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Jeremy Barham

Community Engagement: Enabling Transformation

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Over the last 6 years I’ve spent much of my time considering SSU’s proposition to potential students: My main goal was to find the intersection of two things: Firstly, what are we good at? What do we love to do? What do we do that nobody else can do? Secondly, what do high school kids want? In particular, what do they want from post secondary education? Where these two things meet indicates what we can offer them.

One thing we all agreed that we’ve been good at is transformation. Taking young people who’ve just left home and helping them see the world and face its issues and think about their place in it. When we rethought our mission statement a few years ago, we ended up with humble, creative engagement with our world being at the core of it.

All of our grads end up in a community of one sort or another, and our dream is that they engage with those communities with humility, compassion and initiative. We hope that they do that, but this time last year as we considered this next chapter in SSU’s we wondered if there was room for improvement in how well we prepare our students for this kind of engagement. Instead of just hoping that they engage once they’ve left, could we introduce them to engagement while they’re here?

This is an interesting question for me personally, because I have had to rethink engagement myself over the years, and then work hard at it. I grew up with community engagement simply meaning evangelism. Engagement with the world happened as a means to an end, which was the saving of souls. The only engagement I ever really did, had an agenda – I was always trying to get to the conversation about my faith. My mission was to engage my community with one sole purpose – conversion.

There was every now and then a service element to it; my church community would occasionally serve the poor or the homeless, but even that was tainted with this well-meaning ulterior motive: if we show them God’s love in a practical way, maybe they’ll come to church. I remember being a teenager and thinking, “Why would I ever want any of my school friends to come to church?” but that wasn’t the point. Church services were the point of entry into God’s Kingdom – if we could just get them to come to a church service and sing our songs and hear our sermons, surely they would join us.

I don’t think like that anymore ?. I recall the immense and life-changing relief of finally feeling free from this obligation to save my neighbor. Out of the blue I accidentally had a conversation with a fisherman that lived across from my house, and ended up helping him fix his Land Rover. I had no thought of trying to introduce him to church or Jesus. The only good news I shared with him was that I knew how to fix his truck. For the first time in my life I had genuinely, and helpfully, engaged with my community. Engaging was something I’d always dreaded, because of the intense obligation I was burdened with, but talking to this guy and working on his car was easy. I was just being nice. I was just being me.

I guess some people do this kind of engagement naturally. For me it took practice, and still does. It’s gotten easier as I’ve gotten older and less insecure. But I’m still pretty selfish and a lot of the time I can’t be bothered. But what I know now is that caring about the people in our communities is about the highest calling I can think of. I’d argue that if we genuinely offered ourselves to our communities as active participants, adding our gifts and skills and experience to the local mix, we’d be fulfilling our main purpose as human beings.

So as well as being something that I think SSU could do well, I believe community engagement has a strong moral imperative to it as well. It’s just the right thing to do! But it’s hard. Every one of us grew up in some kind of bubble. To me, our community engagement program should be a bubble burster – it should break people out of their tiny world bubble and dump them in a wider world, just like our travel program does. You can’t do that in a classroom alone. Most of our middle class students have only been around their parents and their peers at high school, and have never met real poor people. How many of our grads might be better at engaging with real people in their communities if we break the ice early in their development as independent adults?

SSU has always had a missional outlook, preparing people to be useful adults with purpose, but we need to be constantly thinking about how to better inspire our students to serve their communities when they leave. With this latest generation, I think it is essential that we figure out how to help get our students out of their privileged heads and self-centred anxieties, and into a worldview of gratitude and compassion. One could do an inspiring fireside chat about it, or a class, but nothing beats diving right in and doing something practical. There’s nothing quite like being faced with the stark reality of how other people live. It shakes us up. It makes us think about ourselves and our privilege, our bubbles. And just maybe it inspires us to make change, to serve, to engage with compassion.

That’s my dream for this program. I love that our students will also get real work experience, and I love that they’ll reduce their debts by getting paid to work, but for me the deepest value lies in exposing them to real community needs, to life without all its fullness, and empowering them to feel like they can do something about it.

Jeremy Barham – Interim President

Conversation with Amanda DeGruchy

By Alumni Digest

Amanda does facilities at SSU (everything from fixing walls and buttressing staircases to making beds for Park Hall guests). She also cooks part-time at SSU. She’s a force of nature– she’s brought SSU buildings to life in recent years, through her practical work and also through her connections with students and senior community members. Around every corner, you can see her commitment to detail and her eye for making nurturing, creative spaces.


Matt: What are some things that you’ve been thinking about that you’re looking forward to?

Amanda: Feeling like there’s a place for everybody. Up until very recently, things have felt very stagnant and polarized. It felt like differences between students weren’t dealt with well. So being open to and affirming of different faiths is super exciting to me, and it falls into line with my personal beliefs.

The idea of having more students, obviously, feels very exciting. I always have dreams for improving spaces and beautifying places and making people excited about the space that they’re in– it’s constantly on my mind. But you can’t do that without a larger student body.

Overall, SSU just felt like… it was dying. Old ideas were making this place die. It needed new life, and that’s what this feels like…. It feels like we’re keeping some of the good stuff that we’ve had– community living, different ways of approaching learning– we’re keeping that, but we’re doing it in a fresh way.

Katie: I’ve heard a lot of people saying something like, ‘It aligns with my own beliefs, now’. How did it work for you, before? Part of you made sense here and the rest of you you kinda kept back?

Amanda: For my whole life, I’ve felt like there were things I believed internally that I couldn’t speak out loud. For example, I wasn’t allowed to believe that homosexuality was ok. I felt like all people are good people, all people are accepted by God, but I couldn’t voice that. So I would go to church with this feeling that I was a hypocrite inside. I would feel like I was being false. It would be similar, here, in that I felt like we were turning a blind eye to certain things, like not being affirming. I was really important to me to be affirming, but I felt like I couldn’t voice it.

Katie: In terms of facilities, how does something like becoming affirming affect your work? Earlier today I overheard you talking about figuring out dorm layouts now that we’ll have more non-binary students.
Amanda: Last summer, I put up an all-gender sign for the downstairs bathroom, and I was told to take it down. Just last summer. I was told, ‘we’re accepting of all people, but we’re not about to fly a flag outside our door.’ I was really upset by that. Then we had Generous Space here last summer, and the minute Wendy Gritter walked in the door, she saw the sign and her whole face lit up, and she said, ‘you put up a sign for us!’ I wanted to cry, I was so happy. I’d refused to take it down, without actually saying that I refused to take it down. I said, ‘this goes against what I believe in– if you want this down you’re gonna have to take it down yourself`’. It never got taken down.

Anyways, so I’m sure recent shifts at SSU mean changes, in terms of facilities, but I don’t find it a daunting thing to think about. I don’t think, ‘oh my gosh, how are we going to deal with this?’ You just have to ask the right questions, of people who are going to need those spaces. Being transparent about something is good. And so saying, ‘we haven’t done this before, we’re new to this, what does this look like? What do you need?’

Katie: What feels possible now that wasn’t before?

Amanda: I would love to see us move towards being a sustainable place. Working on building the garden, getting people outside and using the space, doing sports or whatnot. If we could get a bit bigger with more diversity, there could be a lot more interests. I would love to see this space feel more campus-like. Students wanting to actually get out of Park Hall. Things growing right outside this building. You can walk down into the greenhouse and garden from the dining room. I have big dreams for this place, but you need money. You need a bigger student body.

I love problem-solving. Making all the different types of people we’ll have here comfortable in their space. I don’t know what it’s going to look like, or what might come up, but we’ll just ask the questions. That’s how you figure it out. I don’t think people should make assumptions before they’ve asked the questions.

Matt: What about what’s happening really makes sense to you? What feels organic or natural to you, as opposed to an imposed decision or change?

Amanda: I think this applies to all of life: there’s a natural cycle, where you have to get to this place of stagnation, of everything feeling old and not-relevant… I think we’d come to that place and we were struggling in that for a while, at least a few years. Something had to break that, which feels organic. I don’t think it’s just a financial thing. It’s not just because of our low student body. I think it had to happen because we were in this… valley, and the natural pattern is to go in and out of valleys. It’s an organic thing, to come back out of the valley. Little ideas get the ball rolling.

Matt: What do alumni need to know about that maybe they wouldn’t get from afar?

Amanda: They’re really encouraged to have a voice here. They should know that that’s a genuine invitation. Also, they should know that what’s happening is not meant to diminish what was before. We’re not trying to erase our history; we’re trying to use that and come up with new and exciting ideas.

One of the things I was missing at the first alumni meeting in the spring was more voices. I really wished there were more voices. I think it’s important, when making changes like this, to actually encounter necessary questions. I would have loved to hear more challenging questions. So come on out. Bring all your questions and wisdom and life experience.

I think alumni got a very unique experience here at SSU, and type of education. They ARE our history, so their voices are really important. I don’t think this university is like any other university. I think alumni voices are important in preserving that. It’s saying, ‘these are the things–the core things–that are important. Let’s protect these things.’

Katie: What do you want to see in a new leader or leadership structure?

Amanda: I really like the idea of a cluster of leaders. It brings multiple voices, and it’s so different from the hierarchical way it’s been. I’m glad that time has been given for the vision to solidify. I think that whoever the leaders are, they need to be really on board with the vision. I’d love to see a group of people that were excited about SSU, and dreaming about what it could be. Fresh ideas. A very strong presence. Interpersonal skills.

Katie: Thoughts on the real or felt absence of women in power at SSU?

Amanda: I still remember my own interview here. I got hired on Kendall’s recommendation, but I think they were afraid to hire me, ha. Maybe not thinking that as a woman, I would be capable of this job. And that has definitely changed. I feel like I’ve been given a lot of trust.

Katie: As a female contractor, it’s not like you weren’t used to having people look at you twice. But your story is a great example of a woman filling a role at SSU better than anyone ever has, whether or not that’s recognized often enough. Or compensated appropriately. 🙂

Amanda: I would like everyone here to be able to personally succeed. Everyone needs to be paid what they’re worth, here. Every single person in this place should be paid a living wage.

Katie: And we’re just talking Charlotte County living wage, ha.

Amanda: It’s really frustrating. That definitely pulls down morale in a place. When you’re struggling to make ends meet, it doesn’t matter how much you love SSU, how much you believe in SSU… if you can’t actually sustain yourself on a personal level, it starts to fizzle.

Conversation with Dr. Walter Thiessen

By Alumni Digest

Walt is the Academic Dean at SSU. He’s also the head of the psych department; he teaches psych; he’s involved with student life and the Europe trip… and so many other things. Essentially, Walt and Carol are deeply active at SSU– they keep so many of the primary valves and gears in motion.


Matt: Is there something that’s already here or that’s coming in the future that you’re really excited about?

Walt: I’m excited that we hired Matt Balcarras as Associate Dean. It’s been hard for us to have a practical vision of succession, and I’m really excited for what he’ll bring to the process of rebuilding. We want to be looking at some things that we haven’t looked at for some time, like our philosophy of teaching. Matt’s psyched about working on a teaching handbook–that could especially help newer faculty.

The biggest challenge for sure is recruiting. Realities of that. So there’s bigger financial picture that’s challenging in relation to recruiting, but also more specific, practical issues. Balancing some reasonable amount of choice we want our students to have with the narrower offerings we’re able to maintain for this time, for example.

It’s meant we’ve had to disappoint some people, in terms of being able to offer the kinds of courses they wanted. It’s meant hiring more adjunct professors, as we’re not able to hire more salaried faculty. As we think of rebuilding the faculty, in terms of hiring, it’s very very hard for us to hire full-time faculty. Because we don’t tend to need that many courses per professor. Most of our current salaried faculty do some administration. It’s more limiting than people realize. Since Agnes, we haven’t hired a faculty person with a PhD.

Getting really personal, I’m a relatively responsible person who hates responsibility. 🙂 I’d love to be able to put more emphasis on teaching, and also on research. I’ve been really excited about some of the stuff I’ve been working on lately– a model for spiritual development. I was able to present a paper at a conference last year, and I’m going to be sharing some of the practical outworking of that model at a retreat for pastors and leaders. I’d love to give more attention to that, and be able to turn it into a research project.

I’m also really excited about IRPJ. I love what Andrew and Brad are doing, and I think there’s all kinds of potential there, and that it could take on even more significance for SSU. There’s potential for IRPJ to offer other graduate options, for instance.

Matt: In terms of watching this conversation evolve, how does what’s happening right now make sense to you?
Walt: It feels like we’re loosening up and opening to be able to speak freely and authentically about what we are and the kind of university that we want to be. That also fits well with wanting to engage the local community in a new way, and with less-boundaried language around faith. Less defensive language about spirituality.

And of course that’s led to some tricky conversational moments. The CBC article, for example, which said ‘we’re no longer religious’, prompted some facebook conversations. One of those that I chose to dip my toes into was a conversation started by John Stackhouse. That facebook thread immediately jumped into assumptions that we were going to sell our souls ‘like every christian school does eventually’, and that we were, ‘now going to be a secular institution’. We’ve been pretty explicit about wanting to avoid the secular label, as that’s often gone along (in a lot of our minds) with the connotation of discouraging spirituality, rather than encouraging it broadly. A lot of those conversations over the winter jumped to that kind of conclusion, despite repeated protests from people at SSU. I think it’s because we’re trying to stake out ground that’s relatively novel, in our culture. So it’s hard for people to pick up the subtleties.

Conversation with Sarah Henderson

By Alumni Digest

Sarah has worked in the main office SSU for the past 2 years doing reception and various sorts of behind-the-scenes magic. She is an alum of SSU (‘11), and she lives in town with her husband Alex (also an alum) and their daughter Lillian. 


Katie: What interests or excites you about what’s happening?

Sarah: For students, I’m excited that the community engagement piece will get them out of Park Hall (!). It could lend itself to career exploration, it’ll allow them to build new relationships, it’ll look great on a resume, and it’ll teach them how to apply some of the great stuff they learn here.
For the school, it’ll allow us to burst our SSU bubble a bit, and contribute to something greater, and (hopefully) it will help with recruitment and financial sustainability.
For St. Stephen, there are lots of nonprofits in town who could benefit from additional help. Future St. Stephen intends to use this [idea of community innovation at SSU] in their marketing for the town, and the community centre idea would be amaaazing. Milltown has almost no services left so adding a functioning community centre would only help the area.

Katie: What worries you?

Sarah: You’re talking to a professional worry-wart so this is by far the easiest question for me to answer. 🙂 I worry about potential for staff burn-out. Also, it doesn’t seem like we’re completely settled on the whole spirituality piece just yet. This isn’t a problem in itself because it will naturally take time to figure out how exactly we want to position ourselves. But in the meantime, it still feels difficult to articulate where we’re at (largely because it doesn’t feel like we’ve totally reached a consensus that everyone can be happy with.) The “changemaker” language wouldn’t have appealed to my 20-something self because I never really saw myself that way. But it could apply to others. There’s great potential here for relationship-building in the community and there’s also potential for relationship souring. If student volunteers struggle with attendance or fail to engage or take on a teacher rather than student role, it could create bad blood. It’s a small town and people talk.

Katie: How do recent shifts of re-brands affect your work at SSU, or your feelings as someone invested in it?

Sarah: As a receptionist, it affects the way I communicate with people who inquire about the school. And when I was helping with grant writing for awhile, I noticed it affected the kinds of funding we could pursue and the way we would speak about the university. From a strictly pragmatic point of view, these changes made my task a bit easier for two reasons: (1) Funders tend to be more interested in supporting projects that are community-oriented and that address social challenges at their root, and (2) alongside all the changes, Jeremy has been intent on clarifying our branding so that we can more easily and authentically articulate who we are and what we do. This helped me market SSU to potential donors.

Conversation with Dr. Matt Balcarras

By Alumni Digest

Matt is the new Associate Dean of Arts at SSU. He graduated from SSU in 2006, went on to the University of Edinburgh and York University, and is moving from BC to NB with his family in August. 


Katie: Why do you want to be here? What interests you about what’s happening here?

Matt B: I’m excited to teach. So I’m excited to come to ssu because it represents an opportunity to do that. And get to teach things that I like.

I’ve been a leader in different organizations, and I’m not interested in committing myself if I can’t have a stake in undoing some of the stuff that’s most painful to me. Coming to SSU as a Dean means I get to play a part in addressing the kind of systemic things that have increasingly been painful when I’m participating in things like churches or other sorts of corporate places. If my privilege means anything, it means using my access to power to relieve myself from participating in systems that are dysfunctional. I don’t really know what that looks like or the way forward.

Katie: You’re going to be taking over a lot of the programmatic vision and execution. How do you see SSU’s humanities program and other programs relating to what you’re talking about?

Matt: I’ve been reading a bunch, thinking a bunch, and I only have beginner thoughts. It’ll involve me constantly admitting that I don’t know, and allowing other people to have access to do stuff. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we could support the teachers at SSU as teachers. As part of the regular rhythms of the academic year, I want us to sit down as faculty and have training–what we’re bringing to our teaching, how we build syllabi, how we select courses, how we select material that takes us down one particular path and not another. I’m interested in creating a culture that builds on the good teaching that’s been at SSU, and also takes things a step further, and says ‘how do we think through our pedagogies, especially as being formed by all the things we should know about now? Like feminism and voices from global diversity, and diverse genders and sexualities?’

Matt Frise: How do you see humanities flowing into and serving SSU’s new social innovation focus? Where does humanities stand at this point at SSU? What’s the potential for it?

Matt B: A few fast thoughts: 1. I couldn’t claim to know where humanities are at SSU right now. 2. I’m not sure that I hate the word ‘innovation’, but something close to that. In the spaces I’ve worked in over the last 5 or 6 years, it’s one of those words, like data… ‘we’re gonna innovate the data and have incredible profits…’, etc. etc. 🙂

One of the things I’m worried about, in this sort of amorphous moving that we’re doing, goes something like this: in meetings, people say, ‘What about this general kind of language? We don’t have to decide yet, but that’s roughly what we want’. And then a week later, that language has been adopted and sent out. And I’m like, ‘Gah! We hadn’t decided!!’ And this kind of early language really matters. It sets us thinking this way or that way. There’s a lot of casual processes that take on a life of their own. And I know that’s normal, but….

SSU has always been a place and will continue to be a place that’s very obviously shaped by the few people that are there. It’s personality-driven, rather than document-driven.

Re: the new focus on applied studies, I think it’s good for students to take another step, before they leave SSU, and ask themselves, what does it mean that I study history, in terms of my life? How do I embody this in an active sense? That might look like being involved in practicums and things like that. I’m not interested in gutting the strengths of the humanities in service of something practical. I think the humanities are practical in and of themselves. Like any good teaching, it either goes into you and changes you and affects all the things that you practice, or it doesn’t.

I really really really don’t want to cut the humanities in any way. Basically, the big programmatic change is this one semester that we want to introduce– in terms of upsetting other courses. I don’t see us as saying ‘we just don’t have any room for literature or history or philosophy anymore’.

Matt Frise: What’s the most important thing you feel needs to get across to alumni?

Matt B: It’s a funny thing. I’m an alumnus of several institutions, and for the most part, I couldn’t care less about them. Right? There’s all kinds of big money events. They’re asking for money. So I’m interested in the question of why people should care about SSU at all. I think that SSU can think better about what it has to offer its alumni in an ongoing sense… we’ve had some conversations about that but it’s still emerging. I think there’s the potential for SSU to sow seeds that don’t necessarily have an instantaneous return. Like, I’ve been hoping to have events out here on the west coast. People gather together (including alumni) and there’s the kinds of things that people found valuable and interesting at SSU. Do that on the west coast, and see what grows out of it. It’s value is contained in that experience itself. Just do it; just give it away. If SSU starts doing things like that, I’d be interested in telling alumni about that. ‘Hey, so-and-so is giving a talk and you’d be welcome to go’ etc. But I don’t really care about telling people things like, ‘ SSU is doing this course, SSU is trying to be affirming…’ I dunno.

If ssu wants to be the best version of itself, it will have the capacity to allow its weirdness to be present. Even as that weirdness is uncomfortable. I see this collection of interviews as really exciting, in that as time goes by, it can be easy for us to remember, institutionally, this transition in one particular way or only a couple of particular ways that are very narrow. So I’m excited that there will be weirdness collected. And we’ll see what that means for how we remember and how we create through our remembering of this transition.

Matt Frise: How do you communicate a message that has so many facets and so many people involved? And do it in a way that actually speaks to the people we’re speaking to, which is alumni?

Matt B: It’s always hard to say, ok, these outcomes are beyond me. Especially looking back at SSU, so many good things have come about through messiness. And yet that’s still the thing that we try to remove.

Conversation with Dr. Lois Mitchell

By Alumni Digest

Lois is the head of the International Studies program.


Lois: I feel like the next step is a logical, organic culmination of everything that’s gone before. It’s probably hard for people to understand if they haven’t been part of the conversations. SSU is constantly shifting, and it’s different every term, depending on who’s here. But if you stand back and look at the trajectory of SSU, I think what we’re envisioning isn’t a dramatic shift– it’s a next step and an extension of SSU’s vision. I mean, I say ‘vision’ as if it’s one unifying vision… it’s been multiple visions.

I’m super excited about the community engagement piece. Whether we look at it through a Christian lens (which is my primary lens), or an International Studies angle, it’s so consistent.
The challenge to describe it is that there are so many pieces, and they’re all moving. And I see them moving into a coherent vision, but it’s really hard to articulate that. The 3 big pieces for me are the community engagement focus, the debt-free initiative (really addressing the issue of student debt), and figuring out how to articulate the role of Christianity at SSU authentically. For me, all those pieces are coming together in a really great, healthy, exciting way. For me, as a Christian, i’m excited about being more involved in the broader community, as a way of putting legs onto faith. Being present. For years I worked with the Baptist convention doing work on public witness. There was a guy–Bob Briner– who said something like, ‘Christians need to show up in the places where decisions are being made, but they need to show up listening, working together with other people, speaking the language of the table’. Christian language shouldn’t be getting in the way. I think being involved in the community at all kinds of levels is perfectly consistent with Christian faith. But it’s not exclusive to Christian faith. To the extent that we can live out our values of justice, beauty and compassion, and live them out in partnership with other people who might have a different foundation for their commitment to those values– that’s amazing. I don’t think we’ve got it figured out just yet.

When the term ‘open spirituality’ was first mentioned` at the strategic retreat in the fall, I thought, ‘this feels like freedom, to me, as a more conservative Christian.’ It’s trying to capture what is happening and describe it in a way that makes sense to other people. For me, it contrasts some of the other terminology we’d been considering, like ‘progressive Christianity’. I resonate with many of the tenets of progressive christianity, to an extent, but I would never describe myself that way, with that label. ‘Open spirituality’ gives more of an opportunity for everyone to be more authentically who they are.

We’re intentionally creating a space where faith matters. And I so profoundly believe that. That no matter what you believe, what you believe really does matter. And we need to be intentional about giving you space to sort that out and really engage with it. SSU often compares itself to other christian universities, but I think that part of the niche that SSU occupies relates more to secular universities, which might say, ‘we’re not going to talk about faith’. From an international studies perspective, how can you even have an education that doesn’t consider the importance of faith? Faith matters so much. So many of the fault lines in the world are faith-related. Faith is front and center, and we need to have places where we can talk about that. Faith is extremely important, and it’s going to be part of our conversations in class. Not in a prescriptive way. So I think the opportunities, academically, are huge.

I’ve never felt, at SSU, like I’m trying to guide students towards a particular way of seeing the world. In class, there should be no ideas that can’t be on the table. Students should be actively encouraged to put their ideas on the table for discussion. What makes a university a university is the quality of the discussion– we’re not just pooling our ignorance. We’re not just saying what we think (although it can start there). We need to be able to say, ‘this is why I think this’. And be open to critique. The importance of having different perspectives. What’s the value of peer review if your peers all think the same as you? To be able to create that kind of space in the classroom… I’m not sure how we’re going to do it, and I don’t think that’s the current reality. But I think we could be there.


Lois: The perception of ‘Christian university’ or ‘Christianity’, for many people, is a negative and narrow thing. And while we wanna say, ‘that’s not our view, that’s not how we’re using those terms’, how do you capture that in a way that’s meaningful? At a university fair, you’ve got 2 seconds to either interest or discourage someone from further conversation. We want to avoid the situation where students come and say, ‘ohh this isn’t what I thought I was coming to’. Either too-Christian or not-Christian enough. That’s been a long-term problem. I don’t want to be ashamed of our current Christian practices. My hope for SSU is that we can avoid the divide– that we will intentionally make room for diverse Christian voices, as well as for those from other faiths who embrace justice, beauty, and compassion as fundamental values for their life.

I had a student say, It can’t be a university if it’s not a place that’s pursuing truth. The challenge is that we have students who would define truth very very differently. Curious and critical thinking, to me, also are what make a university. I think no matter how committed you are to your own faith beliefs and practices, a university calls you beyond where you are.
Faith and belief and practice needs to be reintegrated, and that won’t always look the same for everybody, and it doesn’t need to. People can go deeper in their faith, out of knowledge rather than ignorance.

People say, ‘you know, it’s a slippery slope… you start messing with that, and who knows…’ and I think, ‘yeah, who knows’. Life’s a slippery slope. And I think what SSU is will always depend on the people that are here. We’re here now, looking at it from diverse angles– there’s the sense that this is a good direction.

We recognize the challenges. [As we’ve been], we’re not sustainable. We’re not viable the way we are. We can’t stay where we are. Something has to change.

Conversation with Holli Durost

By Alumni Digest

Holli is coordinating Affirm SSU. She’s also an alumni (‘09).


Holli: I’m trying to be as involved as possible. Checking in, staying connected through Affirm SSU and the alumni association stuff. From a queer person’s perspective, seeing queer folks represented on the board, within the university, and seeing positive queer perspectives included more often…that’s exciting. Jeremy has announced that SSU is affirming of LGBTQ+ folks. That’s very exciting to me. That happened a while ago, last summer.

Katie: Do you feel there’s a difference between the official statement last summer and how things feel now?

Holli: To my knowledge, there hasn’t really been an official statement released. When Jeremy was at the Generous Space retreat at SSU last year, he said, “we’re affirming, officially” (SSU had just made the decision– like, 3 days prior.) Through discussion and debriefing, a lot of questions came up around what it means to be affirming of the LGBTQ community. As a response to SSU’s announcement, Affirm SSU came about. Queer folks and allies saw a need to come alongside this process, because there seems to be a disconnect between what the institution thinks is affirming and what being affirming actually is. The process of being affirming takes time. Especially with SSU being a Christian university where there has been harm done, and there has been silence or neutrality around sexual orientation and gender identity.

The committee is a resource for students and the SSU community, and we’re hashing out the finer details of what that relationship is going to look like. We want to build a road map together, with the SSU community and institution, for an affirming process that manifests the ethos of SSU with a strong posture of allyship. And it will take time. I was talking to a faculty member, asking them what being affirming meant. They boiled it down to two points: treating everyone with dignity, and being willing to hire people who are a part of a minority sexuality. That’s a good place to start, but I thought, ‘maybe there’s more to it than that.’ Being affirming means being public, intentional, and explicit in your celebration and affirmation of LGBTQ+ folks. It also means an acknowledgement of the essential contributions that only LGBTQ+ folks can bring to community. So there’s a need for clarity there. Not all perspectives are complete. We need to widen the circle and connect with each other and hear from each other, and have as many perspectives as possible represented at the table.

I love the work the alumni association is doing with connecting people across North America with the hubs. It’s also really exciting that there’s been workshops at SSU in recent semesters on anxiety, on boundaries and responsibilities. I love that the mental health association is being pulled in as a resource.

Matt: What do you think is essential for alumni need to know, related to Affirm?

Holli: It’s the beginning stages. And we need to hear from people. Our relationship with the current students isn’t strong yet– we’ve been meeting as a committee and building relationships, ironing out our direction and posture. What we want to focus on. We know we can’t focus on everything right now. It’s too much. So we ask ourselves: what are a couple of things we can do that will support the visibility and flourishing of LGBTQ+ members of the SSU community? We need to hear from the students and alumni about what they need. We don’t want to be like, ‘you need this and you need that’, and pour all our energy into something that folks don’t need support with.

Matt: What do you find yourself pushing against?

Holli: Solidifying what we’re doing in a practical way. Who’s going to do what, roles and expectations. So far, we work pretty directly with the management committee – Pete’s the liaison on that. And we’re also running the closed FB group, Affirm SSU. It’s a positive queer space for people at SSU to have access to queer content and share stories and experiences with being queer and/or an ally. Right now, I’m the only person moderating the FB page. I’ve had to try to delegate to get content in there– we’re building content. I’m worried that the momentum will slow down and we won’t be able to roll it out in a way that’s functional and accessible and exciting – that the message will get lost in the beginning stages. So, what we need is the big picture from the SSU community– people in the community that will identify themselves as safe, as allies, for students to talk to and be mentored by, to be sounding boards. We can connect with students online or come in to do seminars, but ultimately, we need the community on the ground to own the necessity of having queer perspectives in the curriculum, in the day to day, in the fireside chats, in the daily rhythm of SSU.

Matt: If you had a moment to talk to alumni that might want to be involved somehow, what’s your invitation to them?

Holli: Reach out to us – we’d love to hear from you and we need your support! [email protected] We’ve connected with some alumni who’ve said, ‘so glad this committee exists now, this space didn’t exist before’. So there’s this recognition from alumni who attended SSU when there were no queer-positive perspectives available and no one was talking about it. Even in my time there, it wasn’t that I ever felt unloved or not supported for ‘being Holli’…but there was so much that wasn’t said. Like the riveting and ever-elusive Sex Week. Extremely heteronormative, conservative Christian perspectives – not even a whisper of non-traditional views on family, sexual orientation, gender expression, pleasure, sexual health. Sex Week 2007: #ikisseddatinggoodbye #truelovewaits.

From alumni, especially older alumni, we’ve heard things like, ‘shouldn’t there be a recognition of harm? Shouldn’t there be conversations about how there was never a safe place or a safe conversation around queer sexuality and gender identity?’ There’s some stuff that needs to happen, I think. Some reconciliation. And there’s also other alumni perspectives that say, ‘I don’t feel a need for that’ or ‘I’ve reconciled that through my own conversations with the SSU community’. So I’d say, connect. The more perspectives the better. I don’t believe that all perspectives on sexual orientation and gender expression are created equal, but they do help us understand one another. Maybe an airing of grievances? I’m not sure yet what that will look like.

Matt: What do you see this component bringing to other changes at SSU, like social innovation and re-articulation of Christianity?

Holli: I see it as being such an important part. If you have an institution whose leaders are predominantly straight, white, and cisgender saying, ‘I don’t want anyone to tell me how I’m doing something wrong’, then there’s no way forward, no real change. Pass the mic and put marginalized voices in senior leadership positions. Affirm SSU doesn’t have to be the be-all-end-all and be connected to every single thing, but Affirm SSU represents diversity and equity for a historically marginalized group. So I think the way that we offer support and promote human flourishing can be applied to how we engage with each other and our faith. Not fearing the uncomfortable, but welcoming it as a means of personal and collective growth.

Matt: Moving towards redefining or rearticulating the spiritual identity of the university, and looking towards embracing these more socially innovative strategies… does that really hold water for you if it doesn’t bring queer people along in stride and not just as a necessary hurdle– actually in cooperation? To me, I wonder if whether the Affirm SSU part is actually a critical part of them being able to offer what they are envisioning in a legitimate way.

Holli: I think it would be a misstep to not incorporate queer identities in SSU’s focus on spiritual development and social innovation strategies. From what I gather, it would go against the whole purpose of these initiatives to not acknowledge and amplify these voices. I know part of what Affirm SSU wants to do is facilitate conversations around reconciliation, and SSU moving forward as an affirming institution. It’s not just queer folks who want these conversations. We love SSU and the community and we want to be a part of it. We want to see it be successful.

Katie: Why should alumni care? Why do you care?

Holli: I think alumni should care because, as alumni, we are in a unique position to speak, be heard, show up, and help shape what future SSU will look like. SSU is small and mighty because of the community and the relationships built there. Personally, I care out of sheer loyalty. I came to SSU after being deported from Canada to the US. I had people like Sheila and Brian combing through stacks of immigration paperwork with me, going to meetings with the MLA with me, and the Fitches taking me in to their home, not really knowing my story, telling me that I could study and learn…. It’s hilarious, thinking about how back then you had to write an essay talking about what it means to be a Christian living in community… I was fretting over that. I was like, ‘they’re not gonna let me innnn’. I had my first year of university paid for by anonymous donors, because I was 20 and didn’t have much in the way of savings. I couldn’t get student loans. My family was falling apart. I was solo on all that. SSU became family to me. There’s so many small defining moments that make me give a hoot about SSU. I’m thinking of a moment, a movie night, and my ignorance around race. We were watching Cool Runnings, and I dressed up in blackface, straight up. Someone let me know that it wasn’t OK and why is wasn’t OK. Moments like that of learning and growing. It was uncomfortable and necessary.

Katie: Nobody can know what they don’t know. How to provide a safe space for growth, for endless endless learning, not some state of arrival or sanctioned ways of thinking….

Holli: It’s in that spirit that I think about the process of being affirming and being an ally. You have to take a posture of being teachable; you have to take a posture of, ‘I’m going to get it wrong, and I’m going to need to apologize and recognize when I’ve done wrong, to move forward’. Approaching it in a way that brings truth. Not necessarily comfortable. It’s something we’ll all need to sort out together.

Conversation with Mat Rouleau

By Alumni Digest

Mat works in admissions and recruiting at SSU. He was a student at SSU 10ish years ago, and he and Grace have raised their family in the community.


Matt Frise: Everyone has different fears and concerns and things that they’re hopefully for, but they’re not all that different in the end. So far we’ve found that there’s a lot of resonance– there’s a lot of alignment. Even seeing it expressed in all these different ways, but having that resonance, is really powerful.

So. What gets your heart going? If you don’t feel that way, that’s also legitimate.

Mat: I have a lot of optimism, but that optimism is tempered with the possibility that all we’re imagining might not come to fruition. I’m excited that we have the opportunity to re-think and re-imagine what SSU is. Sometimes I worry that we won’t be bold enough in that. We’ll just sink back into what we did before. Or that that we won’t push far enough and actually start connecting the dots. We won’t ask why were things the way they were. Previous leaders didn’t operate in a vacuum. Why things have been the way they’ve been is more complicated than one person leaving. So I’m excited that we have that opportunity to shift things, and I’m worried that if we knew how much work it was going to be, we might not have attempted it. If you’re not going to fully commit to it, then I’m not sure you’re any better off. But I’m excited to be here and to be part of the process. It was pretty neat when it began to feel like people had similar intentions and inclinations and were all on the same page.

Matt Frise: Where’s the hard work right now? What’s taking your energy?

Mat: The hard part right now is to push ahead, but also spend enough time reflecting on what’s gotten us to where we’re at so we can actually look at the things that need to be addressed. For example, the process of being affirming. Last summer when we had the Generous Space retreat, that night of the kitchen party, it got really messy… that, to me, was an indication that we haven’t really asked questions that needed to be asked. We assumed that things ‘weren’t that bad’ for LGBTQ+ students.

Or, re: how Christianity has functioned at SSU, some people came here and it was a deconstructive thing, which wasn’t great for them. Was there enough intention put into the process that the students went through? That’s always going to be a question. So, looking at being spiritual in a different sense, we still have to ask how we invite students in, at the stage they’re at, when they’re leaving high school and home. We have to think through all the things that need to happen for them to pass through our university successfully.

Matt Frise: How does what you’re saying affecting your role, what you show up and do everyday?

Mat: Part of my job is evaluating what we’ve done in recruiting– which is a lot about how we’ve talked about ourselves. Assessment and development of how we talk about ourselves going forward, and the implications of that. When people come here, they should have a good idea of what they’re getting into, as much as possible.

Matt Frise: You mentioned how much work there is to be done– do you see an alternative to that? Or, what are the consequences of not going down those paths? Of being affirming, say. Or other places that you’re looking at the work with a bit of dread, if I heard you right.

Mat: I’m just afraid that it won’t be done, that we’ll miss things. That we won’t think through the implications or fully appreciate the complexity of what we’re trying to do.

Matt Frise: I mean, that’s the entire history of the university…. 🙂

Mat: Yeah, maybe I’m fighting an uphill battle. I prefer to not be reactionary. I prefer to try to think ahead a little bit. If we say this, then it’s going to mean these things, and how are we actually going to make these things happen. Etc.

Matt Frise: What are some specific puzzles that you’re working on?

Mat: In my role, people often suggest things. Like, ‘you should do more Indigenous recruiting’. And I think, ‘it’s not as simple as just putting up a flag and saying, let’s get Indigenous students here’. I start looking at it and thinking, is this a school that actually provides what Indigenous students need to thrive at university? I’d want some voices from those Indigenous communities to tell me (us) how our school is or isn’t an appropriate fit. What will it be like for Indigenous students, culture-wise, coming here? What will they expect? The students could of course need different things– it doesn’t help to generalize. But anyways, for someone to say ‘we should just do this’– I’m like, ok, but…that would take the whole school sitting down and really working through some of the TRC recommendations for schools, and embodying those, in order to make a place that would be hospitable for Indigenous students. I don’t think you have to do that to have Indigenous students, but if I was going to go out and specifically market to Indigenous students, I’d want that process to be happening.
I wouldn’t say we have to have all our shit together. You can just be honest about where you’re at, about the process. And then people can come into that process.


In terms of how I talk about the school or who I talk to the school about, I’m trying to figure out a good way to explain who we are as a Christian-no-longer-Christian university…. I need to figure out a way to explain how that works here. So that people will be excited about that and want to join. Or, if it’s not what they’re looking for, then they’ll know that this wouldn’t be a good fit.
We’re trying to span the space between a secular university and a Christian university– and when I say Christian university, I mean that in capital letters, because it’s an actual group. In order to be a member of the groups that the other Christian universities are in, we have to agree to certain things. And more and more, we’re finding that we’re not on the same page as the others. All 10 of the Christian Universities in Canada work together. These are the membership requirements– you have to have a statement of faith (which is evangelical, 99% of the time). Ours was not (we just did creeds), and they had a hard time with that. You have to commit to only hiring staff and faculty who have signed a statement of commitment to the Christian faith, and teach from a Christian perspective, etc. How does SSU fit with that? It’s like these organizations exist for figuring out how to describe the box that these institutions are in, and who it doesn’t include. That’s so the opposite of who we are. So when I say we’re not a Christian university, that’s what I mean.

Katie: Are we no longer part of those organizations?

Mat: We’re letting one of the memberships lapse. The other one… it’ll depend on if we make changes to our hiring policies and statement of faith. The main benefit to being a part of the organization is being able to go on a little tour of schools. So it’s a convenience thing. And everyone’s really nice.

Matt Frise: What’s something you wish that alumni knew?

Mat: I would be interested to find out what their experience was like at SSU and how it either reinforced or challenged where they came from, especially concerning spirituality. That seems to be something that strikes a nerve. To me, it seems like SSU has always been the odd person out, when you talk about Christian university groups. We look more conservative, looking backwards. But when I came here, I thought this was a crazy place. Hardly Christian. And at the time, it would’ve looked ‘not very Christian’, compared to other schools.
Most of the Christian Universities have become more broadly accepting and less like a “bible college” you’d think of, back in the day. So sometimes we say, ‘all of the other Christian Universities are like this, but we’re not like that.’ And I think ‘well, those other schools were maybe like that 20 years ago, but they’re not actually like that anymore, in some ways’. I’m trying to get at the whole problem of setting up the other schools as straw men to compare ourselves with. There still are some major differences, but honestly….

Anyways. There’s a couple things about SSU that seem to have been constant. And I like to hear from alumni about how they encountered SSU. Right now, I describe SSU as a place where questions aren’t threatening. Where you can examine your worldview and your positions– those aren’t just something that you get and defend. It’s more like a journey and journeys are about exploring. There must be some truth to the idea that none of us have the full picture. When I’m talking to Alumni that are trying to figure out what SSU is like now, I say, ‘well, it’s like it was when you came, except the world is different. It’s still functioning in the same way and hopefully having the same effect on the lives of students as it did on you and your classmates.’

Conversation with Rachael Barham

By Alumni Digest

Rachael wears a LOT of SSU hats– she’s faculty, she coordinates the Europe program, and she co-leads the School for Contemplation. She’s an alumni of the ministry program (‘03)


Rachael: The spirituality question– who we are spiritually, and the space we create for people to explore spirituality and express it and what have you… feels exciting to me. But over the last year, it’s felt more like a mixture of exciting and scary.  I remember a conversation, maybe a year ago, where somebody said off-hand, `Maybe at some point we wouldn’t call ourselves Christian’. And I was like, ‘what the heck, we couldn’t do that’. But I think I was afraid of what we meant by that, what we’d lose…. That shifted over time for me, as I understood why we were talking about it, why it was important. Then it felt really good, and I started to feel a little bit brave. 🙂

In February I went to an Enneagram retreat in Ontario where they created this amazing space. They said upfront that their book was written from a Christian perspective, and that the contemplative practices were mostly from Christian tradition, but they were trying to create a space that was really open to everyone. They did such a great job, from my perspective–inviting everyone in to try these practices out, giving people different ways in. And I know I can never totally know, because I come from Christian tradition, so I don’t know quite how it feels for someone who doesn’t.

I had to talk about SSU, because we were one of the official sponsors of the retreat. So I got up and talked about SSU and where we were headed. I talked about our process of trying to figure out how to describe and live a more open, inclusive spirituality. There were 150 people there. The leader got up afterwards and talked about how the world we’re living in is increasingly polarized– and how important it is to individually move away from that kind of polarization. Then she said, ‘I’m just so encouraged to hear about an institution trying to do that kind of work’.   It was really helpful for me to hear somebody say that. Because St. Stephen is just this little town, just this little group.

So many of us are used to particular dichotomies. So to try and describe something that doesn’t fit into that is generally going to be misunderstood. I hate being misunderstood.

Because it’s pretty fresh for me to think this is ‘a good thing’, it feels courageous. It wouldn’t feel so courageous to other people, probably. Although I still think it is for us as an institution. There might be ways in which we could live a Christian vision better if we didn’t insist on the label.


One of the things I love about this time is this synergy and consensus among people working here. A willingness to explore and not be afraid.   Non-defensive spirituality. You don’t have to defend and protect at all costs, because what you have is real and it’s solid and it actually has potential to transform us as individuals and as a community and out into wherever people go.

This opens us and it grows us. This fits us but it also stretches us out of an old way of being. That feels good.

Matt: You’ve got all these ways you intersect with SSU, and you’re also a spiritual director. If SSU was a person, and you were sitting with SSU as a director, what kinds of things emerge, however you do your practice of spiritual direction?

Rachael: I’m thinking about how, in spiritual direction, there’s all these different elements– there’s some kind of exploring where you’ve come from, and there’s a lot of exploring where you are right now, and the connection between where you come from and how that’s important in where you are now. Some things you want to continue from where you’ve come from; some things don’t feel like they fit anymore from where you’ve come from. We ask questions like,  ‘what’s my relationship with where I come from, what do I want to hold on to, what do I need to let go of?’– integrating that into a new sense of who you are. And then there’s an outward act– where you want to go, where are you heading. This is another one of many times when SSU has gone through this kind of process.

Matt: Taking stock of the past, coming to awareness of the present, imagining the future.

Rachael:  Yeah. There’s a lot of curiosity in the process.

Matt: One of the ideas that’s come up in these interviews is SSU’s relationship or connection with principle and practice. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this, in terms of the Europe term, which you’re involved with facilitating. The travel terms strike me as this interesting moment of principle or practice or both. Where’s Europe at? What does Europe mean?

Rachael: There’s questions about whether we can sustain two travel terms, as our program changes. And it’s interesting because when we talk about that as faculty, it’s easier to see how the Asia term supports what we’re trying to do overall in the program. But I feel like Europe has so much to offer, too. Most of us don’t want to choose. Asia represents this completely cross-cultural immersion. It’s this ‘baptism by fire’, and people really want that. It’s exciting. People also really want the Europe trip– it’s different, but for the majority of our students, it’s like, ‘these are my roots, too. Cultures that I’ve grown out of, religion and stories that I know’– so there’s the exploring of that, in a different way. Seeing what they’re familiar with from different angles. That feels really important. But it’ll be interesting to see what we can actually sustain.


Katie: What do you like most about your super-varied life at SSU?

Rachael: I like the variety. Not doing the same thing all the time. With the europe trip, I love planning things and arranging things. I like knowing how changing one thing can improve the quality of the experience so much. Last time we were in Rome, the guide we had for the forum was bad. Just SO bad. It was all dry facts. Nothing that helped you connect to the meaning of what happened there. He wasn’t trying to engage the students at all– he was talking to me, because I was leading the group. He kept saying, ‘maaadam, maadam’, and I’d try to get him to address everybody, but after awhile I was like, this is useless. It’s not interesting, anyway. You could really have got a feel for what Rome was and is, but it didn’t happen.  So I found this new guide with amazing reviews– she’s really knowledgeable but she’s also a great storyteller. Doing stuff in a way that actually sticks because it’s meaningful and interesting.

Katie: One of the things I heard in what you’re saying kinda extends as a metaphor for SSU in general. This cyclical thing, year after year. There’s a comfort in that or a momentum in that. Also I’m thinking about the healthiness of needing to improve things and fix things as you go.

Matt: What are the ingredients of the trip that endure? What are the things you’re trying to course-correct for?

Rachael: One of the things that’s made the new iteration of the trip really good is that we stay in places for longer, so you get a better feel for the place. You’re not just touching on the two main sites. That enables us to try to connect with knowledgeable local people whenever we can, so we get to see the place from their perspective. It makes a huge difference, for students to connect to people. Also, whenever we can, we find ways to see some kind of hidden aspect of the place. Some sort of district that’s not the tourist district. Places on the margins. That’s really important and really enriches the trip. It doesn’t feel good when we just hit the main tourist places.

Matt: what’s the story you’re kinda telling students as you take them through Europe?

Rachael:  Hmm… maybe that it’s complicated, it’s complex.


Rachael: I started this year reflecting on New Year’s Eve… I couldn’t see the way forward. It felt utterly blank and uncertain. Just didn’t know at all. SSU is work and it’s personal– it’s everything. But once we got into it, it just felt… good. There’s a lot of energy, there’s a lot of hope. There’s a lot more getting done.

Matt: Do you have a hope or a vision for what spirituality at SSU looks like now?

Rachael: Some of these phrases we’re playing with… not knowing quite what they mean.  Like, ‘the inner transformation of the changemaker’. But I get excited about us being able to be more intentional about tools for transformation– spiritual tools for transformation. By tools I’m talking very broadly– could be practices, or perspectives, or good questions– all kinds of things. Actually exploring your inner world and understanding transformation.

I think it will take quite a bit of exploring. We somehow have to talk as a faculty about how that translates into the classroom. How can you be really upfront about where you’re coming from, what you love, and also from that, be able to offer something that makes sense for all kinds of people.  Maybe some of us do that better than others. But we don’t really talk about it. It’s been a bit of a black box. We all agree that being able to explore faith is part of academics– it’s a real value for us. But quite how you do that in a way that really makes people feel that their path and perspective is actually valued, while not watering it all down, so you never say the particular place that you come from or particular things that you’ve known…. I don’t think that kind of a generic thing is what the world needs, either. I’d love to see that people could bring who they really are and yet also know how to create this place that’s transformative.

The new semester in dialogue relates to this, for me– the idea is a semester set aside for learning really good process–  inner and social tools for dialogue. Learning what you bring to the table and how to express that well. The idea is to give more space in the program for students to learn and practice these skills.

Matt: What’s something you’d really like alumni to know?

Rachael:  I’m having a vague thought about journey… something about the fact that we’re on a journey. Wanting to invite more people into that. Wanting to invite alumni into that journey, and facilitate more students’ journeys of transformation…. as part of the journey of the institution.  Something like that.

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