Let’s talk about faith

PART 1 OF 2: A look at the role the University plays in religion on campus

Queen’s chaplain Rev. Brian Yealland said he balances his own Christian beliefs with ministering to students of different faiths.
Queen’s chaplain Rev. Brian Yealland said he balances his own Christian beliefs with ministering to students of different faiths.
A new ablution room is under construction in the JDUC.
A new ablution room is under construction in the JDUC.

Queen’s Chaplain Brian Yealland estimates that more than three quarters of Queen’s students have some part of their life that they feel is sacred.

It’s his job to provide spiritual support to all of them, as well as the rest of the Queen’s community.

Yealland, who has been Queen’s chaplain since 1983, is a United Church minister.

“I’m denominational in the sense that I’m a minister of a particular denomination…,” he said.

“But I don’t function at Queen’s as a denominational minister. I function more overall as a religious and spiritual advisor.”

Yealland said no one is without bias but his denomination doesn’t interfere with helping those who approach him for assistance.

“I’m white, I’m male, I’m Christian, maybe that means that I would not be as sensitive to someone who is, say, black-skinned and of another faith,” he said.

“It is always possible, but I don’t think my biases, whatever they are, are very strong. They certainly aren’t intentional. I certainly don’t have any burgeoning biases against other peoples.”

The focus of his job has evolved over the course of Queen’s history, Yealland said.

“When I started here and in the years before me, I’d say it was more oriented towards the particularity of Christianity,” he said. “It was sort of in those days viewed as Christianity reaching out to the world. These days, it’s aimed at the world of spirituality in its many diverse forms.

“These days, the job that I do would not have to be someone who is an ordained minister; you might expect it to be someone with a PhD in world religions or something.”

According to archives.queensu.ca, the position of chaplain was created when the University instated an “Advisor to Ex-Service Personnel” to assist with the special needs of veterans returning to classes after the Second World War in 1941.

In 1947, this position was broadened and given the title of University Chaplain.

Yealland, according to fin.gov.on.ca who earns $102,569.46 per year, said his position at Queen’s is different than at other Canadian universities.

“I think I’m one of the last paid chaplains at a university in Canada,” he said. “At most universities, the university would say something like, ‘Well, we’ll provide them some space,’ but it would be up to the religious groups to provide funding for whatever goes on there.”

Yealland said his job has a more traditional, ministering aspect to it that involves assisting students, faculty, and staff.

“A student walks in the door and says ‘I’ve got this problem in my life’ and my job is to say, ‘Let’s see what we can do about it.’ Or it may be that someone has died and we need to plan a memorial service,” he said.

He also acts as an advisor to on-campus student groups.

“[I work] with all the groups whether they’re the Jewish students, Muslim students, Bahais, whatever group it is, or any of the other ways in which spirituality can be addressed,” he said. “At one point I was assisting an atheist group who was calling themselves the Queen’s Humanists who said there was a place for anybody who had a religious view but what about those who aren’t religious or who are anti-religious.”

Yealland said he tries to examine issues that are relevant to the majority of students who believe in spirituality rather than organized religion, and it is an area upon which he is trying to improve.

“The research indicates that, generally speaking, at least 80 per cent of young people have some sort of area of life that they identify as being either sacred or spiritual,” he said. “Now when you look at religious affiliation or participation or commitment, the numbers drop off dramatically, maybe to as low as 20 to 25 per cent.

“Over the years that I’ve been here, I’ve certainly seen religious participation decline, but I don’t see young people as being different than they ever were. I don’t think they value things any differently.”

The JDUC has an interfaith prayer space in Room 231 of the JDUC.

JDUC Director Bob Burge said the space is used primarily by Muslim students who participate in daily prayer there.

“There’s a prayer space for Muslim students, well, for interfaith usage, but they use it every day,” he said. “It is interfaith, but we have lots of traditional Protestant and Catholic worship spaces [located] close to campus.” The JDUC administration is constructing an ablution room on its second floor for Muslim students to perform their cleansing rituals.

Burge said he’s waiting for communication from QUMSA and students who will use the facility before fully completing the project.

“We took two washrooms on the second floor. We made one a unisex bathroom and one an ablution room for brothers and sisters,” he said. “We’ve done as much as we can and now we’re just trying to make it useable.”

Religious clubs ratified by the AMS are entitled to use the space in the JDUC, Burge said.

Burge said he’s sensitive to religious issues and open to suggestions from campus groups.

“If there was an issue that came up and a group felt slighted, I’d want to work with them,” he said.

“You can’t tell by looking at someone how they want to worship. They have to tell us when they need space.”

Religious Studies department head Pamela Dickey Young said her department approaches religion from an academic point of view.

“We don’t aim to make people religious. People come for their own reasons, of course, but we don’t have any goals about making people religious or not religious,” Young said.

“We’re not in the business of doing religion; we’re in the business of teaching it.”

As a result, Young said the department has no formal relationship with any campus religious groups.

“As a department, we don’t interact at all with the campus religious groups. Occasionally we’ll help sponsor an academic speaker,” she said.

When choosing which courses to offer, Young said the department tries to cover as much breadth as it can with the resources available.

“We try to cover those traditions that are represented by a fair number of populations in Canada. We can’t do everything,” she said.

“Arguably, we should have a course in Sikhism but we don’t because we don’t have somebody who’s an expert.”

According to Young, courses in Islam, Sikhism, Bahai and native studies aren’t currently offered.

“The person who teaches our course on Islam is on sabbatical so we’re not offering any courses this year. But she will be teaching two courses next year,” Young said, adding that the department tries not to favor a particular religious tradition.

“We’re not claiming that we teach all there is to teach on the traditions front, but we try and cover at least a representative grouping of those things that you could call ‘world religions’,” she said. “We try to pick those who have the most number of adherents and are spread out geographically,” she said.

Jason Laker, dean of student affairs, said universities have become increasingly adverse to topics surrounding religion and spirituality.

“I think that the decline in paid chaplains comes from universities not knowing quite how to handle religion,” he said.

“I attribute this to two things. One is this notion that it’s very esoteric, medieval stuff, and we’re about rational thought and evidence. Another angle has to do with fear of litigation. The university does not want to run into a situation where they seem to be promoting religion in general or a particular religion.”

Laker said a chaplain with a denomination requires integrity.

“You could place any chaplain from any faith and the question would come up. This chaplain is about as open as you’re going to get,” he said.

“We all have biases. There’s no such thing as objective.”

Students are becoming increasingly desirous of some sort of spirituality, Laker said.

“Students are really differentiating between that and religion,” he said. “Many of them approach it in different ways. For some, their social justice in terms of their activism is a spiritual thing.”

Laker said he thinks religious discrimination occurs in some form on campus.

“This is a microcosm of society. Any problem you see in society happens here and happens at Western and McGill and so forth,” he said.

Laker cited the importance of the role of the chaplain in situations like the burning of QUMSA’s sign in the JDUC on Oct. 23, when several posters in AMS clubspace were set on fire, including the club’s sign.

“The reality is that many Muslim students feel quite marginalized, both here and in society in general. When their sign gets burned, even if they know that other signs were burned as well, because they already have a cumulative experience that’s very diminishing; it adds to it,” he said.

“Having a facilitator such as the chaplain who can help people deal with the experience of that is very important.”


In Tuesday’s Journal, Part 2 will explore religious clubs, resources in Kingston, and the importance of religion in students’ lives.

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