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Rediff.com  » News » Sikh named director of Chaplaincy Services at Canada varsity

Sikh named director of Chaplaincy Services at Canada varsity

October 04, 2006 10:13 IST

From Air Canada manager in Montreal to director of Chaplaincy Services at McGill University is quite a drastic change for Manjit Singh.

After his retirement from Air Canada a few years back, he opted to volunteer to become part of a group of  clergies --  ordained Christian priests, a rabbi, a Muslim and a Buddhist -- at McGill University.

So far the director of Chaplaincy Services was Gwenda Wells. She decided to step down a few weeks back and the university decided that Manjit Singh will "assume the duties of director of the Chaplaincy Service for a three-year term," said university spokesperson Cathie Sheeran in a press release.

It is the first time that a non-Christian has been named to this position, Singh told rediff.com in a telephone interview  from Montreal. 

"It's a multi-faith chaplaincy with 12 chaplains: Seven of them are from different Christian traditions, there are 2 Jewish Rabbis, one each is Muslim, Buddhist and Sikh. There's no Hindu clergy so far," he said.

"It's a voluntary position and so the person has to be devoted to work without any monetary compensation," he added.

Dr. Balbir Sahni, professor of Economics, Concordia University, describes Singh's appointment "as a welcome initiative particularly realised at an academic institution in a country committed to multiculturalism."

In a telephone interview he said last week, "Those associated with anything 'religious' have a role to play and a more harmonious understanding and collective will to offer needed support to Canadian youth."  

It's more interesting for Singh to get this position as he's not ordained clergy as in case of Christians of various denominations. As in the case of Jewish people, they have rabbis, a Muslim representative is an Imam and the Buddhist is yoga-zen-meditation teacher. "I am the only person on the chaplaincy who is a lay person and has been named the director of this multi-faith group," he said.

He has been part of the chaplaincy for six years and in that position he has been teaching Sikhism to undergraduate students. "I teach one course twice a week, a total of 36 lectures," Singh said.

His course is titled 'Introduction to Sikhism' which teaches the basics of Sikhism "so that students, who opt to take this course, become familiar with what Sikhism is all about and that's the way I have structured my course. They don't become experts in such a short time. They certainly become familiar with the religion."

Last year, Singh said, he had 61 students and "85 percent were mainstream White people. There were 4 Hindu students, a couple of them were Muslims. My course has been pretty popular and it's an elective course. I have fairly good reviews by the students as a teacher."

Singh has already designed a written course outline and so the students know well in advance about the topics and scope of the lectures. "I start with social and political conditions of north India when Guru Nanak arrived on the scene.  Next is religious conditions in north India at the time of Guru Nanak," he said.

When asked whether he describes the contemporary period, as to teach his students how Sikhism has changed over a period of time, he said, "I only go up to the end of the 19th century. I can't  cover the dynamic part of Sikhism. Sikhism in the 20th century during the British rule in one or two lectures."

He teaches his students the basic tenets of Sikhism. "I give them first the life history of the 10 gurus and I tell them about the basic tenets, the founding of the Khalsa, Sikh symbols, articles of faith and I give them Sikh religious thoughts and give them the concept of God in Sikhism, Sikh ethics, Sikh value system."

The directorship of Chaplaincy entails a lot of administrative  work, Singh said. "I coordinate the work of the chaplains.  Some of their work is pretty independent. I don't need to interfere in that. We also run programmes that are non-denominational in nature and we have an outreach programme."

There are a number of students at McGill who are parents. "They have small children and to be studying full time and looking after children is fairly taxing. Some of them are even financially hard off.  So, Chaplaincy has programmes where once a month, we have parents coming with their children and Chaplaincy provides babysitting so those parents are able to do their work. This is essentially done to assist them so that they can have some free time for their studies. This is not confined to any religious tradition. Any student who's a parent can come in and we babysit their children."

The Chaplaincy also organises "panel discussions on different religions and we may also invite somebody from outside to come and speak."

When asked whether there are activities in the class or through Chaplaincy services to sensitise students about other faith groups, other than their own, Singh  said, "They are already together in the classroom, in the school. Students are part of the society. Little things in society are looked upon with suspicion. Similarly, students also present the same attitude as the society," he said.

Ajit Jain in Toronto