Alumni of a study abroad program at Brock University in Ontario, Canada are criticizing a professor's attempt to sever the program’s ties with the school because of its connections with the Christian Life Movement.
“These trips have been a wonderful experience for thousands of students with unique opportunities for personal and professional development,” said former student Layla S. Mofid, a current doctoral candidate at McGill University in Quebec.
“Instead of denouncing” the program, “Brock University should be embracing their ability to provide an international program that contributes to cross-cultural learning and global awareness,” she said.
Over 200 letters of support have flooded the school in recent days after Ana Isla – a Peruvian-Canadian Brock University assistant professor in Sociology and Women’s Studies – urged the Sociology Department to ask the university to end the program and remove “all ties” to local partners of the trips.
In a three-page letter to the department, she criticized the placement of Brock students in Christian Life Movement facilities and projects while abroad.
Isla cited one Brock student's feelings that the Christian Life Movement “portrayed their community as good and everything outside of it as evil.” She also claimed that the program allowed untrained students to provide medical care at charity clinics in Lima, Peru.
Most of Isla's letter repeated various charges against the Christian Life Movement unrelated to the program. She ultimately contended that the movement's agreement with the university gives it the “right to disseminate and practice homophobia, anti-choice, and racism/imperialism under the guise of 'culture,' and their right to University resources through shared projects and budgets.”
Among the dozens of alumni who countered Isla's claims, Mofid she never felt harassed or unsafe in any way during her experience with the program. She added that she is now conducting a study in rural Peru as part of her doctoral thesis and credits the program for inspiring her, and countless others, in their career pursuits.
The Solidarity Experiences Abroad program was started in 2004 by the university’s Catholic campus ministry but has no religious affiliation. Nearly 1,000 students from Brock University and 16 other universities have helped support education and health care work while developing their own careers.
The program offers experiences in Ecuador, South Africa, Namibia, Costa Rica and Brazil through trips organized by chaplains from various denominations.
Other students and graduates of the Solidarity Experiences Abroad program who have asked the university to continue supporting it include Daryl Kayton, a doctoral student in political science at the University of Carleton.
“The trips are an excellent introduction to the culture, the values and the politics of South America, as well as an important starting point for those who deal with issues of social justice, the environment and distribution,” Kayton said.
In his letter, Kayton said the program promoted social justice “without any form of imperialism or harassment.”
“I personally experienced these trips alongside Protestants, Jews, Hindus, deists, agnostics, atheists and others. I find it hard to believe that an Inuit leading a trip the Arctic that partakes in religious practices and spiritual traditions of their own would be criticized half as much as the SEA trips have been, and that is truly a shame.”
Br. Raoul Masseur, a consecrated layman and Catholic chaplain at the University of Brock, oversees the trips to Peru, where students primarily work in Lima and Cuzco. They have also rebuilt a school destroyed in the 2007 earthquake in the southern Peruvian town of Chincha.
“On each trip we develop projects in health care, education, care of the environment and construction. The purpose is for young people to develop their university careers in service to those most in need,” said Br. Masseur, who is a member of the Christian Life Movement.
He credits the program with helping more than 100,000 Peruvians through preschool centers, schools, medical outposts, health and educational campaigns, libraries for children and other projects.
Rachelle Demetriades, a registered nurse and a non-Catholic who went through the program, rejected accusations of religious pressure. She said that the topic of spirituality is “often addressed and discussed throughout the trips.”
Br. Raoul and members of his community dialogue on topics ranging from poverty to their own spiritual journeys and provided a forum for discussions that allowed all participants – regardless of their religious views – to share their own experiences and beliefs, Demetriades said.
Participants who declined to participate in religious experiences faced no judgment or stigma, she reported.
CNA contacted Isla for comment but did not receive a response by deadline.