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Interfaith to multifaith: UVic chapel a spiritual shelter for students

When psychologist Rita Knodel refers students to the UVic Interfaith Chapel, it’s more about introducing them to a community than offering a religious experience.
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Anglican chaplain Ruth Dantzer, right, with volunteer Caroline Vanslyke, left, student Kelsey Kotzian and border collie Dharma at a Pet Cafe at the Interfaith Chapel on Wednesday. Students come to pat a dog or cat at the event, organized by the Anglican church.

When psychologist Rita Knodel refers students to the UVic Interfaith Chapel, it’s more about introducing them to a community than offering a religious experience.

“So many students are feeling lonely,” says Knodel, director of counselling services and multifaith services at the University of Victoria.

“So I tell people, if you are looking for a safe community of people who are caring, the multifaith chapel is a really good place.”

Those involved with the chapel, which opened in 1985, say no other university chapel in Canada offers so much and is so well attended. They attribute that success to a combination of respect for all faiths and the chapel’s ability to fill a few secular needs: relationship, community and warmth.

Last month, faith leaders signed a new memorandum of understanding to co-operate in providing multifaith spiritual services on campus. Where the original 1977 memorandum had signatures from leaders of three faiths — Anglican, Catholic and United — the new document has been signed by representatives of 11, expected soon to be 12.

They include representatives of the Baha’i, Baptist, Buddhist, Christian Science, Jewish, Lutheran, Muslim and Unitarian faiths. The Hindu community is expected to soon make it 12.

These days, those involved with the chapel typically refer to it as “multifaith” rather than “interfaith.”

Pastors and other religious representatives using the chapel, which is run as part of Student Services and linked with mental-health services, are not under the direction of the university.

Those who are paid are paid by their own faith groups. They must, however, pass a university review process and are cautioned against proselytizing or seeking religious recruits.

Knodel likes to think of the Interfaith Chapel as a place of learning, where students can explore.

“What I hope to see happen there is the creation of a safe place where students can explore the differences between various religions and figure out what are the common principles,” she said.

Faith groups co-operate and collaborate to offer a varied weekly calendar.

There is a daily Catholic mass and Muslim prayers every Friday, but the chapel also offers regular meditation sessions, mindfulness instruction, sacred drumming, group outings and a weekly soup kitchen for hungry students. There’s even a Pet Café, organized by the Anglican church, where students turn out by the hundreds to pat a dog or cat.

Henri Lock, a United Church chaplain now working at UVic, said the fact that the chapel isn’t affiliated with any particular faith is part of the attraction for some students.

He said when he began teaching meditation techniques, he called the class “Christian Meditation.”

Few showed up. Then he simply called it “Meditation” and attracted a few more.

But when he offered “Learn How to Meditate,” the increase was tenfold. These days, his classes are well attended, usually attracting 30 to 40 people.

The lesson, Lock concluded, is that students were willing to come only when they could start from scratch, from a place of zero experience and no professed identity.

“Most of the students who participate in the activities that I hold space for have very little connection to any faith tradition,” said Lock.

“They are still interested in spiritual practices from various different traditions and they want to participate in all of them. But they don’t want to identify with any particular faith or faith community.”

Rev. Remi de Roo, former Roman Catholic Bishop of Victoria, who stepped down in 1998 after 37 years, said he believes structured organizations, including churches, are no longer trusted the way they used to be, and people are more conscious of individual freedoms.

“So, in a situation like that, young people are more interested in developing relationships than they are in being bound by any particular structure,” said de Roo, 93.

“At a time of changing culture, structures will come and go. But people are always attracted by happy, warm relationships.”

De Roo said God can easily be found in those relationships.

“We can realize our own dignity and our beauty, which is God-given,” he said.

“If everybody recognized and respected everybody else as made in the image and likeness of God, then we would have a more peaceful and prosperous world.”

rwatts@timescolonist.com