The word ‘chaplaincy’ can be a turn-off for most students. Reverend Ellie Hummel and Arianne Shaffer of Concordia’s Multi-faith Chaplaincy recognize that fact. But Hummel and Shaffer, the Chaplaincy’s Coordinator and Program Assistant, don’t want to lead students in prayer. They just want get them involved in campus life.
Tell me about the Chaplaincy. What kind of activities and programs do you offer?
EH: We have Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, a free Thursday night dinner. We offer meditation and we also do retreats. I’m hosting a writing workshop: “How to Write Well.” People are writing and reflecting on it, in a spiritual sense. We have a lounge. You can have a student one-on-one with a chaplain. We offer a lot of volunteer opportunities. There’s a prison visit, and volunteering at a home for the intellectually handicapped. It’s all about meeting ‘the other’-meeting people that have been stigmatized in some way. [The program] has gone on for many years and people love it. We’re committed to it.
Concordia offers students great opportunities because we’re a very large multicultural community. Do students take advantage of that?
Arianne Shaffer: I think in varying degrees. I mean, we have like 40,000 students. I’ve been involved with the interfaith world for awhile, but I think those who are outgoing and have a knowledge of how Concordia works take advantage of that and know which channels to go through, because it’s almost like a little city here. It’s easy to become a part of a club but can be hard to find them. That’s what I hear from a lot of students.
How does the chaplaincy get students involved and informing them about the programs you offer?
EH: I think it doesn’t necessarily have to do with outgoing students. There’s different entry levels into programs and University life. It depends on what students expect and how they view education. There are students that come and only take their courses and get their degree or students who just don’t have time.And there are those who really come to Concordia because there is a strong community. Someone described it to me as a house with many entrances.
When an individual comes to the Chaplaincy, what can you offer them?
AS: It depends on what are they looking for. We’ll give them our publication, Sources, and we get asked all the time, ‘What is this place?’, ‘What do you do here?’ We explain our programs and services. They may want more information about meditation, or interfaith, or volunteering opportunities. It’s based on their needs. We also make it clear that the services we offer aren’t exclusive for one faith or denomination. There’s so many different activities that can be about spiritual orientation. A lot of students come in and don’t have one religion they identify with. So for them [the term] ‘chaplaincy’ is a bit intimidating but that’s one thing we’re trying to undo.
How do you feel about students with preconceived notions about the word chaplaincy as meaning something negative or dull?
EH: We always get those students. A lot of people end up at Mother Hubbard’s. And they realize it’s a Chaplaincy and they’re like, ‘Oh wow, but you’re so normal.’ And we’re like, ‘Thank you.’ Again it’s one of those doors. I would say the same about anything we encounter that’s new. Try to keep an open mind. Be open to new experiences. Check us out and make it your own. You know, there are students who say, ‘I went to a religious service once and I didn’t like it, so I’d never go back’
You work with a lot of associate chaplaincies, like Muslim and Jewish communities, as well as spiritual, though not religious, groups. How much do you interact with all of them?
AS: That’s a main component of my job here. Those are actually not separate chaplaincies at Concordia. They are religious student groups. They’re all student-run. I do a lot of work with them. We’re part of a channel of connections. Also what we’ve been working on this past year is having programs together, across religious and spiritual lines. One program we have is called Interfaith Connections. It’s a three-part program, and then it continues again next semester. It’s a bunch of students who approached me and said we want to work together, cross religious boundaries, and we want to do it in a less academic way, and more from a heart-based education. We visit different communities in Montreal. We did our first visit and went to a Mosque during Ramadan. We had about 30 people there, men and women, of all different faiths mixed together. Many had never been to a Mosque and had no personal contact with Islam.
EH: One of the last questions I ask is what a person’s faith is. It’s a whole other discussion about religion and spirituality. But we look at life through the lens of spirituality. So people can come and discuss anything and everything, be it sexual orientation, about family or money, or stress. That surprises people. It’s not about, ‘What is God?’ or ‘Have you prayed today?’ The question of spirituality is what gives you the strength to keep going. Questions that help get us into shattering stereotypes and a lot of conversation has to do with being gentle with ourselves, [letting] ourselves be validated, and find communities. That’s spirituality. It doesn’t have to be, ‘We’re having a prayer meeting!’ Or that we’ll convert them.
You’re dealing with a certain age bracket in general. For students who are leaving home for the first time or something along those lines, do you offer guidance-based conversation?
EH: I don’t really like that term, guidance. It’s about listening, listening and relationships. Even if I have ten minutes with a student, my hope is to build a little bit of a relationship as you show respect and openness to that person. Personally, I ask a lot of questions but in the end I can’t tell them what to do. I believe we have the right resources inside of us.
Concordia has a reputation of being politically active and you are involved with various student groups. How involved with the political aspect are you?
EH: On one hand there’s sort of an artificial boundary. The kind of conversations we have, and I encourage, are everyday conversations, not what is the answer to the Middle East, India and Kashmir-whatever debate. We can have an intellectual debate, that’s fine, and University is certainly the place for that. What we are aiming for is an encounter of the heart. What makes you want to get involved? What motivates you? Our goal is to look at what the role humans have in this grand creation.
AS: There is a real seductiveness of academia and to intellectual understanding of politics which is so easy and attractive to get involved in. Also, I think it can be a distraction from what is happening in people’s hearts. We try to understand the spirit and the intellect, and both together, and the body.
At the chapel you’ve performed same-sex marriages. This can be a controversial topic.
EH: I guess so. Three of the chaplains are employed by the University. And we are employed by the University but also supported by churches as well. I’m also supported by the Protestant Christian churches and part of the job requirement is that I’m an ordained Minister.
I’m an ordained minister for the United Church of Canada, which is very gay-positive. So when I do weddings, any weddings, I do that through the authority of the church. I can do any weddings in accordance with the United Church. Any wedding I do, I need to check the desire and what they want. As far as my church is concerned, it’s about having a relationship with mutuality and respect. I have turned couples away before. I haven’t had any problems. It’s not like there’s media coverage. It just happens. It’s somebody’s wedding and we’re happy for them. The whole wedding thing, we don’t advertise, but people find us. The larger question is, What is sexuality? As a whole the chaplaincy is generally gay positive, but that’s a huge issue. There are some faiths that see homosexuality as problematic and sinful. In the Christian tradition there are certainly churches not open to homosexuality. You know we’re a whole lot more than that.
AS: I think what’s important is that the department is so open to everyone. And issues of sexuality come up sometimes.
And sexuality is just one example of .
EH: And that whole idea of integration: body, mind and spirit, and often living with ambiguity. We need to be open and yet there are spiritual traditions that maybe we have some questions about. The chaplaincy is about living with ambiguities.