School chaplaincy program continues despite recent controversy

This story appeared in Christian News Ottawa in May 2001.

A letter published in the Ottawa Citizen from a student objecting to the presence of a minister in her high school fuelled a debate that continued for over two weeks on the editorial pages of the paper. However, many residents were left wondering what the fuss was all about, since the Carleton Board of Education has featured a high school chaplaincy program since 1981.

Lisgar Collegiate Institute student Alison Bell was the author of the letter. Lisgar was formerly under the Ottawa Board of Education, which has never had a chaplaincy program. However, now Lisgar falls under the Carleton Board, and a chaplain is now part of the school family.

“Let me mention here that Lisgar is a secular school, attended by both religious and non-religious people . . . I have nothing against this man. He’s a really nice guy. I just don’t believe he belongs in my school. If I wanted spiritual guidance, I would go to a private school or I would go to church. It’s as simple as that,” Bell wrote in her letter.

She told the Citizen that her principal had welcomed a “priest” to the school to provide spiritual guidance, despite being voted down by the student council.

A follow-up story in the Citizen noted that the priest referred to by Bell – actually Christian Missionary Alliance Church pastor Wayne Baxter – was asked to leave Lisgar after both parent and school councils voted against the voluntarycounselling service he was to provide.

Lisgar principal Angie Spence, who has tried for two years to introduce this type of service to the school refused to comment. “I think it’s a very divisive issue and one that should be handled internally through the school,” she said.

However, Citizen readers were still happily commenting two weeks after the issue came to a head. Two or three letters debating the issue were published daily on the editorial pages.

Ironically, the program has operated successfully in the Carleton Board for over a decade.

“Pastoral care has been an accepted program withing the former Carleton Board Schools for at least 13 years. To my understanding, there hasn’t been problems,” says Marva Major, a Board spokesperson.

“Because of a shortage of guidance counsellors, pastoral volunteers are seen as an extra shoulder for everyone to lean on,” says Maggie Melenhorst of the Board.

Rev. Tom Sherwood, who se3rved as a chaplain in three Gloucester schools, says the pastoral program began as a pilot project at Bell High School in Nepean. The positive response there led to expansion throughout the Carleton Board.

Sherwood is a United Church minister who self-identifies as a “liberal Christian.” The former pastor of Orléans United Church is now ecumenical chaplain at Carleton University. He acknowledges that there are special consideration to be mad when a Christian minister is invited into a secular school.

“I see myself as a missionary from one culture to another. It’s a servant ministry; it’s listening more than speaking,” Sherwood explains.

In his case, the school principal introduced him to staff and students as someone who would be available to help if needed. Sherwood also made a point of attending school functions, and also coached Gloucester High School’s basketball team. His six-ft. five-in. frame became a familiar figure to students, and young people of all faiths sought him out for counselling or just simple conversation. His outreach was considered positive and Gloucester High School principal is actively seeking another chaplain now that Sherwood has left.

Sherwood says in his experience, it is not unusual for high school students to receive representatives of the Christian church with suspicion and hostility. A good example of that are the emotions expressed by Lisgar student Honor Brabazon, who told the Citisen, “There are a lot of really sensitive teen issues that certain religions feel very strongly about, thing like abortions and birth control, homosexuality, sex before marriage. If you are walking through the halls and you know the priest walking down the hall fundamentally hates who you are, it makes you incredibly uncomfortable.”

“I’m disappointed [by that kind of reaction], but not surprised. Students have been socialized into a negative view of the church,” says Sherwood, citing examples such as scandals involving sexual and physical abuse by the clergy. “There are times just to be silent, listen and absorb it. When I receive all that invective, I figure it was just my turn to get it,” he adds.

In Sherwood’s opinion, Lisgar has done the right thing in withdrawing the minister from the school at this time. “There are teachable and unteachable moments,” he says citing Matthew 10:14 (If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. )  “I would take a longer run at it over the years,” he concludes.

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