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.
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.”
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.”
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 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.”
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”
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.
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.”
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.
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.