On Faith Friendly Communities

Urban sanctuaries, Bandung Indonesia

Urban sanctuaries, Bandung Indonesia

When at home, conversations about Islam, the sight of other people praying and the sound of the greeting assalamu alaykum (peace be upon you) are commonplace. But when I travel, or am in an unfamiliar environment more generally, encountering the same moments become vital for personal health. I need a quiet place to pray and meaningful conversations about faith to process my surroundings or to decompress from frequent questions about my background.

On December 14th last year, I stood waiting for the light to change at a downtown street. As I waited, I played absent-mindedly with my phone before flipping it on and turning to Twitter. But instead of retweeting messages about the event I had just left –  lunch at a downtown hotel where I had been celebrating the work of staff members whose secondment was coming to an end, the news that greeted me was that a massacre had taken place in Connecticut, killing 20 young children in the school.

Nearly a year later, I still remember that moment of feeling dizzy and shaky on my feet. In those seconds I couldn’t breathe, and all I wanted was a mosque, or any quiet place to sit and pray. But I was downtown, and there was no multi-faith space to be found. And so instead I rushed to the Vancouver Central Public Library, spread out my coat, and prayed behind a stack of books once I arrived.

As cities we have physical health strategies, strategies for a food secure city, programs and strategies to improve economic health, but we lack non commercial spaces for quiet and reflection.  In moments like that, we need spaces that offer refuge and solace in times of crisis. We need spaces without stimuli – not religious spaces necessarily, but places that nurture and nourish the spirit. We need spaces and services that help us improve our spiritual health in ways that resonate with our personal spiritual and philosophical traditions. We need cities that facilitate reflection.

A few weeks ago I experienced such a moment of reflection.  I was visiting University of British Columbia – Okanagan in Kelowna BC and when I arrived, I was delighted to discover that the Health and Wellness office offers a multi-faith room for the use of the campus community. The room isn’t big, but it has plenty of natural light and beautiful hardwood floors. In the cupboards in the back there are prayer mats, but the room itself does not have any religious imagery, making it accessible to individuals from a variety of religious and philosophical backgrounds. The best part of the Centre is its accessibility; it is centrally located on campus. And because the campus is small, the prayer centre is 5 minutes away from any of the other main academic buildings. (More information about the Multi-Faith space can be found here)

In my last visit to the Centre before I flew home, another student was already there when I entered. We exchanged a few words, I confirmed the direction of prayer in the room, and then we prayed together.  That combination – being greeted with kindness, the joy of hearing some of my favourite verses beautifully recited, and praying in a beautiful space brought tears to my eyes, and that moment is perhaps my favourite experience from my trip. It is, to use Karen Armstrong’s words, a ‘spot of time’ that I will return to again and again in my memory.

That moment, and that prayer space reminded me of the University of Toronto. I attended to the University of Toronto for graduate school, and while no school is perfect, U of T serves as an important model of what a faith friendly community can look like. In an interview with Sun TV, Mark Toulouse of Emmanuel College says the following:

“Three to four thousand Muslim students go to the University of Toronto in the St George downtown campus. In a thriving international city like Toronto where the evidence of a rich tradition of faith expression are all around us, it makes sense to work intentionally to create forums where we can have conversations and learn more about one other.. In many respects religious practices are private, part of one’s personal devotional life or personal beliefs. But religious practices across the world are also often public and rightly so… Religion is one of the most important forces that shape an individual’s life, and whenever people engage the public, they can only engage it with what the fullness of their life is. And part of fullness of that life is what shapes and forms them, and religious practice is among those things that do that.  We believe it is very important to encourage dialogue, to have conversation with one another.”

The University of Toronto is exceptional (and I’ve outlined some of the ways that they support a faith friendly campus below) but they are not alone. Across Canada, more and more universities are recognising that any robust health and wellness policy needs to consider spiritual health as well, and support the pastoral needs of its community members.


The University hosts the Religion in the Public Sphere Initiative that “examines how religion manifests in public spaces, institutions, and interactions, and considers the challenges and possibilities of religious diversity in Toronto and around the globe.”  They hold events, curate religion related news on their website, and host a ‘religion themed’ service learning course.

In Vancouver, Simon Fraser University has been a leader in interfaith understanding. The Interfaith centre at the University has its own interfaith mission and charter that outlines how the university will meet the pastoral, educational, bridge-building and worship needs of its members. It’s a forward thinking, impressive set of principles that recognises that spiritual health is a core part of personal wellbeing and success.  There is also a Dispute Resolution proposal that is clearly outlined on the website. In addition, the University is continually offering dynamic, relevant programming through the Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures that is available to the students and non-students alike. Within the History department, it is possible for students to pursue a concentration in Middle East and Islamic History. Over the past year or so, I’ve been so grateful for the presence of the CSMSC and the breadth and depth of the scholars they have brought to Vancouver to give public lectures.

2) Faith Based Perspective to Services/Student Development

At the University of Dalhousie, spiritual wellness is an important part of how health and wellness is understood.  The  Dalhousie Multifaith Centre features the events of diverse groups (including a group that looks at Women and Spirituality) and in general aims to provide “a complete education (that) addresses the whole person: body, mind, and spirit.”

Like Dalhousie, most universities have some sort of chaplain system in place. In one of the most interesting projects in Canada, students at the University of Toronto, fundraised over $70,000 in Sept 2012 for Canada’s first full-time Muslim chaplain. The Muslim Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto offers classes, counselling and dialogue programs and is a project that offers fascinating possibilities of how student affairs can provide indepth pastoral care. It is a project to watch, learn, and benefit from.

c) Athletics

Women in headscarves feature on the U of T athletics marketing materials and signage. On a personal note, seeing myself reflected in materials reminds me that exercise and athletics matter. There are ways to exercise and swim while still being covered, and health and faith are not incompatible. The Athletics facility also offers one hour of women only time daily in the weight room and reaches out to different populations at U of T to encourage them to prioritize their physical wellbeing.  (Their postcards advertising their classes and pooI for instance, feature Muslim women). In 2014, the U of T Multifaith Centre will also offer programming about the connection between spirituality and physical health.

The meeting of food and spirituality.

The meeting of food and spirituality in Kelowna, BC

d) Food

I lived at New College at the University of Toronto for a year, and the daily cafeteria menu at New College offered halal options every day. There were clearly marked signs and separate pots when a halal version of a dish was available. When the same item wasn’t available, an alternate menu item was offered and prepared separately.  At the cafeteria I visited at UBC -O, there were signs posted frequently indicating that halal, vegetarian, gluten and vegan options were available on the menu.

At UBC-O, I was impressed to see how halal, vegetarian and vegan food was clearly marked in the cafeteria, giving visitors many options for lunch, regardless of their faith background.

A moment of peace, Kelowna BC

A moment of peace, Kelowna BC

Seeking direction, Kelowna BC

Seeking direction, Kelowna BC

3) Space

There are multiple prayer locations at the University of Toronto and since the 1960s, there has been accommodation at Hart House for Friday prayers for Muslim students. There is space at Robarts, (the main campus library) prayer space at OISE for education students, prayer space at the Multi-Faith centre, prayer space at Bahen for engineering students, and prayer space at Emmanuel College.  There are nine prayer spaces in total at the University of Toronto, and these multiple prayer locations ensure that students are able to access prayer space easily, regardless of their field of study. Out of respect for the students and the needs of their prayers, the room at Hart House where Friday prayers take place has abstract art – no faces or figurines are present in the room.

At the University of Victoria, there are also multiple prayer locations on campus, and a variety of groups are engaged in spiritual practice on campus. At Simon Fraser University, each of the 3 SFU campuses offers easily accessible, bookable prayer/meditation spaces.

4) Dialogue

Through informal and informal programming at the Multi-Faith Centre, there is also ample opportunity to meet other students from different faith backgrounds. One of my favourite programs was called Muffin Madness, and featured tea, wonderful muffins and students from different faith groups. Any faith group that books space through the Multi-Faith Centre is required to co-host one Muffin Madness and one multi-faith experience, and the diversity of multi-faith programming offered over the course of the semester is impressive. For the most part, the programming is intersectional, and emphasizes the connection between spirituality and other aspects of identity or programs on campus.

 In September 2012 the U of T Religion in the Public Sphere began the “Religion Diversity  Leadership Project” a 3 year, $500,000 project with Citizenship and Immigration Canada to “build networks of communication, inquiry, and action around the problems and possibilities of living in a religiously diverse society.” The project offers religious diversity youth leadership training, service learning projects that focus on religious diversity, and  public forums and community research workshops.

At the University of Calgary  Faith and Spirituality centre, the Student team organises events (including an interfaith bookclub!) and holds weekly meetings for community members interested in Faith and Spirituality community work. Its weekly event calendar  features a variety of events, weekly teas and a program called the Communal Table that focuses on “building community around cooking and eating together.”

Effective public spaces are accessible, comfortable, sociable spaces with activities (source: The Project for Public Spaces). These four characteristics define great public spaces, and the same is true for vibrant faith friendly spaces and communities as well. Any organization or community that holds diversity as an important community value, must take spiritual health and faith friendly environments seriously in order to remain relevant.

Figure Out Your Intentions (Lessons From Hart House Training)

No matter what your external dimensions are, if you’re connected to yourself and your motivations are clear, you can light up a room with your personality, regardless of how petite you are. It’s not  related.

In acting you won’t get too nervous if you know what your character wants. It’s like life. If you know what you want and why you are where you are, it’s much easier to be motivated and get what you need to do done. If you don’t know why you are where you are, and the reason you’re doing what you’re doing, you’ll feel self conscious. Words that come through the heart and actions that are connected  to feelings will be successful. All words can be powerful when connected to the heart.

There are questions to ask yourself: where am I? what do I want? if I get what I want, what will it fulfill? Why do I want what I want? It’s important to know your values and what you find most important so that your activities resonate through those particular values. When you know where you are and where you want to be, you find lots of opportunities to build character. Often people will decrease their power so that they become smaller and don’t have to be vulnerable. But don’t apologise for yourself. Until you’re courageous and recognise who you are, aren’t fully alive. The greater your spirit is about the work that you do, the greater your work will be. It’s also helpful to have rituals. In drama, we have specific rituals, from voice to nutrition and meditation, and you need to find relevant rituals in your own life to be engaged.

~Kevin McCormick,Hart House Programme Intern Training, August 2011

What If We All Got Along?(Take-Aways from What If at U of T)

Every month Hart House hosts a different What If conversation, an event that can be best described as an opportunity to hear eloquent, interesting speakers discussing a question that warrants further reflection. This month the question was “What If we all got along?” and the discussion panel featured Nouman Ashraf, a Research Fellow at the Desautels Centre for Integrative Thinking (and former Director of U of T’s Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office) and Corey Scott, the VP External for UTSU, two highly articulate, thoughtful, interesting individuals that left me inspired to work harder at becoming someone who can think and communicate with precision and elegance.  After the event, the most common piece of feedback I heard was that audience members were impressed at their ability to think quickly and say so much without the ‘um’s and aahs” and general hesitation that normally accompanies speech. For those who couldn’t make it, here is a brief re-cap of the snippets that made it into my notebook. =)

Firstly, they spoke about the conditions of creating dialogue, with Nouman noting that

 First of all, we have to think, what is the value proposition of getting along? If this (Hart House) is a living, learning lab, we need to share space for dialogue and open, civil discourse. Not possible to always agree, but important to create that space and enable certain conditions for open discourse. This is not about getting along, it’s about shared intentionality, the ability of others to create shared intentions and joint endeavours. And so we have to think, what are the conditions for shared intentionality? Because it’s important to ask provocative questions and give assistance for that shared intentionality to occur. Agreement is setting the bar too low. It means we are just tolerating each other, but we need to be more robust, more authentic. We need to advocate for own views and inquire about others.

They  spoke about allegories of power, the possibilities and limitations of theory in trying to understand our world (As Corey said, “Butler is amazing, but theory has nothing in comparison to talking to someone from a different background”) and the power of sharing experiences. Nouman shared a story of people from different faith and philosophical backgrounds coming together to talk about food, and said that “assumptions of power can be challenged when share common experience. Common experiences may not lead to common conclusions, but it will be transformative”.

They also spoke about what extreme dissent is, with Nouman noting that “any discourse that breaches legal limits is off limits, though it’s difficult to talk about extremes without talking about the norm” and Corey noting that it is difficult to talk about legality because sometimes what is considered illegal in the present is viewed positively in hindsight (the Civil Rights movement was discussed as an example). Nouman spoke about  how “we need to reverse engineer what dissent looks like because innovation doesn’t just happen overnight”, and Corey noted that “we don’t often have owls (in reference to an earlier story) asking us why we’re upset about mobilizing. Most people are content to just watch news to give us its take on things.”

And finally, they left us with questions of our own. Nouman spoke about how we force-feed people our ideas, but we have to resist that itch for the health of the body, and asked:

“How do we actualize the potential on campus? What tools can we offer communities (note the plural) on campus? How do we cultivate genuine curiosity of others, instead of Othering others? You need to experience representation of self in positions of privilege in order to believe you can acquire them yourself.

Lessons from Julia Butterfly’s Talk at Hart House

It’s hard to describe how lovely Julia Butterfly’s talk was at Hart House this evening. I was a bit late coming in, but I found myself drawn into her story and her beautiful lessons despite craning my neck to see her speak. She was powerful and compelling, and I think everyone’s throat got a bit lumpy at times as she detailed her journey of 738 days living in a tree called Luna to protect it from being cut down.

For me, I came to the talk after an intense week school-wise. I’ve been struggling to find new ways and concepts to express the ideas I’m trying to explore with my thesis, and while I’ve been trying to keep positive about the opportunity for learning, I’ve also been feeling very overwhelmed by the current gaps in my knowledge. Over the past couple of days I’m been telling friends at lunch that I feel like a caterpillar. Intellectually it makes sense that if I stay committed to learning and keep striving, eventually I’ll turn into a butterfly, but a caterpillar is so far removed from a butterfly that transformation seems a far-fetched possibility at the moment.

And then during the talk  Julia spoke about the liquefying process caterpillars go through, and it made me feel so much more optimistic about the learning challenges (or opportunities!) ahead. Normally I always come to lectures with a notebook, but today I didn’t, so I took notes over the top of my evaluation card. As a result, this is not a complete set of notes (far from it!) of the lecture, but it does give a sense of what happened.

  1. Take a breath. It’s a miracle we are able to do that. What will you do with your life that honours this unique miracle? That honours this gift?
  2. I am a mirror. If something resonates with you, only because of something that is already within you. It means I’ve been a good mirror. If you don’t like something I say, don’t trash it, compost it and let it create new energy. We throw away things too easily.
  3. If people can identify with you, can relate to you, then it is harder for them to hate you.
  4. The way that we work towards a goal is as important as the goal itself. We have to model what we want in the world. (There was a beautiful story later on in the talk about loggers who helped rebuild the tree Luna when someone attacked it with a chainsaw, and when asked why they helped out, they said it was because “Butterfly, you always dealt with us in an honourable way)
  5. Whoever we are is exactly who we are meant to be. Society teaches us to feel like we’re not enough, that we need to change, and so we buy more stuff and more silly magazines and feel like we aren’t enough as ourselves. But we just need to learn to direct the all of who we are to the right channel. For me, it was not about changing who I was, it was about sculpting the core of who I already am. Our mind is usually our biggest obstacle. Can’t control what life sends us, but we can control how mind relates to what life sends us. We need to engage our hearts.
  6. We all love butterflies but we don’t want to liquefy. But a caterpillar literally has to liquefy itself to become a butterfly. It’s like when we go to the gym and we look at the machines. We want the results but we don’t want to do the exercise. And so during those 738 days with Luna, I would ask the universe for strength, and things would literally get harder. And I would say, hey, can you give me a break? And the universe would say, you didn’t ask for a break, you asked for strength, and so here you go, here is an opportunity to get stronger. Everything about me had to liquefy in order to turn into a being who could find strength where there was no external strength. When things were so intense that I had frostbite on my toes and had to prop my sleeping bag up off my feet because the pain was too much. We are so attached to outcomes, but if attachment to outcomes was all I had, it would have killed me.
  7. People would ask me when I was up in the tree what I missed about being on the ground, and when I was back on the ground people would ask me about what I missed about being in the tree. It made me realise that we are tricked constantly to be anywhere but here where we are. The question is always what do you miss and not what do you appreciate about right now? Instead of missing what is absent, why not be grateful and present to what is here and now?
  8. Love is a taskmaster that demands me to be a better person than the person that I know myself to be. It’s easy to talk, difficult to communicate. Communication is about asking someone’s opinion and caring about the answer.
  9. Julia told a beautiful story of an evening with loggers shooting at her, and having to take a deep breath to reach within and engage with them with humour, and then those same loggers bringing her organic fruits and vegetables a few weeks later. And then Julia said “this doesn’t always happen, but it can never happen if we don’t stay committed and model the world we want to live in.
  10.  It’s important to ask: who am I authentically in this moment and how can I learn, how can I grow in this?
  11. In each moment, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before. But we too are ancestors of the future.
  12. Pessimism, hope, these are just stories, not facts. I’m pessimistic, but I don’t let my pessimism get in my way. All I’ve got is right here, right now, and the question is, how doI honour this time? I can’t control anyone else, but I can control myself.
  13. It’s about a lifetime of offering ourselves. Nature isn’t sustainable, nature is regenerative.
  14. What is your passion, what is your gift? What do you want to do to co-create the future?

Question Period Take-Aways:

Love is a verb.