This past weekend, the University Chapel hosted “the Blanket Exercise,” an interactive learning activity developed by Kairos, the Canadian inter-church agency that works towards social justice. It was a tremendous time of learning and reflection, and participants came from various groups on campus to share in this powerful experience of learning about aboriginal issues and rights in Canada. As we gathered for this event, I began reflecting on the many positive and powerful experiences I have shared in the Chapel, particularly in the basement multi-purpose room where the Blanket Exercise took place.
When I first arrived at Mount Allison over twenty years ago, space was at a premium, and the Sexual Harassment Office was housed in the basement of the chapel. A small space there was used for three years as a quiet and private place where students or staff could meet with the Harassment Advisor. This small office space, now used by Chapel Assistants, was once used in the 1980s as the working space of a Canadian writer, working on her debut new novel there with the permission of the then-Chaplain. The space has been used for storage, office space, meeting space, drop-in space and a study space. Along the hall from that room is what was once the “Chapel library,” a room with books on Christian theology and devotion available for anyone who wandered in. It now serves, and has done for over fifteen years, as a multi-faith prayer room used by students from a variety of religious traditions who seek a quiet and sacred space that is not dominated by the iconography of any one tradition.
The Manning Room, the large multi-purpose room, has been the site of many things one would expect in a chapel basement on a university campus: meetings, play rehearsals, movie nights and games nights (Scrabble, anyone?), special lectures, discussion groups and activities. During each exam period, it turns into a quiet study space. It has even been exhibition space for student artwork. I have held grief encounter groups there and shared in group counseling and support following the sudden or tragic loss of students and faculty members. We have held bible studies and prayer groups as well as multi-faith discussions around prayer, sexuality, faith and international politics. It has been used for presentations, job interviews and labor negotiations. Jewish students have hosted Sabbath suppers and Hanukkah celebrations. Muslim Friday prayers have been held. National political leaders have met with students to talk about faith and politics. It is home to meditative yoga.
Classes have taken place in the Manning Room. The room has been adapted to different teaching and learning styles. It is expected that services,weddings and funerals will take place in the sanctuary. What many will not know is that the Manning Room has also played host to receptions and events following services; family and friends have told stories and offered comfort to one another after funerals and memorials on many occasions; less frequently, wedding receptions take place downstairs.
The Chapel basement, if it could talk, would tell some interesting tales of people meeting, encountering, exploring, growing, relaxing, reading, healing and celebrating. In the Manning Room, many tears have been shed, many joys shared and many meals have been eaten.
While the beauty of the sanctuary is stunning, the basement room is anything but beautiful in its late ‘60s panelled decor and windowless walls. Its beauty lies instead in the amazing diversity of activities that bring people together. It breaks down barriers and walls and that nurture people’s growth in faith, citizenship and action. It’s not much to look at, but as you are passing by the Chapel, stop in and go downstairs, have a look and think of the many people who have passed through this room, and whose lives have been changed as a result of having done so. Sometimes the light of meaning, hope and change shines through the lives of others in a shared experience, rather than through stained glass.