It’s easy to get nervous when you book a speaker to deliver a lecture in the largest meeting space on campus. Will the sound system work ok? Will the speaker connect with students? Will anyone even show up?
These were some questions our planning team confronted when we decided to use the University of Calgary’s 1,000-seat Red and White Club auditorium to host Dr. Ravi Zacharias, along with four other Canadian speakers from Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM). This was our first-ever UReason event, a multi-day outreach across the city of Calgary for students and youth. The four speakers gave eight talks in the U of C student centre on such topics as “Hasn’t Science Buried God?”, “Ideas Have Consequences”, “Why I’m Not an Atheist” and “What’s So Special About Jesus Anyways?”
For 43 years Ravi and his team have spoken all over the world at scores of universities, notably Harvard, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins and Cambridge. His organization RZIM also helped establish the Oxford University Centre for Christian Apologetics. It is a big deal to have a speaker of this caliber come to U of C.
In February 2015, after a speaking event at a local church, Dr. Andy Bannister, the Canadian director of RZIM, asked me “Are you guys interested in hosting Ravi next September?” I immediately signed on as co-chair of the campus steering committee to help make this happen. What made this initiative especially strategic, however, was the unprecedented level of partnership and cooperation we had with the entire Christian community on campus. For the past two years we have been praying together on a weekly basis, asking God to use our different strengths to benefit the campus together as a group. This event was the culmination of those prayers and persistence.
On the final night of the event, before Ravi’s lecture, my wife Joanne and I nervously arrived two hours early to go over last minute details and pray with the organizing committee. Our U of C Navigator group had personally invited many of their friends and I was especially hopeful my new friend Shawn* would show up. Shawn is a first year engineering student from Azerbaijan. As a nominal Muslim, this would be the first time in his life that he heard a Christian speaker.
At 6:30 pm the doors opened and it seemed in no time the auditorium filled to capacity. I later learned nearly 200 people were on the waitlist to purchase any last-minute or unused seats. To my relief I caught sight of Shawn and motioned for him to sit with us. His English is remarkably strong, and joining us for Ravi’s lecture that night opened new doors of conversation and discussion about the Gospel between us. He is a keen learner and is fascinated by Canadian culture, eager to make new Canadian friends.
Ravi’s lecture topic that evening was “What Does it Mean to be Human?” His basic argument was that not only does the Judeo-Christian worldview answer humanity’s basic questions, but it also legitimizes those questions. For example, everybody asks questions about good and evil, but how do anti-theistic thinkers define those terms?
While my new friend Shawn didn’t agree with everything said that night, he was impressed by the speaker’s passion and sincerity, and his attempt to answer a difficult question. He was surprised to see so many U of C students curious to hear this speaker.
Following Ravi’s lecture over a dozen students stood up at ask questions. In some ways, that was the most fascinating part of the entire evening. Some questions were slightly antagonistic, others philosophical. One student, a fourth-year biochemistry major named Peter*, said his difficulty in believing in Jesus came from his Pakistani Hindu background. Ravi was able to share some of his own story, having come from a similar culture. The following week I saw Peter on campus and bought him a coffee to talk and learn more of his story.
Afterwards, Joanne and I made our way over to Ravi to personally thank him for coming to U of C. We didn’t get a chance to chat long with him, but we did learn he’s worked with Navigator ministries in other parts of the world.
There are many students like Shawn and Peter in universities across Canada who are seeking answers to the deeper questions of life. Initially, one of the most critical things they look for is a community of friends. It’s neat to hear how Navigator staff teams and student leaders across this country are engaging this next generation of leaders, many of whom come from across the world.