Interfaith at Oasis

I have been asked to contribute an article to the Uniting Church’s national Relations with Other Faiths monthly news. We decided to pick up on one of the themes for my presentation to the national Spiritual Care Australia Conference in Hobart on April 21 and to the University of Tasmania the following day – the progression from mono- to multi- to inter-.

Australian universities have become places of increased religious diversity. In 2012, one in three students studying in Australia were international students, adding to the mix of faiths on campuses across the nation. With this changing landscape, university chaplains have been forced to reassess how they meet the spiritual needs of students.

The Uniting Church first appointed Geoff Boyce as chaplain to Flinders University in 1997. He steered the evolution of the University’s chaplaincy and the Religious Centre to become the Oasis Centre – a space for hospitality, well-being and inclusive spirituality.

This week Geoff is speaking at the Spiritual Care Australia National Conference in Hobart for chaplains about what he’s been doing at Oasis and the journey from a multi-faith to an interfaith conception of chaplaincy.

He writes:

“I’m often asked, ‘what does a chaplain do?’, ‘What exactly is Oasis?’

“I wish I had some neat answers! It’s a complex story rather than a ten second sound-bite!

Chaplaincy evolved out of the church’s need to provide religious services to those geographically displaced from their local church – those in hospitals, prisons and armed services, for example. There is little need in today’s universities because most religious needs can be met in the local community. The days of traditional ‘looking after our own’, sectarian chaplaincy in secular higher education institutions are numbered. Such chaplaincy is of little consequence to a modern university.

At Flinders the changed role for chaplaincy emerged from the internationalisation of the university. Harmony on a pluralist campus requires attention to social cohesion in the face of difference. This attention to the quality of relationships, a concern also quite central to religions, broadened the scope of an inclusive multi-faith chaplaincy to attend to the whole campus – pastoral care to all, regardless of faith or no faith.

So the next step for us at Flinders had to go beyond multi-faith in a Religious Centre – chaplains of the different faiths offering pastoral care to their own. Multifaith (literally many faiths) is an essential first step beyond religious sectarianism, but it doesn’t have the capacity in itself to deliver the harmony we need in our pluralist context. Not that there isn’t a lot of work to be done in that first step of recognising and respecting the rights of others to their belief systems!

Interfaith (literally, between faiths), focuses on the quality of relationships between people of diverse faiths, and also those of no particular faith practice. In Uniting Church language, it is a kind of ‘Ministry of Reconciliation’. It aims to be an inclusive, whole of university, pastoral contribution to university life.

The creation of an Oasis Team has been at the heart of the Oasis interfaith initiative. The team comprises appropriate representatives appointed by religious communities as well as other volunteers who subscribe to the pastoral vision of Oasis and its disciplines. Some of these are members of staff and others, retired members of staff. The team models what we are on about in its own team-life, and offers that ‘inter-life’ to students and staff.

It was surprising at the time, but looking back, I can see that it was not such a big step for a progressive university, at a time of restructuring student services in 2012, to embrace Oasis within its administrative structures, to appoint staff to sustain it and provide a modest budget for its activities. We had always strived to be of service to the university as well as our own constituencies. But we had not expected this!

‘Secular’ in our context does not mean a-religious, anti-God or athieistic. We at Oasis claim the meaning of ‘secular’ as understaood at the time Adelaide, the ‘City of Churches’, was first established – that no one religion be privileged over another or be used to exclude others. The ‘secular’ was a means of protecting freedom of religion, critical in the lives of the various groups escaping religious oppression in the UK and Europe at the time, and providing a means for peaceful and prosperous life in the new utopian colony.

In an ideal world, all university staff would be pastoral carers, customising every situation and conversation to individual students – students who come from highly diverse cultural, national, religious and academic backgrounds. But the pressures in the modern university are often forbidding.

Oasis is founded on what has been learnt in its evolution: from sectarian, often protective and individualised; to a ‘community of colleagues’, a multifaith chaplaincy with a broader agenda of respect for diversity; to an open, intercultural and interfaith enterprise fostering a culture of care.

The challenges of religious and cultural pluralism require major shifts in thinking for chaplains – no longer the ‘rescuing’, ‘telling’ salvation paradigm, but the hospitable, listening, empowering and long-term-committed mentoring (‘walking beside you’) paradigm, directed toward individual and corporate well being.

It means being closely connected to the life of the university but not meddling in it with hidden religious agendas, it means working collaboratively, connecting the disconnected, doing what needs to be done without taking over, enriching and enabling.

Arguably our longest-running collaboration has been with International Student Services. Some years ago they shared with us a concern about the spouses of international students and their families, often isolated in their flats while the students, often the husbands, were on campus. Responding to this directly was outside the ambit of International Student Services. So we agreed to co-host an English Conversation Class for the spouses each week. While the draw card was English language, our real concern was to reduce the isolation of families and build an ongoing community of support. But it also worked the other way, as hospitality is wont. Our Oasis Team member was inspired to undertake a degree in Indonesian. Now her fluency in Indonesian has opened the way for deeper collaboration with the International Office in building friendly relations with Indonesia through our Indonesian alumni.

At the same time, students who have experienced the unconditional hospitality of Oasis at Flinders return to their home countries as Oasis Ambassadors to affect greater interfaith understanding in their home communities.

The opportunities for good are endless!

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