University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
Maged Matias. Photo by Jim Panou

Show of Faith

U of T's ecclesiastic alphabet once began and ended with "A" for Anglican, but now embraces everyone from Ahmadis to Zenists

A long, long day among the searchers and the certain begins in the Wycliffe College chapel, at a hymn-filled service with the tantalizing name of “Wine Before Breakfast.” It is not yet 7:30 on a thundery summer morning, and outside, appropriately, the heavens flicker and shake. A history major is playing his guitar near the altar, and vocalists are greeting the arriving congregants:

This is the air I breathe,
Your holy presence living in me
This is my daily bread,
This is my daily bread,
Your very word spoken to me
and I, I’m desperate for you,
and I, I’m lost without you . . .

The haloed heads of apostles look down on us in the brick chapel, which is painted cream and pastel blue and green. Barely translucent in the dank dawn gloom, stained glass portraits celebrate intrepid evangelists such as Charles Inglis of Nova Scotia and Edmund James Peck, “the first Anglican missionary to devote his life to the Eskimo.”

There is lusty singing of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” a Circle of Blessing ringing a couple whose of strangers’ hands, the taking of wafers and wine and an excitement of thunder during a reading from Romans 2:17.

Apart from the multiracial, multilingual assortment of students and others in the pews, it might be 1891, when Wycliffe College moved to this sturdy edifice. (The college was founded 14 years earlier “to prepare men of evangelical conviction for the Anglican ministry,” according to the historical plaque outside.) But this is the 21st century, and “Wine Before Breakfast,” like the university that enfolds and encircles it, attracts a much wider crowd.

Among the ardent worshippers is Beatrice S.* She is a fourth-year student of mechanical engineering specializing in robotics, and a Chinese-Canadian originally from Montreal. Like many students, she is deeply interested not only in science, but the state of her own soul.

“I was raised as atheist,” Beatrice says, and then quickly adds: “I shouldn’t say that! My parents were raised in the Taoist tradition, but as an intellectual family, I guess our position was that God was no longer relevant. In high school, I saw religion as at best a tool to stay sane, and at worst a crutch for the weak-minded.”

Yet here she is today, in the Wycliffe chapel, singing “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour.” I ask about her own passage to piety and she says, “For me, it was a process that led to a moment. It all comes down to one question: do you believe that it is possible that Jesus Christ rose from the dead?

“I mean, either Jesus is speaking the truth, or He’s an incredible liar. For most of my scientist peers, that’s ridiculous – in science, everything is based on laws. Because we’ve never seen anything violate those laws, that’s how science evolved. And one of the laws is that the dead don’t rise.

“The definitive moment came in a Greek mythology course – how nerdy, right? We were discussing Bacchus and the professor drew an analogy between Bacchus and Christ and said ‘He’s just like Christ.’ At that moment, I personally identified with Christ and I realized that Jesus stood for everything that’s diametrically opposed to Bacchus.

“I had never known such joy as the joy of that moment. Every cell in my body felt like it was going to explode.”

So that was how it happened.

“You can’t come to a rational conclusion that Christ was the son of God,” says Beatrice. “But if you pray, and your prayers are answered, can you accept that as proof?”

AT A QUARTER PAST TEN, NOUMAN Ashraf (BCom 2002 St. Michael’s, MBA 2006) and I sneak into what soon will be the Multifaith Centre in the Koffler Institute for Pharmacy Management on Spadina Avenue, though “sneak” may be the wrong term, considering Ashraf ’s commanding presence in full beard, smart business suit and brilliantly shiny shoes.

Ashraf is the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Officer of a university whose ecclesiastic alphabet once began and ended with “A” for Anglican, but whose spires now look down on everything from Ahmadis to Zenists. (Ashraf calls the multiplicity of religions on campus “the invisible diversity.”) Hence the construction of the Multi-Faith Centre for Spiritual Practice and Study, whose mandate is to provide a space where anyone of any creed (or no creed) can practise, preach or pray.

Ashraf says the centre “isn’t just going to be a place where people meditate. This isn’t a moral United Nations or a spiritual G7, but a place where people who are interested in this aspect of student life will find an outlet.”

An elevator white with gypsum dust lifts us to the central hall, which is to be a light-filled chamber free of any overt symbol of any particular sect. Ashraf says the new building is meant to encourage a mingling of minds that otherwise would scatter to their respective chapels, gurdwaras, ashrams, mosques and shuls. He points out the panels that will recess to reveal alcoves that display the deity, idol or iconography of whichever creed is using the room, then hide it when another sect’s service begins.

“We’re a secular institution that is publicly funded,” Ashraf asserts. “We’re not pro-spirituality or anti spirituality. This building allows our students to not only develop their relationship with the space, but also to articulate this relationship with that space. We don’t want to prejudge what that will look like.”

"When you come to view other religions, you can ask questions, but you wouldn't find a complete answer. What I find in my religion is complete." - Maged Matias
“When you come to view other religions, you can ask questions, but you wouldn’t find a complete answer. What I find in my religion is complete.” – Maged Matias

JUST BEFORE NOON, MAGED METIAS, a mechanical engineering student from Pickering, Ontario, meets me on the steps of the Galbraith Building. Metias is a communicant of the Coptic Orthodox creed, an ancient branch of Christianity – established by the apostle Mark in AD 42 – that counts about 40 sons and daughters at the university. We talk about the duties of his sect and the contest of science and faith. “In engineering,” he says, “there’s the law that says that matter cannot be created or destroyed. But we believe that God created the universe. That means there is a flaw in one of the two laws. I think the flaw is in science, because man made the science.”

“Can you be an engineer and still believe that Jesus walked on water?” I ask. “If the Bible said he walked on water,” says Metias, “he walked on water.” Metias reaches into his backpack and produces a well-worn copy of The Agpeya, the prayer book of the seven canonical hours. He notes that while observant Jews pray three times a day and Muslims five, the Coptic Orthodox lead the league with seven: prime, terce, sext, none, vespers, compline and midnight.

I wonder how he views the secular swirl of campus life, and how he relates to students who are as devoted as he is, but to a different creed. “When you come to view other religions,” Metias says, “I think you can ask questions but you wouldn’t find acomplete answer. If you ask a question to a Buddhist or a Sikh, I’m sure they would have an incomplete answer. What I find in my religion is complete.

“I don’t want to say that it all makes sense, because there are mysteries. For example, we believe the bread and wine is Christ. I guess my question in general is, why don’t people ask questions about their own religion?”

I ask Metias if, given his devotion, he might pursue life as a Coptic Orthodox (non-celibate) priest. “Our priests are chosen by committee,” he smiles, “And you don’t even know why they chose you. If they ever came to me, I’d say no. But that doesn’t mean they’d stop asking.”

SARAH VAJDIK IS DASHING FROM psychology to math. She is a soft-spoken woman of Czech descent from Chatham, Ontario, where her father’s father helped to build the Roman Catholic church of St. Anthony of Padua.

Vajdik, 26, already holds a degree in history from the University of Ottawa and a master’s of public history from the University of Western Ontario. She is at U of T to complete the one-year course that leads to a bachelor of education, and to pursue with almost startling constancy the faith of her fathers.

It is 12:15, and bells, not thunder, are pealing above the Gothic arches and dark wood vaults of the St. Thomas Aquinas Church on Hoskin Avenue. Vajdik, a “cradle Catholic” with an hour between classes, is right on time for Mass. As she always is, seven days a week.

“I missed one Mass when I was young,” she says. “I had a very high fever, but somebody came to our house and brought me Communion. Then, when I was an undergrad in Ottawa, I was very sick and I stayed home in the morning because I thought there was a Mass in the evening. But there wasn’t, and I was devastated.”

And that was the only Sunday in her entire remembered life that she did not go to church.

“You lead the NHL in attendance!” I tell her.

“It’s not a scorecard,” Vajdik says. “But people do have different things that are important to them.”

For Vajdik – and the six other Newman Centre residents who have been designated student campus ministers – religion is not merely a wafer and wine. “There are moments,” Vajdik says, “when you’re going through something and you’re tested, but I know that I’m not searching. I feel very grounded in my faith.”

Vajdik notes with amusement that most people assume that the student campus ministers all are on the path to becoming priests and nuns. It is true that a room at Newman opened up for her because one student left for the seminary, but the fact is that Vajdik chose Toronto, as she puts it, “for a guy.”

That relationship ended, but Vajdik isn’t ready for the nunnery quite yet. She spends her hours studying, praying, shepherding a dozen or so students through the Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults and cleaning the St. Thomas Aquinas Church, an act that she calls “Vacuuming for Jesus, or Cleaning for Christ.”

“People look at me like I’m bizarre,” Vajdik admits. “Back in high school, they knew that I was different. They used to say, ‘Hey churchy – you’re going to be a nun!’ But then when people had problems, even my friends who didn’t have faith would come and say, ‘Sarah, would you pray for me?’”

AARON SILVER IS WEARING A YARMULKE when we meet in the early afternoon, which is pretty much the same as carrying a sign that says, “Look, everybody! I’m Jewish!”

We’re in a coffee shop on Harbord Street, across from the Wolfond Centre for Jewish Campus Life, where he often goes to say mincha, the midday prayer, when his class schedule allows. Silver is a 19-year-old from Calgary, a first-year student majoring in economics. He’s a little older than many of his classmates because he took last year off to work on a kibbutz in Israel and to ride with an ambulance corps as an emergency medical technician. He is a self-described “modern Orthodox” Jew – no black hat, no black suit, no tasselled prayer shawl hanging out of his jacket. But Silver adheres to a strictly kosher diet, observes his faith’s myriad holidays and festivals, and has arranged not to have any classes on Friday afternoons as the holy Sabbath begins.

I ask him if he has had much contact with people of other faiths since arriving in this great poly-cultural city. He replies that there is a certain (rather attractive) Roman Catholic girl in his English class with whom he has been having “not a debate – more of a conversation” about their respective belief systems.

“I know that some Christians believe that you are doomed to hell if you don’t accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah,” he says. “That’s not something that we believe – we don’t say that you’re doomed to hell if you don’t believe in the same God that we believe in. I have no problem with other people and other faiths.” I ask about his career plans, and he says that he’d like to become a lawyer. But this is far from certain. “I don’t know where I’ll be in four years,” says Silver. “But I guarantee you I’ll be an Orthodox Jew.”

AT THE PRESCRIBED HOUR FOR DHUHR – after the sun has crossed the meridian, but before the saying of Asr – 30 Muslim men and a smaller number of women slip quietly into a rotunda on the Bahen Centre’s ground floor, nearthe back door by the Mega Bites Café.

Dhuhr is the second of five daily prayer sessions; taken together, these form one of the Five Pillars of Sunni Islam. (The others are fasting, alms-giving, a pilgrimage to Mecca and the profession of faith in one God and His prophet.) The makeshift mosque at Bahen, with its many large windows, serves as both sanctuary and fishbowl; everyone entering or leaving the building can watch the prayer-givers as they kneel, stand and bow.

Most of the women are in long skirts and head scarves; one is veiled but for a small slit at the eyes. The men, by comparison, are dressed in the customary collegiate fashion, which means running shoes, baggy pants and sweatshirts by Ecko and Enyce.

Then there is Tarik Abdulla, age 17. He is a first-year engineering student; a brown-haired, brown-eyed Somali by way of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Abdulla is wearing jeans with the cuffs rolled up, a flamboyant orange plaid shirt and a bright red New York Yankees baseball cap worn, as I suppose one must when one is 17, backward, with the label still affixed.

“It is part of our belief,” he tells me when Dhuhr has been completed, “five times a day to offer prayers to our God, Allah. As human beings, when you look at how much God has given us, five minutes or 10 minutes five times a day is not much to give back. Those who do not pray are negligent, and we have the right to instruct them. They are like Christians who do not attend church on Sundays. It is sad.”

With Abdulla is his friend Nihad Nasim, another first-year engineering student from the United Arab Emirates. I ask Nasim if he is surprised to find a place for Muslim worship on campus, and he replies, “No, because there are churches over here and we are not a minority like 10 years ago.”

I wonder how much contact the young Arabs have had with classmates of varying faiths. Abdulla says he has met some Jewish students and that everyone seems to get along. When I ask about the Western girls who stride past the prayer space, decidedly not veiled or enshrouded, he shakes his curly head and says, “Well, you can control your eyes.”

FOUR O’CLOCK IN THE BASEMENT OF Knox College – beyond the banner that proclaims “Faith Matters.” I’m with the ecumenical chaplain, trying to make sense of what I’ve heard.

“Most students are searching,” says Rev. Ralph Carl Wushke (ThM 2004). “But not all are searching for religion and spirituality. They might be searching for friendship, for human community in a very big city, for intimacy, for relationships – sexual included. In my view, those all are spiritual matters.”

Wushke sees a renaissance of religion on campus, and by this he does not mean the Knox College of a half-century ago, when the graduating class was made up exclusively of clean-shaven white men.

The ecumenical chaplain himself, who is a well-known queer activist and energetic left-wing agitator, rather triumphantly breaks the mould of the old Gothic campus and the old Christian mores. But he is not alone. “What I see now,” he tells me, “are about 1,300 students in theological studies – a lot of people very keen to go to chapel, keen to preach, keen to sing hymns. At Emmanuel College, they have the biggest incoming class of Master’s of Divinity students in several years.

“One of the delightful things that I have experienced, in the Bible Studies classes that I offer, is to see students from the natural sciences, from biology and physics, who treasure the opportunity to spend an hour and a half, a couple of times a week, away from the lab. These people can talk about string theory, but they also have a profound and deep interest in talking about God and God’s purpose in their life.” “One speaks of a resurgence of religion,” Wushke says. “There is a deep spiritual longing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean traditional religion.”

And he gives me the name of Adam Awad.

ADAM AWAD, WHEN I MEET HIM AT A Starbucks on Bay Street at 7:30 p.m., turns out to be a one-man multifaith centre: a Lebanese-Canadian Buddhist Sikh who was raised as a Roman Catholic in Ottawa.

Awad, 20, is combining his studies in Middle Eastern history and politics with an avidity for circus arts. He hopes to earn his degree, work as a dancer or acrobat in the Cirque du Soleil for a while, and then enter the diplomatic service.

If this is not enough to distinguish him from the bulk of the student body, he spent part of his teenage years as a practicing witch. All of this, he says, is part of the process of self-discovery open to everyone in Canada.

“When I was around 13 or so,” he says, “I started exploring spirituality. The first transition was to a sort of Wicca witchcraft pagan spirituality. At first, my parents were frightened – I’m the youngest of four children, and the worst thing they ever had to deal with before this was my brother acting out in class. Then here’s me coming out as a gay witch!

“Now, I’m in a strange mix between Buddhism and Sikhism. I guess what I’m trying to show is that there are multiple paths to God. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at another religion and said, ‘That’s a wrong way to approach spirituality.’”

“Five years from now, do you think you’ll be a Lutheran?” I ask him. “Or have you found it?”

“I could never imagine myself committing to one single path because one path doesn’t define modern life,” Awad replies. “I couldn’t see myself being a devout anything.”

I tell him about Sarah Vajdik and the other people I’ve met on campus who are so unflinchingly certain of their faith. They seem quite different from Awad, who doesn’t wear a turban or carry a ceremonial kirpan, who cut his hair short last spring (unlike observant Sikhs) and who doesn’t exactly go around Toronto in saffron robes.

“I really hope it’s a personal choice and it works for them,” Awad says. “I hope they really find what they are looking for.” “I don’t look at religion as a mantle, as an outfit we put on,” he continues. “It’s the threads that make the outfit. A lot of my beliefs affect the way I look at human suffering. My fondest belief is that, yes, we can all get along, but it’s not achievable right now.”

I congratulate him on his thoughtfulness and commitment to self-awareness. “Well,” he smiles, “I don’t think about these things all the time. I’m in mid-terms right now!”

THE FINAL MEETING OF A LONG, LONG day is a quiet one, alone with a true believer in a plain-walled room.

This is the Eckankar Centre on Yorkville Avenue, toward closing time. Peter Skrivanic, 35, who is studying medical anthropology at U of T Scarborough, is telling me about the smallest congregation at the university, that of the Religion of the Light and Sound of God. Eckankar, which adherents believe is an ancient creed revived in the 1960s by an American named Paul Twitchell, focuses on dreams, chanting, karma and reincarnation. But only a couple of people on campus have embraced it.

“We’re not one of the Big Three, that’s for sure,” Skrivanic admits. “But if we look at something from a numbers game, that’s not coming from the right place. There’s no need to renounce in Eckankar. If someone can use a tool and make them a better Catholic, that’s fine. There is one God and God is One, but if not, OK, there’s two!”

Through the walls, suddenly and hauntingly, comes a long, low moan: “huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu . . .”

These are other Eckists in the next satsang down the hall, performing Eckankar’s signature one-word spiritual exercise, “Love Song to God.” Twelve hours ago, it was “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and now this. “I will often chant that for 10 minutes before going to bed,” Skrivanic says, basking in the a cappella tone. “I find that it increases the probability of having dreams with spiritual content.”

So this is the end of the journey: a religion for everyone that permits everyone to keep his or her own religion. Perfect, perhaps, for the most diverse congregation in the most diverse city the human race has ever constructed.

“Not long ago,” the true believer tells me, “I went to the campus chaplains’ lunch. I was sitting at a table with a Sikh, a Humanist, a Wiccan and an Evangelical Christian. “And I thought, when you look at the world at large, ‘Wow, this is a miracle!’”

*last name omitted by request

Allen Abel is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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  1. 6 Responses to “ Show of Faith ”

  2. Michael Graves, PhD 2002, Peterborough, Ontario says:

    Allen Abel states that “U of T’s ecclesiastic alphabet once began and ended with ‘A’ for Anglican.” Strictly speaking, this is not true, and the fact that it is not true is an essential point to bear in mind when considering the role of religion in university life at U of T.

    King’s College, the forerunner of the University of Toronto, was an Anglican institution. However, the affiliation with the Church of England was formally dissolved before U of T was created in 1849 as an expressly nondenominational institution. In fact, the most defining feature of U of T’s development was the gradual union of multiple universities of various religious affiliations into a non-sectarian federation, among them: University College (non-denominational), St. Michael’s (Catholic), Victoria (Methodist) and Trinity (Anglican).

    U of T has a long and admirable history of tolerance and respect for different faiths, but without the officially secular and non-denominational status of the university as a whole, this tolerance and respect would never have been possible. Having read some of the comments made by the students interviewed in the article (several of which are quite alarming), I think that a reminder of the central importance of the limitation of the role of religion in university life, and in the public sphere in general, might be beneficial. The more fanatical among them might do well to read Janice Gross Stein’s very insightful article about the conflict between religion and civil liberties.

    However, in the case of students who, by their own admission, are guided by a personal philosophy that rejects the binding nature of rational conclusions, this may be a waste of time.

  3. Joan E. Grusec, BA 1961 Victoria, Toronto says:

    The resurgence of religion in the life of U of T students greatly disturbed me. My undergraduate education taught me how to think critically and logically. My professors challenged my untested assumptions and beliefs, and I am deeply grateful to them for that. They would never have allowed me to say that having a prayer “answered” is proof of Christ’s divinity (and not sheer coincidence), or that my religion is complete and another’s religion is not (What’s the evidence? What does “complete” mean), or that I had the right to instruct those who do not pray because they are negligent (Whatever happened to tolerance?). If this kind of reasoning is representative of today’s undergraduate students, I am truly saddened.

  4. Rev. Kimberly A. Rapczak, ThM 2005 St. Michael's, McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania says:

    As an American citizen, I read about religious diversity at the University of Toronto with envy. I first moved to Toronto in 1988 and fell in love with the multicultural vibrancy of the city. However, due to life circumstances, I had to return to the United States a few years later.

    Right-wing Christians and the Republican Party currently dominate American society. At least once or twice a year I become so discouraged by my government’s policies that I muse about the possibility of returning to Canada. This article has fired that longing once again. Thank you for reminding me of the value Canadians place on diversity and multiculturalism.

  5. Michael Warden, BA 1973 UC, MA 1974, BEd 1977, MEd 1992, EdD 1997, Toronto says:

    I shall look forward to a future story focusing on atheists, agnostics and secular humanists. Surely we non-believers are worthy of some, if not equal, time and space.

  6. Rev. Al Reimers, MEd 1971, Wellington, Ontario says:

    This story is certainly politically correct: you avoided controversy by interviewing students from a variety of religious backgrounds. I wish you had delved deeper, exploring the raison d’etre for all universities: the pursuit of truth.

    There was a U of T professor who was known for making philosophers come alive. After his lecture on Plato you were sure that Platonism was his personal philosophy. But after hearing him expound on Stoicism, you were sure he was a Stoic. And so it was with all the others, from Epicurus to Pascal. However, at the end of the course, the professor would reveal that his own personal position was that of the Christian philosophers. I honour that professor because he was committed to basic logic, which says that there is objective truth and we can recognize it.

    I wish you had investigated the similarities and differences among the core beliefs of the world’s major religions, emphasizing the founders’ claims and the reasons why adherents accept those claims. After all, if there is only one God, then some of the competing claims about his nature must be true and some must be false, and we should be able to discern the difference.

  7. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    While members of the Toronto Secular Alliance applaud the “spirit” of exploring students’ religious beliefs, we were disappointed that this did not extend to those who lack faith. The Toronto Secular Alliance has helped create the first student centre for non-religious individuals. Perhaps it is time for some coverage.

    Schreiber Pereira
    Toronto Secular Alliance