'A listening ear in a noisy world'

2nd January 2009 at 00:00
A classroom at a Paisley college has been converted into a quiet place where students from all faiths can seek guidance

Four lanes of traffic rush past on the main road outside Reid Kerr College, but the sounds seem far away in the hushed stillness of its multi-faith sanctuary.

A quiet space in a hectic world can be hard to find. But the Paisley college is blessed with an asset unusual in further education - a spiritual care team, the members of which appreciate the need for prayer, meditation or a peaceful place to draw breath. They persuaded the college to convert a classroom into a sanctuary.

The team itself is of older vintage, confides international officer Hazel Mulberry, whose responsibility is the 100 or so overseas students who attend Reid Kerr. "We've had a spiritual care team for at least 25 years. I didn't belong to it in the 1970s. I was a hospitality lecturer. I provided their coffee, tea, scones and jam in the morning."

Commended by HM inspectors for its shift from a Christian ecumenical to a genuinely interfaith group in response to the "growth in the rich mix of learners attending the college from around the world", the care team supports the spiritual side of learners and staff. It promotes "awareness of equality and appreciation of diversity", say the inspectors.

What it does not do is seek recruits to the faiths of its members, says Scottish Episcopal minister Darren McFarland. "We're here primarily to offer pastoral care. If out of that someone hears something they find interesting, then they can ask us questions. But no one has their own agenda. That's not the game. It's about working ecumenically."

"A listening ear in a noisy world" is how Methodist minister Andrew Byng characterises the role of the spiritual care team. "Often we'll go to lunch and just chat. Sometimes students share concerns with us. We listen, make comments in a gentle but challenging way, and, if we feel it's appropriate, we can take their concerns to the powers-that-be."

A conversation struck up in this way recently raised a number of issues, explains Reverend Byng's colleague, Steven Moore. "The girl had doubts about the way she was being taught and about her own abilities. I've got a background in social work with young people, so I was able to draw her out. Voicing her concerns helped her straighten things out in her mind. Then I showed her the sanctuary and suggested she might want to come here to think or pray."

Described in this way, the role of the spiritual care team seems like guidance or counselling. But Reid Kerr, like any other college, has full-time staff to deliver these functions. What added element does a spiritual care team provide?

Everyday concerns and personal doubts might seem secular, says Sister Maria, but there may well be a spiritual element underlying them. "When people talk to you, they're mostly resolving their own problems. You are helping them spiritually by listening. Within us we each carry the presence of God - all of us, not just the spiritual care team. It's that presence within that lets us reach out to people and see the spiritual element in them. You meet God in the other person.

"The team has a lot of experience working with people - in social work, the ministry, bereavement counselling, pregnancy care. You bring that richness with you. You meet the person where they are, not where you want them to be. It's their journey through life and they have to be free to choose. We facilitate, accompany, listen. Being a presence is the basis of everything."

Besides the sanctuary for people of all faiths and none, Reid Kerr also has a specifically Islamic prayer-room, beautifully fitted out with low basins for ablutions, multi-coloured prayer mats, and compasses to determine the direction of east. These facilities were built for a group of Libyan engineering students, who have since completed their courses and left. It remains available for any Islamic students at Reid Kerr.

But if the team were starting again, they say, they would create just one room, a reflection of their own inclusive and ecumenical approach. Mrs Mulberry's research into multi-faith sanctuaries, in places such as airports, hospitals and hospices, as well as the advice of the imam who used to serve on the team, has shown that worshippers in all major religions do not require - though they might prefer - a space apart from all other faiths.

"We learned a lot about rules and what kind of literature to include in the sanctuary from looking at colleges in England and newer universities that don't have the traditional chaplaincy," says Reverend McFarland. "An internet search on 'college prayer room' was also useful.

"It's a balance. You don't want it to be too bland, but you have to be careful not to drift into your own cultural norms - like putting up a Christmas tree at this time of year."

The consultation on what the college community wanted, and the research into how to deliver it, was followed by a phase of working through colours, fabrics and fittings with the art and design students, says Mrs Mulberry.

"In the end, what we've got is a space that's very much part of college life. It is a peaceful place for anybody and everybody."

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