Keeper of the faith
By Neale McDevitt
In 1961, Manjit Singh came to Canada from his native India with a plan to earn a degree from the University of Western Ontario’s Business School and return home to begin his career. After graduating in 1963, however, Singh’s best laid plans went somewhat awry as he moved to Montreal to work for Northern Electric before being hired to work in Air Canada’s marketing division. Along the way, Singh met a Montreal woman, fell in love and got married and, before he knew it, he had been in the city for some 45 years. “As you can see,” he said with a smile. “I drifted into it rather than having made a set decision.”
Looking for something to do after retiring from Air Canada, Singh eschewed the traditional activities of golf and fishing for something slightly more enlightening. In 1999, he joined McGill’s Chaplaincy Services as the University’s first Sikh chaplain. Seven years later, Singh became the Chaplaincy Services’ first non-Christian Director. Recently, Singh sat down with the McGill Reporter to talk religion, volunteerism and his own circulituous spiritual path that necessitated his moving to Canada to begin to understand Sihkism.
What is the mandate of McGill chaplains?
We are to provide spiritual guidance to students. But we don’t go around soliciting students in the manner of being missionaries or in prosthelytizing. Students come on their own.
Often students need to talk about things other than religion – personal issues such as financial problems or relationships that aren’t going well. Regardless of the issue, chaplains are sworn to respect confidentiality so when students come to speak with a chaplain, it is between the two of them.
How many chaplains are there and how many students use your services?
We are eleven now: three Catholics, one Ecumenism (United Church, Presbyterian and Anglican), an Orthodox Christian, three Jewish, one Muslim, one Buddhist, and a Sikh. We see a few hundred students per year.
Does your office get busier at certain times of the year?
Exam time is very stressful and we often get more students then.
McGill also has a counseling service with trained psychologists so the chaplains don’t duplicate that work. If the student just wants to talk and find a way to release stress, we are there for them. But if the chaplain feels the student needs more guidance, they will refer them to the professional counselors.
Tell us about some of the outreach programs your office runs.
First, there is the McGill Student-Parent Network, a service we offer McGill students who have children. It is a tough balancing act so we give them assistance in several ways. We recruit volunteer babysitters from among our students and arrange to have one of these babysitters go the residence of the family for up to two hours while the parent studies.
One Saturday per month, we invite all the parents and their kids to come to Newman House from 10-2. Parents sit upstairs to do their studies and downstairs we have volunteers who keep the children occupied with music, storytelling, etc.
It sounds like you’re helping create a network of student-parents.
Absolutely. Not only does this help them with their studies, it also helps foster friendships between the parents. Sometimes it’s nice to hear you aren’t the only one dealing with a particular challenge. It gives you a little more courage to carry on.
On top of our annual holiday party every December, we also have a Halloween party each year. Many of these student-parents are also international students. They often don’t have much of a social network, so this helps them feel less isolated and more integrated.
We also have a program specifically for single parents. They meet here at the Chaplaincy office on Tuesdays for lunch. We supply tea, coffee and juice. A student from the School of Social Work acts as moderator while the parents discuss various issues, best practices, what not to do, things like that.
And the winter coat program?
For the past six or seven years, we’ve been providing students with good quality used winter outerwear – something that is especially important for international students. Because they are usually only here for one year it isn’t worth their while to invest their money in winter clothing – especially if they come from warm climates.
As president of the Interfaith Council of Montreal, you understand the importance of dialogue between people of different faiths. How does the Chaplaincy Service foster this dialogue?
For the past two years we have run a program called Discovering My Neighbour’s Faith. Historically in Canada, the Judeo-Christian tradition has been the dominant tradition. In the last 30 years, however, Canada’s demographics have changed drastically with immigrants from all over the world coming here and bringing their own religious customs. But there is very little awareness of these new religious traditions among mainstream society. We thought it would be best to introduce students to new religious traditions because they are probably more open minded than the general population.
Once a month we arrange a visit to a house of worship in the community. The idea is, rather than have me sitting here talking to you about my religious views and you trying to imagine it, we say ‘come and see how this particular community practices spirituality.’ When students see it in action the experience is more meaningful.
We also arrange to have a meal with the host community. Eating together breaks the social barrier and you all learn something about one another. The program is very popular – in some instances we’ve had as many as 65 students attend
We think of chaplains doing a lot of one-on-one work, but your office seems to promote more group activities.
In general, I think one-on-one work has limited possibilities. Students are of a certain age where they are more interested in group activities rather than one-on-one spirituality.
How did you end up at McGill?
I was at an interfaith meeting some 10 years ago and I was approached by a priest who was a Roman Catholic chaplain at McGill. He had been attending to a Sikh student who had lost a close friend in an automobile accident. She was distraught and she had been seeing him for counseling. He asked why she didn’t go to a Sikh priest and I explained that there are no ordained priests in our tradition and it is the community elders who play this role.
I told him that I would be happy to talk to this woman who was an international student from England. He arranged for us to meet and I counseled her. Later that year, I became a chaplain at McGill.
What makes a good chaplain?
You must be non-judgmental and a good listener. People are coming in to talk and if you’re not listening or passing judgment on what they are saying then you won’t be much help.
What is the best thing about being a chaplain?
Being able to help. Sometimes a person comes here and you can see the stress on their face. But if they are smiling when they leave at the end of our session it makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something. Something good.
How would you respond to people who say that today’s youth lack a sense of spirituality?
I think there is definitely some truth to that. Of course, some people want to keep their spirituality very quiet. Talking about religion and God is not one of the priorities for people today.
I think the current generation has seen a lot more of the world than my generation, especially with access to the internet and TV. They have other interests, other priorities. Spirituality isn’t an easy sell.
What were some of your priorities when you were a young man?
I was focused on finding a career to pursue. I was very active in sports and socializing, of course. Although partying in my days was not the same as it is now – in India back then young people didn’t drink – but still, partying and getting together was an important part of our lives.
How did you rediscover your spirituality?
The real catalyst was when I came to Canada as a foreign student. Suddenly I was in an environment where I was a complete stranger and, back then, my appearance was so conspicuous that sooner or later people had to ask me why I wore a turban and why I had a beard. I quickly realized that I had to be able to give some logical and sensible answers. That required thinking more and finding out why I wear a turban – because when you’re growing up it is a given. You don’t ask questions. I began reading more and more and gradually I discovered this side of myself.
The more I read the more I realized that there was a lot of depth and richness in my tradition and it motivated me to read more and try to learn more. That’s how my spiritual journey started and it has been ongoing ever since.