Have a little faith

Why don't more people use prayer beads? It
For many university students, religion is an integral aspect of student life.

Religion. It’s a word that people tend to avoid using; one of those topics that often gets swept under the rug and doesn’t make its way into everyday conversation. I can talk to my best friend about TV shows, what I ate for dinner, and everything in between, but religion is never a part of our daily dialogue. This is because she is an atheist and I am a Christian, and it’s always awkward to discuss a topic on which we have such widely different — even opposing — views.

Still, I’ve often thought to myself, “Shouldn’t I be able to talk to her about my beliefs, since they are an essential part of who I am as a person?”

An ideal balance of faith on campus is one that is founded on open dialogue and respect across all belief systems.

The dictionary definition of religion is “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardour and faith.” For me, it’s much more; the way I see it and experience it in my daily life, religion is a feeling of passion and trust in something that is much bigger than myself.

Maybe this is because religion can be so diverse and complex that people have a hard time engaging with the topic in the first place. However, SFU has a variety of religiously affiliated clubs, along with many connections to off-campus religious groups. From Christian Outreach to the Muslim Student Association, religion is a key aspect of campus life for students from all walks.

The Interfaith Centre

The Interfaith Centre is a resource offered to students through SFU’s Student Services, the same organization that provides students with options on academic advising and opportunities to find work in the co-op program. But unlike those services, the Interfaith Centre is a resource that, for many students, seems to fly under the radar.

According to the statement posted on their website, the Centre is “a place on campus that supports the spiritual well-being of students, staff, and faculty through increasing understanding of several religious beliefs and practices.” Located in the heart of Burnaby campus, the Academic Quadrangle, the Centre provides a safe space for over 750 students, where they can participate in a variety of faith-based activities. Prayer mats and rooms are available for student use, and church services are conducted at the Centre as well.

After hearing that I worked as an SFU campus tour guide at Student Central, a priest in the Centre asked me to do him a favour: he asked if I would mention the Interfaith Centre to every tour group that I led, because he was tired of having 3rd- and 4th-year students saying that they wish they had known the space existed earlier on in their studies.

I kept my word. Now, every guest that I take on a tour will hear me point out the Interfaith Centre as a valuable and often under-appreciated resource on campus.

Religions on campus

Those who follow Christianity believe in having a relationship with Jesus Christ, as he was crucified and rose from the dead after three days in order to provide atonement for the sins of humankind. Most Christian groups desire to spread the love of Christ and the Gospel message of salvation. Several Christian clubs and organizations call the Interfaith Centre home.

Jean-Luc Padley is the president of SFU’s chapter of Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO), a movement focused on spreading the Gospel message and the basics of Catholicism to others. “CCO’s primary mission,” Padley says, “is to evangelize university campuses in a simple way with an emphasis on developing leaders for the renewal of the world.”

The club hosts a series of faith-based studies that allow students to explore and discover the many elements of the Christian faith. Aside from this, they also host events such as their fall retreat and an ever-popular pancake breakfast.

University Christian Ministries (UCM) is a student-organized club supported by the Pentecostal chaplaincy. It is an interdenominational organization which fosters student growth in their relationships with God through activities such as worship, fellowship, and outreach.

Seth Greenham is the Pentecostal chaplain at the Interfaith Centre, and also provides pastoral oversight for UCM’s activities. “Faith and spirituality transcend many people’s lives, and it is important for them to have a space on campus where they can practice their faith,” he says. “People come to university to learn and grow in knowledge, and spirituality is part of that experience.”

Other Christian organizations on campus include Power to Change, The Point church, the Chinese Catholic Club, and the Korean Campus Mission.

“People come to university to learn and grow in knowledge, and spirituality is part of that experience.”

Islam is another widely practiced religion on campus. Those who practice the faith, known as Muslims, believe in the monotheistic existence of God, or Allah, in which He is the one creator of the universe. Their beliefs are founded in the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and those found in their holy book, the Qur’an. The Interfaith Centre is the location for many of the activities practiced by Muslim groups on campus.

The Shia Muslim Society was founded in 2009 by a group of students who felt the need to establish a welcoming Muslim society on campus. Laya Behbahani was one of the original members who founded the society.

“The Interfaith Centre is a valuable resource for students, faculty and staff,” Behbahani says, “primarily because it provides a space for our five daily prayers, which is one of the most important, if not the most important, aspect of a Muslim’s life. It is also a place where we all come together and have the opportunity to learn about different faiths in a casual and comfortable environment.”

The Shia Muslim Society’s primary mission statement is grounded in providing information about the Muslim faith to the university community through the organization of religious and educational events in hopes of fostering a better understanding about the Islamic way of life.

Other organizations include the Muslim Student Association and the Ismaili Student Association, which are both run by volunteer Muslim students on campus. The Muslim Student Association provides prayer space for daily prayers in the Interfaith Centre as well. According to their website, they “aim to provide a platform for engaging Muslim and non-Muslim audiences at SFU and the greater community in meaningful dialogue and conversation, with aspirations of combatting constant misconceptions and corrupt perceptions of Muslims and Islam.”

Apart from Christian and Muslim groups, there’s also Hillel BC, a Jewish group spread across many campuses in the province — its SFU club meets at the Cornerstone Building in Univercity. According to their website, the group “promotes Jewish life on campus and beyond  [. . .] We are committed to enhancing the lives of young Jewish adults by enabling them to explore their Jewish identity and relationship to Israel within a safe, pluralistic and inclusive community.”

Along with SFU’s Interfaith groups, there are also spaces on campus for those with no religious affiliation — atheists. When it comes to answering life’s big questions, the SFU Skeptics club takes a philosophical and humanist approach rather than a religious one. Skepticism values scientific evidence and reasoning when forming beliefs, while humanism takes into account the welfare of humans and uses scientific evidence and rationality to solve social and ethical problems.

The SFU Skeptics club exists in order to advocate for non-religious students on campus and to promote scientific thinking. “A skeptic answers inquiry with curiousness and critical thinking to make the most informed decision they can, and when presented with new information re-evaluates their position,” former vice president Gabrielle Jackson explains.

The club holds weekly meetings every Friday, during which members discuss a diverse range of topics, from philosophy to politics to pop culture.

“Speaking as a non-religious student, you don’t need this nebulous thing called ‘spirituality’ to be happy or to be good,” says current club executive Matthew Burgess.“But it’s an important part of some students’ identities, and it’s not going away. A university education exposes you to critical thinking and gives you tools. What you do with those is up to you.”

Why it all matters

Professor emeritus Donald Grayston taught religious studies at SFU before retiring in 2004. He is also a retired priest of the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster. The Interfaith Centre was established after he had already left SFU, but he still expresses support for the structure.

“In Canada, where there is no official religion, everybody is free to express their beliefs however they wish to,” he says. “The university itself has no official position on God, so [having] a place like the Interfaith Centre is a great way for students of all religious faiths to have opportunities to meet and understand each other.”

One’s religion is an integral part of their life, and having a space to share that with other people is precious. “My beliefs touch every aspect of my life and guide the daily decisions I make,” Padley says. “They give me assurance that what I’m doing has meaning, whether good or bad, and give me a context for my action.”

“The Interfaith Centre is a great way for students of all [religions] to meet and understand each other.”

Behbahani echoes this sentiment. “My belief system shapes a hundred per cent of the way I live my life,” she shares. “It provides a moral framework, a set of values that place dignity and respect for human beings, animals, and the earth at the forefront, and finally, it provides the highest system of ethics.”

Even outside of the context of religion, connecting with those who share a common belief system remains a key value for Burgess and Jackson. “Coming out of a conservative religious tradition, I felt the need to spend some time with people who wouldn’t see my lack of belief as something to be fixed,” Burgess says. Jackson recalls her first meeting with the Skeptics club as she was “surrounded by intelligent and friendly people with similar ideals to [her] own.”

I personally believe that every-body has a form of spirituality, regardless of whether or not they are religious. I see it as the root of everything good in the human spirit. I know that there are people who believe in forces that are greater than those on earth — some call these forces God or gods, while others don’t. Spirituality comes from striving for a purpose in life and the desire to ultimately find peace — two things that I believe everyone is looking for, regardless of whether or not they believe in a God.

That being said, my love for God is my life. It is not something that I can pack away in a box and take out only on Sundays. Many people feel the same way about their beliefs: that they are an essential part of their entire being.

An ideal balance of faith on campus is one that is founded on open dialogue and respect across all belief systems. I am proud to be part of a university that has so many groups that are focused on doing just that.