” at least as he sees it. The Centre for Inquiry Canada hosted an event at JJR MacLeod Auditorium on Saturday night featuring the magician and TV personality. Jillette is best known as part of the Las Vegas magic duo Penn and Teller, and hosted the Showtime TV program Bullshit! from 2003 to 2011.

Jillette spoke at the event as part of a tour for his new book Every Day Is an Atheist Holiday, which tells anecdotes from his life. The speaking engagement featured the retelling of some of the events described in the book, along with other stories. Jillette often related these accounts to secular ethical maxims.

ALICE XUE/THE VARSITY

ALICE XUE/THE VARSITY

During the event Jillette said that his inspiration for writing the book, as well as his previous book God, No!, was an exchange with TV and radio personality Glenn Beck, a Mormon and American conservative pundit. During an argument between Beck and Jillette regarding the showing of the Ten Commandments in the US Supreme Court, Beck suggested to Jillette that he write his own “Ten Commandments of atheism,” which Jillette did. He later expanded upon this idea in two books.

Secularism, the principle of separation of government and religious institutions, has garnered recent public attention as a result of the “New Atheism” movement, which has been advanced by a series of books by Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens. The movement has been praised largely for bringing issues of secularism and humanism to greater prominence, while also criticized for mocking and being militant against religious faith.

Jillette stated that he does not see himself as a member of any movement. “You don’t really know what you’re a part of […] The Ramones did not see themselves as a punk band; they just saw themselves as The Ramones.”

He also said that, over time, there has been a broader acceptance of atheism, and that it had “parallels to the gay movement,” as familiarity and openness are important to the culture and as once taboo concepts are becoming less so. Jillette sees the movement around atheism as being “as much about cheerleading as proselytizing.”

When asked what the most encouraging and discouraging signs have been with regards to atheism in the last ten years, Jillette stated that there are “more atheists, more kindness, and more tolerance,” adding with a laugh, “but there are also still religious people.”

ALICE XUE/THE VARSITY

ALICE XUE/THE VARSITY

Justin Trottier, the founder of the Centre of Inquiry Canada, notes that “the [atheist] movement was motivated by the literature.” He stated that he was inspired to get involved in secularist issues after visiting Ground Zero a few months after 9/11, a sentiment which Jillette also alluded to during his talk.

Jillette said that both he and the late comedian George Carlin became “way more atheist” after 9/11.

The Centre for Inquiry Canada is one branch of the Center for Inquiry Transnational, an organization that spans across 21 countries. The Centre for Inquiry describes itself as an educational organization which promotes the separation of church and state and “embraces humanism, skepticism, freethought, and atheism.”

According to Statscan, 24 percent of the population of Canada consider themselves non-religious.

U of T responds to Loretto investigation

Following two weeks of silence, U of T answers some questions on controversial all-women’s residence

U of T responds to Loretto investigation

Earlier this month, in an investigation by The Varsity, former residents at Loretto College raised concerns about the college’s policies and its residence atmosphere. Loretto is a private, all-female residence affiliated with St. Michael’s College (SMC). The Varsity spoke to former residents who were uncomfortable with the conservative policies and tone of the residence and the requirement that they formally agree to live in a “Christian academic community.” Under the University of Toronto’s residence guarantee policy, some students also faced a choice between living in Loretto and not living in residence at all. The university has now clarified its position on some of the questions raised by the investigation, although significant questions remain unanswered.

Michael Kurts, assistant vice-president of strategic communications, was asked whether women could have been placed in Loretto without requesting it in the first place. Kurts explained that there are higher demands for particular residences than can be met. When this is the case, Housing Services identifies other residences that have open spaces, and offers students a place within these alternative residences. “This means that any student may be offered a space in a residence that they did not select as their choice. This would be as true for Loretto as any other U of T residence,” he said. If a student chooses to decline this offer, they are placed on a waitlist for their first choice residence. Kurts acknowledged that the likelihood of getting a spot in one’s first choice residence after being placed on a waitlist was “very low.” A number of the girls interviewed during The Varsity’s investigation said they felt uncomfortable signing the residence agreement but were told that no other option was available. Some elected not to sign the residence agreement and found off-campus housing.

Kurts further clarified that all U of T policies are in effect at Loretto College, as it is affiliated with the university, and that while they do not have an exact number of girls who did not select Loretto as their first choice, “the number is small, and likely fewer than five.” The Varsity interviewed more than a dozen girls, who entered across multiple years, and indicated that they did not select Loretto as a first choice.

The SMC residence office said that all Arts & Science students who are a part of SMC are offered both a spot in Loretto and a spot in SMC proper, but the same does not seem to be true for professional faculty students, who are dealt with separately. Many of the engineering students interviewed during the course of the investigation claimed they were told they would be offered spots in both Loretto and SMC. However, when they were offered spots in Loretto and inquired about the alternate offer,  they were told none was available.

When asked what would happen if a student was uncomfortable with the religious aspects of living at Loretto, Kurts said that an attempt would be made to find another space. However, he warned: “Most often than ever, our residences are full to capacity and there may be no other spaces available.”

Meanwhile, Angela Convertini, dean of residence at Loretto College, said she felt that no students were forced into Loretto. When asked about why the residence agreement was not made available online, Convertini explained that as a  smaller residence, Loretto does not have access to a webmaster and therefore is unable to maintain a separate website containing its residence agreement.

Convertini claimed women have as much knowledge about Loretto as any other residence: “We have people come by and tour the residence, look over the residence agreement, and understand what they’re getting into. Many of the women quoted in the article never came to us with any problems…they were made fully aware of the nature of the residence and the environment in which they were choosing to live.”

Change to residence guarantee needed in light of Loretto

U of T needs to acknowledge Loretto's religious character

Change to residence guarantee needed in light of Loretto

Earlier this month, The Varsity published an investigative story about Loretto College, a private, all-female, religious residence on campus associated with St. Michael’s College (SMC). The piece (“Christian residence only option for some,” October 7) sheds some light on an otherwise little-known residence on campus and the significant problems its policies are causing for some students. Most alarmingly, U of T’s policies seem to be forcing some students to choose between living in an actively Christian residence and not living in residence at all.

To live in Loretto, students must agree to follow policies that “foster participation and involvement in a supportive Christian academic community,” the mandate set out in the “philosophy statement” of Loretto College’s residence agreement. The agreement goes on to specify a number of policies that are explicitly intended to create a religiously-oriented community.

Former Loretto residents told The Varsity that college staff promoted what one student described as, “a type of conservative personal decorum.” While the residence agreement also prohibits discrimination, it is not surprising that many students were uncomfortable living in an overtly religious residence.

Loretto is owned and staffed in part by the Loretto Sisters, an order of Roman Catholic nuns. U of T has yet to clarify the arrangement between the sisters, SMC, and the university. In its response to the details in the story, the university characterized Loretto as having “religious roots,” a point reiterated in subsequent comments from the administration. This is an accurate way to describe several of U of T’s college residences, but unacceptably understates the role of religion at Loretto. SMC, for example, has religious roots — it was founded as a religious institution and retains some religious affiliation and traditions.

Loretto College, on the other hand, is owned and operated by a religious order. Its students must agree to “adhere” to Christian values. Residents must follow policies that are overtly intended to promote a religious lifestyle, if not the actual practice of religion. Loretto does not simply have “religious roots,” it is an actively religious institution, making it very different from every other residence affiliated with U of T. Accordingly, U of T’s residence policies should not treat it like any other residence, especially when this places students in very difficult situations.

U of T widely advertises its residence guarantee program, and many students accept offers of enrolment at the university on the understanding that they will be able to live in residence in their first year. U of T does not, of course, guarantee students a place in their preferred residence. Students can be placed in Loretto, as they can be placed in any residence, without requesting to live there. Under the program, students who turn down their first offer are not guaranteed a second one.

It is understandable that U of T cannot accommodate every incoming student’s personal preferences about residences. There is, however, a difference between preferences based on location or style and an aversion to living in a religious institution. The Varsity spoke to several students who faced a choice between living in a religious residence they were uncomfortable with and trying to find off-campus housing in a new city months before the start of term. It is unacceptable that U of T would put incoming students, many of whom are living on their own for the first time, in such a dilemma.

Information about Loretto’s strict and unusual residence policies is not easy to find. While many other residences on campus make their rules clear on their website, Loretto does not. Where a comprehensive description of expected behaviour should be, Loretto only describes itself as an all-female residence, with no mention of its religious character.

While it is perhaps unfair to criticize Loretto’s residence policies for trying to establish and protect a religious community on campus, the grievances raised by students who were not aware of the extra requirements to living there must be addressed. All the residences at U of T have policies and agreements that students are required to follow. These account for things like the presence of hotplates and other dangerous items in rooms, quiet hours for study, and, in some buildings and colleges, mandatory meal plans and hours. The difference in Loretto’s case is that the residence’s policies are not transparent and that they are religiously inspired.

The Varsity does not question whether or not Loretto — or any other institution on campus — should be free to express its religious affiliation or enforce rules that are informed by its philosophy. Rather, we question whether or not university administrators are doing all that they can to accommodate incoming students looking for residence placements.

The residence guarantee policy is undoubtedly a good one; it provides for students coming from outside the city who would otherwise be forced to find a place to live off-campus. However, it is obvious that U of T should reexamine the program in light of the fact that some students are being placed in environments in which they are not comfortable, without the opportunity to make informed choices. Many students interviewed for our story indicated that Loretto was the only option offered to them, and many said that they were largely unaware of what living there entailed. It is also disconcerting that the university was either unable or unwilling to relocate students with substantive concerns about their treatment at Loretto. It is clear that in many ways Loretto is fundamentally different than other residence options on campus; so far, the university has refused to see this difference.

Does Loretto need to reexamine its policies? No; as a private residence, administrators are entitled to foster any community they like based on whatever philosophical mandate they choose. Does U of T need to do more to help the students relying on the residence guarantee when they find themselves in a difficult situation? Absolutely. U of T must acknowledge that many students may be deeply uncomfortable in a residence run according to Christian values. It must be forthcoming with incoming students about the unusual aspects of Loretto, or any other residence with unusual policies, and it must offer residence alternatives to students who do not want to live in a religious community.

Of course, many of Loretto College’s residents are happy to be there and are thriving in the unique community the residence offers. Loretto accommodates female students of all faiths and backgrounds quite happily and with mostly positive reviews, as was clear in The Varsity’s original article. For the small, unhappy, minority of students, however, more needs to be done.

Christian residence only option for some

The Varsity investigates Loretto College, a private residence affiliated with St. Michael’s College

Christian residence only option for some

The year she graduated from high school, Emma Sexton was accepted to Engineering at the University of Toronto with the usual residence guarantee. She grew up in a small town in the Niagara region and knew little about what to expect in terms of university residence or Toronto life. Excited about the prospect of living at her school of choice, Sexton applied to New College and University College, and didn’t think any more about the matter for several months. Sexton received several emails saying she would hear about residency in late June, but the date came and went without a residence offer. Finally, just six days before the payment deadline, she was offered a space at Loretto College, a private, all-female residence affiliated with St. Michael’s College. Sexton says she was “disappointed about being put in Loretto,” but took the spot because she was not offered an alternative.

After moving into Loretto, Sexton quickly learned that it was not like most other residences at U of T. In the Loretto residence agreement, the philosophy statement reads: “Life at Loretto College focuses on participation and involvement in a supportive Christian academic community.” The agreement goes on to state that the College has the right to make policies that “implement the philosophy of the College,” but that discrimination will not be tolerated. Students are required to sign the agreement, agreeing to “adhere” to the college’s philosophy.

Over the past three months, The Varsity spoke with more than fifteen current and former Loretto students; although their experiences differed, many of them expressed discomfort with the college’s unique policies and residence life.

 

Students uncomfortable with “conservative” residence life
Engineering student Emma Sexton took a spot at Loretto after not being offered an alternative. JENNIFER SU/THE VARSITY

Engineering student Emma Sexton took a spot at Loretto after not being offered an alternative. JENNIFER SU/THE VARSITY

Sexton described an experience when she signed out a male guest 2 minutes after curfew, and the porter said to her: “I signed you out at 10:00 — otherwise they talk.” Sexton recalled that this experience made her feel strange. “I assumed ‘they’ were the staff. It made me uncomfortable that I was going to be perceived differently because of two minutes,” she said.

Many students took issue with the restrictions on when men can be in certain parts of the college. The residence agreement from 2012 states that male visitors are not permitted in residence rooms between Monday and Wednesday and are only allowed during certain hours on other days. The fact that men are restricted to certain hours is publicly available on the U of T Housing website, but is not available on the Loretto webpage.

Caitlin Scinocca, another student who did not apply to live at Loretto, described her discomfort with this policy: “The fact that there were male visiting hours really bothered me,” she explained. “If I’m paying good money for a room, at least let my friends come hang out during frosh week, or let my dad up to the room.” Julia Kemp, an exchange student, said that she felt the policy was far too restrictive. “I understand that U of T needs a space where it is all-girls due to demand and religious reasons. However, if I have a single room I see no reason whatsoever why I should not be allowed a male in my room,” she said, adding that she “felt like she was treated like a girl in a boarding school.”

Another student, who lived in Loretto for two years and requested anonymity, said that these regulations are “ostensibly in accordance with Catholic doctrine to discourage any kind of fornication. Nobody really knows why, and I’ve never gotten a straight answer. That is all fine and dandy — unless of course you aren’t Catholic.”

The same student stated that she felt uncomfortable with what she perceived as a conservative environment maintained by the college administration. “There is a type of conservative personal decorum that students are somewhat implicitly encouraged to maintain,” she said. “It’s not uncommon to receive comments about so-called provocative behaviour or inquiries about your whereabouts at social events.”

 

Some have no other residence option

A number of students reported that, like Sexton, they were offered residence at Loretto without having requested it and were not given an alternate offer. Elizabeth de Roode, a second-year engineering student, chose to decline Loretto’s offer because she felt uncomfortable with the residence agreement. She found off-campus housing on her own, although finding a place in Toronto was “incredibly stressful” as she only had between June and September to find one. “I wanted to live in residence, I just didn’t want to live in a residence so different from my idea of what university should be,” she said. Julia Kemp, a 2012-2013 exchange student, was keen to live in residence but had trouble securing a spot until August. “[Housing Services] told me they could offer me one room in an all girls residence called Loretto. I was so desperate for campus I accepted without much research into it at all,” she said. She added that Loretto’s website does not provide a comprehensive description of its policies. The online descriptions of Loretto — both on its webpage and on the U of T housing site — state that it is an all-female residence, but do not mention the religious philosophy of the college.

U of T guarantees a residence offer to every full-time, first-year undergraduate student. The Varsity asked Michael Kurts, U of T’s assistant vice-president, strategic communications and marketing, whether or not a girl can be placed in Loretto without having requested a spot there. Kurts stated that the university’s housing policy does not guarantee students a place in their first choice of residence. “When we cannot meet a student’s priority choices, Housing Services contacts all colleges who have space available to make an offer. Many students in the residences were offered a place in a residence they might not have applied to.” He insisted that these issues are “a case of supply and demand,” and that Loretto is “no different than any other residence,” in this respect. Kurts added that Loretto welcomes students of every religion, despite what he described as its “religious roots.” Kurts did not answer a number of questions about Loretto, including what ratio of girls who are placed in Loretto actually applied there.  He indicated that he would respond next week.

Angela Convertini, dean of women at Loretto College, was surprised to hear that students were given the choice between a place at Loretto and no spot in residence at all. She claimed that all students are offered a choice between St. Mike’s and Loretto, and that everyone who lives in Loretto does so by choice. All of the girls spoken to for this story who did not apply to Loretto claimed Loretto was presented to them as the only option.

Convertini stated that students apply to live at Loretto, and if there are still spots left after the application process, they inform U of T housing — who then fill the spaces. “We would never think that someone was forced into living at Loretto… We send them the actual residence agreement, they have a choice — they can go to a co-ed, they can go to us, we really believe that the people who come here enjoy themselves,” said Convertini.

Covertini, along with some other members of the Loretto College staff, is a member of the Loretto Sisters — an order of Roman Catholic nuns. According to the Loretto Sisters’ website, the college is owned and operated by the sisters and “affiliated” with U of T through St. Michael’s College. Students told The Varsity that some sisters live in a separate area of the residence.

Kurts also did not comment on the degree to which U of T’s policies apply at Loretto, given that it is a private residence. When asked to comment on whether or not a girl who is uncomfortable with Loretto’s religious policies would be offered an alternate residence, he emphasized that the residence welcomes students of all faiths.

 

Many students enjoy tight-knit community

Shams Al Obaidi, a third-year don at Loretto College, felt that the tight-knit sorority atmosphere was an important part of her university experience. For Al Obaidi, the other residences are too large to be able to connect with other students.

With a community of around 130 students, Loretto allows residents to get to know each other on a much more personal level, according to Al Obaidi. She further stated that international students feel particularly welcome in Loretto. “I came all the way from Qatar, and it was my first year in Canada. It was really nice to come all the way here and feel at home.” Al Obaidi also stated that: “Loretto welcomes all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds and religions.” For example, she recalls a time when a sister told her to attend the college’s weekly masses, despite being of a different religion, because “all are welcome.”

Al Obaidi also believes that Loretto College’s male policy is not unduly restrictive. She points out that men are able to visit the main floor and the lower lounge at any time, and that the restrictions on male visitors are “more of a courtesy to others” than anything else.

Convertini stressed that the residence tries to be inclusive of residents from diverse backgrounds. “We like to think that U of T provides a whole continuum of residence experiences for its students and we’re just one of the choices students have,” she explained. “While we’re a traditional Catholic dorm, we’ve had Jewish girls, Protestant girls, Muslim girls — girls from every faith, and it’s a very welcoming environment,” she said.

 

With files from Madeleine Taylor

Panel of visiting experts engages students in discussion on drone warfare

APSS and Victoria College host the Keith Davey Forum on Public Affairs

Panel of visiting experts engages students in discussion on drone warfare

The Association of Political Science Students (APSS) held the annual Keith Davey Forum on Public Affairs on Wednesday, October 2, with this year’s panel focused on drone warfare. The event was held in conjunction with U of T’s Department of Political Science and Victoria College, and took place at the Isabel Bader Theatre. Janice Stein, professor of Conflict Management in the Department of Political Science at U of T, moderated an open discussion on the topic of ethical warfare.

The two key speakers, Neta C. Crawford and Avery Plaw, are political science professors at Boston University and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, respectively. Both have published books on international relations, focusing on terrorism and moral responsibility within warfare. The event featured a semi-structured debate in which Crawford and Plaw were asked for their opinions and expertise surrounding the United States’ employment of drones, which are unmanned aerial vehicles used to target potential terrorist threats in foreign countries.

After two hours of discussion, followed by a question and answer session, students had the opportunity to further engage with each other and the speakers during a reception in the lobby of the theatre. “Even though I’m not a political science student, I still have a deep interest in politics,” said Nicole D’Alessandro, a life sciences student. “As much as students think they watch the news or are informed, it’s important to get the opinions of professionals in the field.”

Many students who attended the forum were not enrolled as political science students. “As much as we don’t like to relate ourselves to the United States, whatever happens there affects [Canada]. Canadians feel the repercussions of their actions in some way or another. It’s not just the economy — it’s also our national security. That’s why having these discussions is important,” said Malik Chabou, a fourth-year economics student. The event was free and open to all U of T students.

In good faith

Exploring interfaith dialogue on campus and the importance of forgiveness

In good faith

Although U of T is an academic institution, spirituality plays an important role in the lives of many of its students. Accordingly, attempting to accommodate the spiritual and religious needs of students is an important value at the university. U of T hosts a number of faith communities including Aboriginal spiritual groups, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, and more. With such a variety of backgrounds coming to the institution, meeting the needs of every spiritual background becomes a challenge.

This concern is relatively novel; the university has a strong history of Christian presence on campus, exemplified by its historically Christian colleges. In the late 90s, a group of students, with the support of the Students’ Administrative Council — the precursor to the University of Toronto Students’ Union — approached Simcoe Hall, contending that Christian students were privileged on campus, while students of other faiths were not given similar access to freedom of religion.

Multi-Faith Centre director Richard Chambers

Multi-Faith Centre director Richard Chambers. AARON TAN/THE VARSITY

The university was hesitant to respond to these criticisms, due to the trend of increasing secularization in society and at the school. Following ten years of contemplation and discussion, the Multi-Faith Centre (MFC) was established as the solution to this issue. The building of the centre was contested by the Secular Alliance as compromising the secular nature of the university.

Richard Chambers, director of the MFC, points out that the philosophy of the centre accounted for Canada’s emphasis on the tenet of multiculturalism: “Canadian society is a secular society, in the sense that religion is not given any privilege in society… In English-speaking Canada though, there is an understanding about the freedom of religious expression in civil society… The university realized [that] it should actually be educating students to be able to go out and navigate that religious diversity in society, and in fact, there’s a great ready-made classroom in the experience of U of T.”

 

Multi-Faith Space
Muffin Madness is a popular event hosted at the Multi-Faith Centre. AARON TAN/THE VARSITY

Muffin Madness is a popular event hosted at the Multi-Faith Centre. AARON TAN/THE VARSITY

The MFC was opened in 2006 on this basis, and has since served as a hub for interfaith dialogue and faith-based activities on campus, coupled with new multi-faith space in other campus buildings. Multi-faith space refers to flexible, bookable spaces designed to both accommodate various faiths and to encourage dialogue between students of different backgrounds.

Sonya Krause, former co-chair of Faiths Act — a student group dedicated to preventing deaths from malaria through interfaith action — describes how her group used multi-faith space: “Faiths Act used the MFC for meeting and event space and… the administration for help in planning events and dealing with the larger U of T administration. We also attended Muffin Madness at the MFC to recruit and to network with other faith-based clubs to collaborate on events.”

Fareedah Abdulqadir of the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) concurs that her favourite weekly activity is the popular “Muffin Madness,” a casual weekly interfaith drop-in, but adds that her group also uses the space for prayer, meetings, and social events.

While groups use multi-faith space for their own operations, interfaith dialogue, such as “Muffin Madness,” also takes place there. Along with social activities, interfaith activities are often related to social justice.

“Interfaith dialogue at the University of Toronto doesn’t all look like one might imagine in terms of a formal dialogue, with three people sitting around a table talking about what prayer looks like,” Chambers describes. “A lot of our programming is around social justice and community service work, because we find that there is a cohort of students interested in … theological questions, but more students are interested in making a difference for good in the world, and they’re motivated … by their beliefs.”

Multi

In multi-faith space, interfaith dialogue in the form of a social justice project is often paired with a discussion of faith-based motivations for participating. “Muslim students will reference the Qur’an; Jewish students may reference the Torah; Christian students may reference the Bible; secular students may talk about their own values … but we find that interfaith dialogue at the university often revolves around really hands-on projects about making a difference in the world. At the end of the day, it’s about mutual respect and understanding,”  says Chambers.

 

Campus Chaplains

Campus chaplains are tasked with fostering interfaith dialogue on campus as well as serving the spiritual needs of students. They meet monthly to discuss spiritual issues and events on campus.

Ecumenical chaplain Reverend Ralph Wushke comments, “As a chaplain, my role is in one sense religious and spiritual care and supporting spiritual lives of students, and at the same time I see it as building inter-religious harmony and respect… I believe firmly that when people of different faiths come together and share experiences that are based on their faith, each partner comes into a deeper understanding of their own faith.”

Chaplains

In contrast to some students’ concerns that participating in interfaith dialogue is a threat to their own faith commitments, the campus chaplains contend that students often find these dialogues enriching and that participating in them serves to reinforce their own beliefs.

Jewish chaplain Rabbi Aaron Katchen sees equipping students for interfaith dialogue as a critical point in the process: “By conversation, we better understand each other. We also better understand ourselves … but it also has to come from a place of knowledge. I try and work with the students … to help them better understand what does their tradition and history have to say, so first of all when they show up at the table, they have something to say. That’s not just people speaking at them … it’s helping build up a relationship of meaning.”

 

“A good, sincere conversation”
A student enjoying the Multi-Faith Centre. CAROLYN LEVETT/THE VARSITY

A student enjoying the Multi-Faith Centre. CAROLYN LEVETT/THE VARSITY

Many students who have participated in interfaith dialogue on campus contend that the practice builds strong bonds among people of different faiths and strengthens their own self-understanding.

Gianni Castiglione, president of the U of T Secular Alliance (UTSA), recalls: “The UTSA has participated in multiple productive interfaith dialogues, yet the one that sticks out in my own mind was a debate/seminar we helped host on human nature. There were three speakers — one Catholic, a Sikh, and a clinical psychologist who was the UTSA’s representative… There were several occasions in which the views shared both content and outlook… During these moments, there was a palpable realization in the audience and among the speakers that these geographically and culturally separate worldviews had arrived at similar conclusions, carrying with it very interesting and deep implications.”

Jacob Liao of the Light House Christian Community worked on the Common Ground Project, a Canadian civic engagement initiative of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW) with support from Citizen and Immigration Canada: “…because we have worked together for the past year, there was just an overflow of heartfelt sharing and deep respect for one another’s beliefs and traditions. The best dialogue is not that of a panel of distinguished guest speakers… but the genuine expression of the self through one’s life and one’s giving.”

Some other examples of programming include group gardening at the Ecology and Spirituality Garden at New College, participating in the Great Canadian Shoreline Clean Up, the Tzedakah-Sadaqah Project of bringing Jewish and Muslim students together to work at a soup kitchen, and Religious Diversity Dialogue Certificate Training.

Scarborough

Qu(e)erying Religion, a program for queer students of faith, has included presentations by interfaith queer couples, spiritual leaders of different religions discussing and reclaiming relevant scripture with queer students, and social outings such as Hart House Theatre productions.

Abdulqadir describes: “Interfaith dialogue to me is any attempt to engage sincerely with a person or group of another faith with the explicit understanding that the purpose of the interaction is to engage our different sacred traditions. This doesn’t have to be in a formal program or with recognized institutions. It could just be a good, sincere conversation with a fellow student.”

 

The Role of Forgiveness

This year, Hart House — in combination with the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office (ARDCO), Hillel of Toronto, Ask Big Questions, and the Multi-Faith Centre — is presenting a series entitled Wounds into Wisdom — The Practice of Forgiveness: In Pursuit of Reconciliation and Justice.

Sandra Carnegie-Douglas, anti-racism and cultural diversity officer, notes that the program is not entirely focused on interfaith dialogue, but also on individual and structural forgiveness: “There is a broad diversity of faith and ethical clubs on campus and interfaith dialogue can provide a space for the clubs to participate in open dialogue and engage with their multiple identities, across differences on complex issues and themes that are, at times, conflicting. The Wounds into Wisdom program is not specifically designed as an interfaith dialogue, however, we anticipate that it will appeal to faith and ethical communities, together with the broadly diverse constituencies that make up the
U of T community.”

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Forgiveness nonetheless plays an important role in interfaith dialogue, such as when sensitive political issues arise in conversation. In Canada, the example of residential schools is pertinent; although sending Aboriginal children to residential schools was government policy, the schools themselves were Christian. These schools are now associated with a legacy of abuse and trauma. Addressing these deep divides and bringing victims and perpetrators, as well as their later generations,  together is a difficult challenge in interfaith dialogue.

The Forgiveness series brings historical injustices such as this, as well as the Holocaust and the internment of Japanese Canadians to the forefront. Carnegie-Douglas describes: “In planning this year’s program, we interpreted forgiveness to include the related concepts of restorative justice, apology, redress, and reparation to incorporate stories that range from the interpersonal to historical injustices.” The F-Word photography project is particularly engaging in addressing these tensions, as it contains anecdotal examples of interfaith dialogue and forgiveness in extreme circumstances.

Carnegie-Douglas acknowledges the difficulty of engaging in these dialogues: “Conversations on race, faith, and cultural diversity (areas of focus for the ARCDO) are often met with silence and resistance. Enabling spaces for open dialogue helps to break down the silence, promote understanding, and build community.”

Chambers brings up the example of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a point of contention between Jewish and Muslim students. He uses the strategy of acknowledging the obvious differences in the room while trying to direct the focus onto collective activity, such as charitable projects. The Multi-Faith Centre offers conflict resolution for when such dialogue becomes hostile, but Chambers notes that he has only had to intervene a handful of times. Admitting the different perspectives of students of different faiths serves to create an atmosphere of respect in interfaith dialogue that allows for a productive conversation to ensue. Students of different backgrounds need to be able to bring their unique viewpoints into the dialogue without fear of backlash.

Mississauga

Rev. Wushke notes that forgiveness can be a source of common ground for students of different faiths, since it is incorporated into the doctrine of many spiritual groups.

Rabbi Katchen, who is involved with the Forgiveness project through Hillel, comments: “…Forgiveness is really about a human experience… Each of us come to it in very different ways… One of the goals of the Forgiveness project is not about saying that forgiveness is always the answer, that forgiveness is always the stated goal, or that we all forgive in the same way… but rather, it’s something we all struggle through as part of interacting as
humans — and that’s all interfaith dialogue is. It’s about humans coming together, and we’re including our religious self in that conversation, as opposed to leaving it at the door.”

U of T has a number of faith-based clubs and student organizations. We talked to students involved with some of them about why interfaith dialogue matters.

Suresh Sriskandarajah and Sri Lanka’s history of violence

Domestic threat pales in comparison to Sri Lankan government's conduct

Suresh Sriskandarajah and Sri Lanka’s history of violence

On September 27, it was announced that prosecutors from the United States Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn, New York, are seeking a 15-year sentence for Suresh Sriskandarajah, who is currently being charged with providing aid to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — a recognized terrorist organization both in the United States and in Canada. Mr. Sriskandarajah, a Sri Lankan Canadian citizen and former student at the University of Waterloo, was extradited to the United States in 2012 after being apprehended by the RCMP in 2006.

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NANCY JI/THE VARSITY

The prosecutors recommended a stiff punishment because they believe: “A significant term of incarceration will reflect the seriousness of the offence” of providing aid to the LTTE. Those familiar with the Sri Lankan civil war, a bloody, 26-year long event, will understand why aiding the LTTE, a rebel group with an appalling human rights record, is illegal in the United States and Canada.

Followers of the conflict may also be eager to know what “significant term of incarceration,” if any, will be recommended for the American and Canadian officials responsible for providing millions of dollars in funding to the Sri Lankan government over the past decade. As the prosecutors will know (at least, if they have read the Congressional Research Service’s briefing), the majority of atrocities perpetrated in the final stages of the war were committed by citizens of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest urban centre, with help from millions in aid money from countries like the United States and Canada.

The listing of the LTTE as a terrorist organization here in Canada and in other Western countries is a complicated matter. The government of Sri Lanka — which is not listed as a terrorist group — has committed far more heinous crimes than anything the LTTE have been accused of. During the civil war, the government exhibited a wanton disregard for human life — illustrated through summary executions, hostage-taking, and the deliberate shelling of civilians. Furthermore, the origins of the  war — rarely discussed in Western commentary — lie in the decades-long process of the systematic ethnic cleansing of Sri Lanka’s Tamil population by the Sinhalese majority government. Although their methods were unconscionable, the Tigers were politically in the right — fighting for the Tamil people’s right to national self-determination.

By prosecuting people like Sriskandarajah for aiding the Tigers, while ourselves supporting Colombo, Canada and the United States have not only engaged in staggering hypocrisy but have also sided with a racist government against an oppressed minority. Our support for the Sri Lankan government became truly criminal after authorities killed roughly 40,000 civilians between 2008 and 2009 — herding them into smaller and smaller “no-fire zones,” which were then shelled. This horrific conclusion to the war, which also dashed any real hope of Tamil independence, would likely have been impossible had Colombo not been receiving generous international assistance while the Tigers had their funding disrupted by our police forces.

This critical support from the West resulted in the wildly successful effort by Colombo to re-brand the civil war as another front in the “war on terror” — a prudent move, given the West’s willingness to oppose global terrorism. Once this was achieved, support from the West flowed in, while police forces like the RCMP cracked down on the Tigers’ support networks. With its main opposition and target defunded and on the ropes, Colombo was clear to continue towards the path of extermination. In the hysteria surrounding our efforts to stamp out domestic terror threats, nobody noticed that we were funding greater atrocities.

As Sriskandarajah’s trial moves forward, and as the RCMP track down any remaining LTTE affiliates to either charge or extradite, we should remember that we have tacitly supported far greater crimes perpetrated on a mass scale by the Sri Lankan government than anything Mr. Sriskandarajah and others have been accused of allegedly contributing to. Yes, the Tamil Tigers are guilty of hideous crimes, and Canada should do all that it can to root out terrorist sympathizers at home who contribute to these groups. However, until Canada reexamines its history of foreign relations with Sri Lanka, the charges against Sriskandarajah will remain a shameful mockery of justice.

 

Simon Capobianco is a third-year student in math and philosophy.