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ONTARIO: University chaplains resign over changes to office and Muslim prayer space

University chaplains resign over changes to office and Muslim prayer space

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Decision-making process called into question; University says student needs were their priority

Taylor Lasota // GAZETTE

This story was updated on Nov. 26 at 9:30 a.m.

Western’s longest-serving chaplain, along with four of his colleagues, has resigned in protest over the recently announced move of the Chaplains’ Services offices and a dedicated Muslim prayer space in the University Community Centre.

Rev. Michael Bechard, Western’s Roman Catholic chaplain, submitted his resignation and those of Janet Loo, Annette Donovan Panchaud, Melissa Page Nichols and Maija Wilson from the UWO Chaplains’ Association, to University President Amit Chakma on Friday.

The University announced last week that the current Muslim prayer room in University College would be moved along with the Chaplains’ Services offices to one space in the basement of the UCC. In addition, the current multi-faith space in the UCC will no longer be used.

Bechard’s concerns are two-fold. He explained that the principle behind having a dedicated space exclusively for one faith group is contrary to how the UWO Chaplains’ Association advocates for faith space on campus. Additionally, he claimed that the decision-making process was flawed and only included certain groups.

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Michael Bechard

“My problem, quite simply, is that I believe the university administration is acting in a way that is both unjust and discriminatory.”

He explained the Chaplains’ Association advocates for space on campus for all faiths and this move was an opportunity to re-evaluate and discuss what space there is on campus for the various faiths.

“I am uneasy with the fact that the university is providing a dedicated space to the Muslim community when such privileges are not being granted to any other body,” he said.

Michael Wagenman, the coordinator of Chaplains’ Services, declined to comment for this story.

Rev. Karen Low, United Church Chaplain, said in an email that the chaplains were concerned with the allocation of space that was available for the entire community.

“We, as Chaplains, had envisioned a shared space, that we would administer, set apart for quiet prayer, reflection, meditation, available to the entire university community,” she said.

“With the current situation — a designated Muslim prayer space and no space available for the prayer and reflection needs of others — we are presented with an issue of justice and equality. It is delicate, however, for in standing on those issues — in standing for all — there can easily be the perception that we are standing against one. That is not the case at all.”

Susan Grindrod, who is the University administration’s contact with the chaplains, said the move was a change necessitated by the renovation of UC.

“From the university perspective, this is not new,” Grindrod said. “There’s been dedicated prayer space [for Muslims] for as long as I can remember in University College.”

She went on to say that the space was, “not large enough to accommodate the number of students who use it — in fact those students book space all over campus to use for prayer and so we thought this space, along with more space for the chaplains … was good for students.”

Kado Zimmo, president of the Muslim Students’ Association, said in an email that the Muslim community was thankful for the new space.

“There is a great need for it on campus, as over 1,000 Muslim students, staff and faculty members need this space to pray in,” he said. “We are glad to hear the University is accommodating its students to help enhance the student experience on campus.”

Bechard said the new space could be used in-between Muslim prayer times for students of other faiths to use. Grindrod responded by saying that the possibility was there to use the space for other faiths, but that the current space was not used by anyone other than Muslims.

“I guess if they can work that out with the Muslim students [they can share the space] — we certainly know that the space over in UC that they’ve used for years and years is very well used and I don’t think anybody else uses that space. So those were the principles that we were using,” she said.

Zimmo, said the needs of the Muslim community mean they need a space specifically for them.

“It is difficult to share the space because there are certain regulations that need to be upheld within the prayer space,” Zimmo said. “For the Muslim prayer room, we require it to remain clean and quiet at all times so people are able to drop in and pray. Most people don’t know that no shoes are allowed to be worn inside the room or that we have designated areas for women and men within the room to respect the privacy of each gender during prayer.

Emma Richard, president of the Newman Catholic Students’ Club, said there were several options for Catholic students at campus affiliates for prayer and reflection and the needs of the community were being met.

“I can’t speak for all Catholic students, but I feel as though there are enough prayer resources for us on the greater Western campus.  While I do think it is important for all faithful people to foster a life of prayer, I do not see this Muslim Prayer Room in the UCC as a deterrent to people of other religions,” she said in an email. “I still like the idea of having a Multi-Faith Room at Western because I think it is good for promoting a culture of inclusivity.

However, I also love having access to these other spaces [at Brescia and King’s] that are distinctly Catholic because I think they’re important for us and for our formation too.  Given the size and the spread of our Catholic community at Western and its affiliates, the current system works very well.”

Bechard was also critical of the way the decision was reached. He said the only people at the table were the Muslim chaplain, another two chaplains, the Muslim Students’ Association and the University.

“Many of these meetings took place without the rest of the chaplains being drawn into the conversation or even informed of the meetings,” Bechard said. “And to be told [after the fact] by administration that there is no room for negotiation and there will be no more further conversation, I think, is nonsense.”

“All the chaplains were not at the table but several of them were at the table at the beginning of this discussion,” Grindrod said. “The chaplain’s group as a whole have asked for increased space every year that I can remember.”

Low said the decision-making process was “not without its complexities.”

“At various times we [the chaplains] did have some input as to our needs and wants, as did others. There were a number of voices at the table including a representative of the MSA, although no other student faith clubs were represented,” she said. “Ultimately, this is an administration issue and they have the decision making responsibility.”

Grindrod said she hoped the chaplains would reconsider their decision to resign.

“I regret the decision the chaplains from the Catholic faith have taken and I hope they reconsider. I know this has been very difficult on the chaplains but I think this is a practical solution to several different issues … from our perspective it was done in the best interests of the students to provide more space to many groups.”

Low stressed the University chaplains are still available to everyone on campus and continue to operate and serve the community.

“No matter what else is going on, we continue to be available to students, faculty and staff, providing a safe space to come talk, gather, explore and question. Especially during times of stress, come find us. You’ll find a welcome [place] here.  We look forward to being in our new space to be able to serve the university community even better.”

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