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A tour of faith (and a lesson on compassion)

This article was originally published by Phoebe on the Life@UofT blog.

I’ve always thought that the Multi-Faith Centre has been one of the divisions on campus that has created some of the most interesting programming. A lot of the groups and events that they host deal with issues of intersectionality in a way not many organizations do and that has always impressed me. When I heard of the Tour of Faith on Campus event, I jumped at the chance to attend–I knew I was in for another unique experience. (And what a great idea for an event, by the way!).

We started our “Tour of Faith” at the Wolfond Centre for Jewish Campus Life on Harbord Street. While there were no services planned for the day that we could attend, we spent the time in the sanctuary with one of the campus rabbis who showed us some artifacts of her faith and talked a little bit about how modern Jewish faith manifests itself nowadays. After a quick lunch, we moved on to St. Thomas Aquinas Church at the Newman Centre Catholic Chaplaincy & Parish for the 12:15pm Mass. A quick debrief afterwards allowed us to ask questions about what we had just experienced and discuss the Catholic faith as a whole. Our final stop was to the Jumu’ah Friday Prayer Service at the Multi-Faith Centre. Afterwards we had a similar debrief session with the imam who had been leading the prayers to discuss a little bit about Islam and his personal journey in this faith.

To be honest, there are so many different directions I could go here in talking about my experience during that day, but I’ll just share a few musings and memories that I had.

During the Mass, as the priest took a second to welcome our multi-faith group to the service he jokingly said that someone would do a “song and dance” for us after the service (he was referring to the debrief/discussion session we would have afterwards). The girl beside me turned to me and asked “Does he mean she’s actually going to dance for us?” I laughed a little inside, but then realised that I would be just as clueless if I was attending a service in a religion I was less familiar with (though I’m not Catholic, this wasn’t the first time I’ve attended a Catholic Mass). It was definitely a reminder to myself that I should be more mindful of these things.

What I was struck by was the initial uneasiness I had in attending a service or visiting a space that was tied to a certain faith community. I am not a member of any of the faith communities that we had visited on that day and being invited to another community’s sacred time and space was quite uncomfortable at the beginning. It felt like I was intruding on a personal moment (and in some ways, I guess I was). However, the openness that our tour group was greeted with at each stop was quite touching. Being “allowed” to stand when the Torah was taken out, or to share the peace during Mass, or to wear an optional head covering during the Jumu’ah prayer service was a lesson in compassion and inclusion.

It wasn’t just the members of our tour who got an education. At various points we were stopped by bystanders who asked what we were doing–some of them were members of the respective faith communities we visited, some were not. Most of them remarked on what a great idea of an event it was. The conversations that arose from those encounters made me realise just how rare of an occurrence these conversations actually are. I think living in a such a diverse city, I can take for granted the exposure I get to different cultures and communities. In actuality, I stay in my own community for the most part and don’t take an effort to really engage with, not just tolerate, communities much more different than mine.

Continuing on from that point… I came away from that day realising just how much I don’t pay enough attention to what’s going on around me. I live literally (yes, I’m using this word correctly) steps away from a Russian Orthodox church and have never really thought much about it or interacted with anyone there. During high school I lived in a predominantly Muslim country and heard the sounds of the Friday prayers being broadcast from the mosque (they could be heard for miles) and never really stopped to actually listen to them the way I did during the service I attended during the tour. There’s so much going on around me that I reduce to “background noise” and that’s a shame, because I could probably learn a thing or two by just paying attention once in a while.

As I’m writing this I realise I can continue on for a bit, but I’ll just leave you with a thought that was shared during the tour that has really stayed with me:

“Every vessel can only pour what’s in it.”

Fostering compassion and empathy in ourselves means that we are then able to “pour” that compassion out to others. And we are only able to fill ourselves with these traits by really engaging with communities that are not our own, not just putting up with or tolerating them.

Republished: 23 February 2020