Gwenda Wells: Spiritual friend
A lot of university students hit a rough patch around graduation. Suddenly the question of what they're going to do with the rest of their lives looms up and the answers can be hard to come by.
Gwenda Wells knows. She's been there.
Shortly after she graduated, she found herself doing environmental work in a government agency. It just wasn't fulfilling. "It was a searching, wondering kind of time," she says. Her search ultimately led to a significant career shift. "I felt drawn to do something that was bigger than me," she explains. So she earned a Master of Divinity degree from the University of Toronto and was soon on her way to becoming the Reverend Gwenda Wells.
Now head of the McGill Chaplaincy Service, Wells says she's pleased when she can help out a student going through a similar experience. "To see a student dare to put a foot forward and explore possibilities he's never considered before, that's a very special thing."
She says her job has been made easier by the great groundwork laid by predecessor Helmut Saabas. "He did a lot for the chaplaincy, working quietly behind the scenes. He did a particularly good job of building links with the various groups that help students."
Wells works with a team of Christian and Jewish chaplains. Part of Student Services, they're headquartered at the Newman Centre on Peel Street, but McGill chaplains also work out of Hillel House, Chabad House and the Yellow Door.
Before she arrived at McGill, Wells served as a minister in a pair of Eastern Townships parishes. It was pleasant enough, but Wells says she leapt at the opportunity to work here.
"I love working with students. It's a real privilege to be with people who have so much energy. They're full of visions of the possible."
So what do chaplains do at a university? Not surprisingly, they organize Bible studies, provide counsel on matters of faith, conduct religious services and officiate at weddings.
They're also the driving force behind McGill's annual collection of donated winter clothes for international students. They helped lobby the administration to be more respectful of Jewish holy days when putting together exam schedules. They organize support networks and discussion groups an interfaith discussion group in which women from different religious backgrounds compare experiences, for instance.
Wells herself runs a choir of students and staff called the New Earth Singers who perform everything from "medieval chants to Oscar Peterson."
Last year she organized weekly visits of McGill students from law, social work and theology to the Bordeaux Jail. "The inmates really looked forward to those visits. It was quite wonderful for them to be taken seriously by a group of university students."
Much of the chaplains' time is spent counselling students. "I do my best to leave students with the impression that this is a compassionate institution." When appropriate, Wells will steer students towards the Counselling Service or the Ombudsperson's Office.
"There is a certain freedom in being a chaplain. Our role is a little bit different from the counselors in that we can be both a professional helper and a spiritual friend. We don't have to have the same kind of objective distance."
Is it ever difficult being a chaplain in a secular institution such as a university? "It might be secular, but it's certainly not a spiritless place," responds Wells. "In my job I can see just how hard many of the professors and staff work to help out students who have problems. That's a side to the University that I'm fortunate to see."