The Centre for Student Engagement (CSE) hosted UTM’s first ever Faith Fair last Tuesday in the Communication, Culture, Information & Technology (CCT) atrium.
This was the first of the three-day Faith Week initiative. The CSE highlights itself as being “committed to holistic learning and development” and introduced Faith Week as a new initiative in collaboration with the Equity & Diversity Office, Hart House, and the University of Toronto Multi-Faith Centre.
Information booths led by faith leaders and student volunteers lined the glass hallway in front of the MiST Theatre where students and staff engaged in conversation about faith, spirituality, and religion.
The International Education Centre (IEC) displayed religions from across the world on a poster board, and the Equity & Diversity Office advertised the Anti-”O” Convos: Hot Topics event, a talk on faith, spirituality, and mental health, that took place last Thursday.
A large banner asked the question, “What Does Faith Mean to You?” Students’ answers were written on colored sticky notes and posted under the question.
The Faith Cafe offered cookies, tea, and coffee along with menus listing starter questions such as “what are some values that your religion/faith emphasizes” and “how do you maintain your faith here at UTM?”
Preksha Mehta, a fourth-year French and sociology student at UTM, works as a Student Organizations Assistant with CSE in a work-study program. She explained how this new initiative came from UTM’s acknowledgement of faith but lack of active support.
“The main motto was to create discussion […] debate, and to have different faith groups interact with each other. That’s why the week we’re having is titled ‘interfaith.’ We can collaborate and have a discussion-based setting, instead of just acknowledging the tolerance that is on campus,” said Mehta.
“The Centre of Student Engagement realized that faith-based groups haven’t been promoted as much, for whatever reason,” continued Mehta.
“We’re just giving opportunities for them to interact with people in a very respectful setting, so people have the opportunity to get to know more about them, and get more information off them.”
Sako Khederlarian, Student Engagement Coordinator and supervisor for the Faith Week initiative, told The Medium, “There are many students who choose the post-secondary institution to study at based on what faith and spirit-based support exists.”
“Our role is to look at ways the different faith-based groups can collaborate and contribute to a positive and supportive environment for the entire UTM community,” said Khederlarian.
As the first ever faith-based initiative, Faith Week also acts as a test project to gain insight for future faith-focused activities.
“It was a very successful week,” said Khederlarian. “I am looking forward to learning more about the successes of the week and see how we can continue to grow and adapt the program for the future.”
Regarding students’ reactions to the Faith Fair, Mehta said she was “pleasantly surprised.”
“I was really surprised, pleasantly surprised, about all the positivity and nice things that people had to say about their faith. It wasn’t anything necessarily religious—very respectful, nothing disrespectful,” said Mehta.
“We had people there to monitor if there was anything requiring censorship, but there was nothing there necessary for us to take down, no political propaganda.”
The faith-based groups who attended the Faith Fair were Baptist Student Ministries, the UTM Catholic Students Club, the Chinese Christian Fellowship (UTMCCF), and Christian Students at UTM.
“We weren’t able to get all the faith-based clubs on campus. We did try our best to get as many as we could in that available time slot,” added Mehta.
Scott Plavnick, one of the Faith Leaders tabling during the Faith Fair, serves as Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Mississauga and has been involved with Baptist Student Ministries (BSM), a Christian club at UTM, for over 20 years.
“University is a crucial time in many people’s lives, where they’re sorting out what they believe out of all the competing voices, their parents, academia, society, their friends—sorting out what they believe and how they’re going to live their lives,” said Plavnick.
When asked about the Faith Fair, Plavnick shared that it was a good start.
“There were students that thanked us for being there. One student told us we were brave to be offering Bibles on a secular campus,” said Plavnick. “I find it unfortunate that people have the idea that to be able to be a part of the secular society, academia, medicine, government, whatever it is, that you can’t let your faith have an influence on your life,” continued Plavnick.
On the Faith Fair banner that asked, “what does faith mean to you,” many sticky-notes read “love,” “hope,” and “belief,” while others read “connection,” “lifestyle,” “civil society,” or “religion.”
To Ahmad Fakhry, a fourth-year CCIT student and member of MSA, “Faith isn’t just a label we put on ourselves. It kind of represents who we are. I am molded by faith; I don’t mold the faith.”