Keeping the faith: SFU’s Multifaith Centre still thrives
By Julie Ovenell
In this season when many of the world’s religions invite the faithful to deepen their spiritual connections, SFU Multifaith director and head chaplain Victor Thomas feels like he’s had a bit of a head-start: “With COVID, it feels like it’s been a whole year of reflecting on the important role faith plays in our lives!”
There has indeed been much to contemplate, starting with the centre’s enduring presence on campus.
“SFU has always recognized that spirituality is part of overall health and wellness. The SFU Chaplaincy was recognized by the Board of Governors on June 16, 1965. We’ve been here right from the start,” says Thomas, who became head of the former Interfaith Centre in 2010—three years after coming to SFU from South Africa as a grad student.
Today, the main centre on the Burnaby campus includes 10 groups representing five major faiths: Jewish, Protestant, Muslim, Catholic, and Ismaeli. However, all faith groups are welcome—and invited—to participate.
In normal times, the centre welcomes more than 4,000 students each week. They come to meet friends old and new, to worship according to their traditions, to learn about different faiths, and when necessary, to seek support and guidance from the centre’s diverse community of chaplains.
“It’s really a welcoming and open space,” says Thomas. “Part of the wonderful problem we have is that sometimes it’s so alive with conversation and laughter it can be tough to do some of the quieter prayer activities!”
There are also additional meeting and prayer spaces at the Vancouver and Surrey campuses. And while the global pandemic has temporarily shuttered all these busy spaces (and they are busy, with prayer lines sometimes extending out the door), the Multifaith Centre continues to thrive—online.
Currently, more than 1,000 people continue to connect via Zoom for the 50+ weekly events listed on the centre’s events calendar—daily coffee meet-ups, pastoral care office hours, prayer sessions, discussion groups, and one-off social activities.
Although the centre did not hold its annual Non Violence Day event in person, they recently celebrated Non Violence Week by sharing community submissions about faith, togetherness and inclusivity on Instagram. For many students, this continuity has been critically important to maintaining good mental health during pandemic isolation.
Rasha Syed, a Health Sciences major who will graduate this spring, has been deeply engaged with the centre since she arrived at SFU.
“The Multifaith Centre made it very easy for me, as a Muslim woman, to integrate the five daily prayers into my life. And I loved walking into the centre and seeing familiar faces. I would pray, and then have a chance to chat with someone afterwards. They are such deep personal connections. It sounds corny—but I really do miss those special relationships.”
As president of the Muslim Students Association, Syed is always looking for opportunities to break down barriers between the secular and spiritual, hosting in-person events such as open prayer services, and online events such as the recent United Islam Awareness Week.
As she prepares for Ramadan on April 13—a month-long period of fasting, prayer and community engagement to increase taqwa, or “god-consciousness”—Syed is reflecting on the many ways her faith empowers her.
“I think my faith makes me a better student. It motivates me to be more involved in the university, and gives my days a natural structure. It inspires me to serve my community. It helps me hang on to my history and religion. It benefits every aspect of my life.”
Thomas, who knows the research, is not surprised by this assessment: “While I think there is still some social stigma around talking about one’s faith—especially at universities—this next generation is so much better at accommodating differences and being open to the idea that spirituality is part of personal identity. It is part of being fully human.”