Calgary, Canada - When Chestermere parents Ravinder and Sukhi Shergill were contemplating which school to send their young son to, they cast about for something that would mirror their faith.
The Sikh family found what they were looking for, but in an unlikely place.
Each school day, the Shergill children — Grade 4 pupil Gurvir and his kindergarten sister, Amreet — pass through the school’s entryway, inscribed with the words of the Christian apostle Paul.
Prince of Peace Lutheran is not a typical Christian school. While its curriculum is very much laced with the teachings of Jesus Christ, nearly half the students in its classrooms aren’t Christian at all.
Principal Todd Hennig estimates a third of kindergarten through Grade 9 children are Sikh. There is also a handful of Muslim and Hindu students at the school, which sits off the TransCanada Highway just east of Calgary in what’s locally known as the “Lutheran colony.”
But what outsiders behold as a remarkable muddle of faiths at Prince of Peace is viewed as little more than business as usual for staff, students and parents.
“If they’re learning about God, God is one, it does not matter (if it’s a) different religion, other religion,” Ravinder Shergill says.
“They go to school. If they learn about God, I’m so happy.”
His kids have not become confused about their faith. And, no, he doesn’t fear they will be converted.
In his judgment, the school is friendly, the principal accessible and his children are learning.
The school was launched in 1995, but was adopted by the Rocky View school board in 2006 after an unsteady financial period at Prince of Peace and declining student numbers.
Since then, enrolment has shot up from a low of 100 to a predicted 340 next year.
When new parents arrive, it’s made clear to them what Prince of Peace is all about. Christian parents, Hennig says, are told that children of other faiths attend.
Non-Christian parents must understand their children will be immersed in Christianity, starting their morning with devotion, Bible stories and prayer.
There’s also chapel attendance every Wednesday, and Hennig says the outreach mission of the Lutheran school is for students to be “exposed to God’s word and knowing who Jesus is.”
But Sikh families, in particular, like the idea of their children learning to pray, Hennig says.
Many Sikh parents have told him they have good memories of attending Christian schools when growing up in India. “They don’t believe in Jesus, they don’t believe in the Bible, but they believe in one God,” Hennig says. “They like that their kids are going to be in a context that recognizes divinity and has their kids praying.”
Sikh ties to the school date back at least a decade. The perusal of graduation photos from years past are threaded with Punjabi last names.
Many public school boards in Alberta, including Edmonton (although not the Calgary Board of Education), have faith-based schools in their fold.
Rocky View Schools trustee Bev LaPeare says it offers local students more choice.
But even she was surprised at the religious dynamic at Prince of Peace, and reckons parents are not just drawn to Christian aspects, but to the way the school teaches moral and life values.
The advantages to faith schools of entering the public system are clear: they get funding like any other public school, which means they don’t have to charge parents nearly as much.
In the case of Prince of Peace, it meant a tuition cut from $3,400 a year down to $500, which is dedicated to the Christian teaching at the school.
Grade 8 student Aaron Bains says his family attends Sikh temple, but at school there’s little discussion of who comes from what religion.
“We don’t really focus on that. We just make friends, talk and stuff,” he says, adding “they’re not trying to force anything down upon us.”
In teacher Blake Bagwash’s Grade 4 class, he assumes half his children aren’t Christian. Even so, Christian teaching is not watered down for students who don’t practice the same faith.
But the teacher does try to find common ground. Recently, he asked all the Sikh students to pray in Punjabi (he suspects they prayed to God, but probably not Jesus). The Christian students listened on. “They were just kind of mesmerized by this total other language,” Bagwash says. “Many don’t have a secondary language they can speak as fluently as the many of these who can speak Punjabi.”