Sid Bentley put it succinctly.
“The guy upstairs had a plan for me,” he said, looking back on a full and rewarding life while propped up in a bed on the sixth floor of Peace Arch Hospital.
The well-known Surrey educator and expert on world religions, now in his 88th year, is typically matter-of-fact about being in the palliative care ward.
“There’s only one way to go from here,” he said, jabbing several times at the ceiling with his thumb.
But like many of the pronouncements he made in a conversation last week with a reporter – joined by good friend and latter-day colleague David Dalley, co-ordinator of the Surrey Neighbouring Faiths Program – there was a twinkle in his eye as he spoke.
That twinkle, and a wan, yet frequent, smile, provide an enduring impression of Bentley that overrides the frailness of the body and the thin voice that issues from it.
A teacher – not a preacher – Bentley emanates a quietly spiritual presence, even though reticent to discuss his own faith.
He’s also a plain-spoken pragmatist who did his growing up in the rough and tumble world of the Merchant Navy during the Second World War, and provided for wife Shirley and their two sons and daughter with a variety of jobs – including a 10-year stint in sawmills and later working as an insurance and truck salesman. He even toiled as a milkman, he said, while studying to complete high school so he could train to become a teacher.
A born storyteller, Bentley also has a knack for connecting with people, which served him well when he designed and taught a course on world religions at William Beagle Junior Secondary (now David Brankin Elementary) in North Surrey. The highly popular Grade 8 course was a runaway hit, winning provincial recognition and inspiring generations of multi-cultural students in Surrey to learn more about their own and each others’ religions.
“It really got out of hand,” he recalled, with a chuckle, Thursday.
Secret of the success of the course, aside from Bentley’s passionate interest in the subject, was his ability to relate the basic tenets of each religion in personal terms, and follow up his lessons with a rich, but untapped, resource of guest speakers drawn from Surrey’s various faith communities.
“I didn’t have to go outside of Surrey,” he said. “I had great people as speakers, including imams, Tibetan lamas and rabbis. I’d tell them, for example, don’t talk to the kids about Judaism – I’ll cover that – talk to them about being a Jew.”
It was as much a journey of discovery for Bentley as it was for his students, he acknowledges.
Asked how his studies transformed him, he said they ultimately made him a “universalist” – believing in the presence of God or a higher power but not believing such a divinity is the exclusive property of any one faith.
All world religions extol peace, love and understanding, he noted – no matter how much their teachings may be subverted by the violent antagonism of human beings.
Following his retirement, Bentley – who wrote the highly-regarded guide The Religions of Our Neighbours (about to go into a second edition, thanks to Zul Mehta of Sure Print and Copy Centre) – continued to contribute to multifaith understanding through regular courses at Kwantlen University, and for schools and faith communities, and in weekly appearances on Vision TV.
“His work has touched the lives of thousands, and enriched the community of Surrey,” Dalley said, adding that the groundwork laid by Bentley has made many subsequent projects, like the current Surrey Interfaith Council, possible.
It was a result that couldn’t have been predicted when he started his journey as one of a family of seven children of an English-born father and mother, growing up in Regina during the hard times of the Depression of the 1930s.
By the time he reached the age of 16, in the first year of the Second World War, Bentley was a good student who was allowed to skip exams because his grades were high.
But he was also footloose, and – as he admits now – “a pain in the ass for my father.”
“I was telling him about an article in the paper about them needing workers in the B.C. shipyards and paying travel expenses for them and I didn’t get any further – he said ‘go.’”
Claiming he was 17, Bentley found work in the shipyards, and later became a crew member of a coastal freighter shipping canned salmon and other supplies to communities in B.C. and up to Alaska.
“What you did when you went ashore was drank, played poker, swore and told each other lies,” he said. “I’ve always been a student, so I started reading.”
Unable to get a library card because he had no fixed address, Bentley found a used bookstore in Vancouver that would sell him books and buy them back after he’d read them.
“The guy who owned the store was a book nut – anyone who owns a used bookstore is a ‘bookie’ – and he started giving advice on books I might be interested in reading. He was good – that’s what got me interested in reading about world religions.”
When he married Shirley, after the war ended, he went to work in sawmills, starting as green chain worker and graduating to grader, tally man and then lumber inspector.
But he continued to meet people – like a friend who had been raised a Catholic – who stimulated his interest in religions.
The turning point came for him after they settled in Saanich and he had switched to a sales career, he said.
“One day, I looked at my life and decided I was a parasite,” he said. “I was living in this place called Earth, but I was a taker – I wasn’t giving anything. I decided the most important people in society were good teachers.”
He started working as a milkman and taking night school courses in Victoria so he could complete high school and train as a teacher at UBC.
Time and again in his life, Bentley recalls, people offered help and doors opened for him to pursue his calling – too many times for him to doubt some kind of divine intervention.
When Shirley became pregnant with their third child and it looked like he’d have to put his education on hold, a self-made millionaire who’d befriended him offered to provide a $250 per month in addition to his other income, provided he stayed in school.
“I think of him as my ‘angel,’” Bentley said. “He thought becoming a teacher was the most wonderful thing one could do. When I wanted to repay him, he refused, saying ‘find somebody who needs it and pay it forward.’”
It’s a course he’s followed ever since, he added.
When he graduated UBC in the 1960s, there was a sense of rightness to his first teacher placement at William Beagle. And Bentley was well ahead of the curve in sensing how Surrey would evolve as a multicultural community.
When he suggested his world religions course, only two weeks after he came to the school, it was eagerly embraced by the principal, and Bentley never looked back.
But of all the successes he’s enjoyed, one tribute sticks in his mind, he said.
He remembers one year, at a parent-teacher gathering at the end of the course, being approached by a Indo-Canadian woman who clasped his hand and started to cry.
Due to family circumstances, her son had not been raised a Sikh, she explained, and that had always disturbed and saddened her.
And while she’d had her doubts about what Bentley would teach him in the course, they had been dispelled when her son came home excited about his Sikh heritage for the first time.
“She said, ‘You teach Sikhism in an honest and open way,’” he recalled. “My son has decided to get baptised and become a Sikh – and I’m so happy that it is you who have given him back his Sikhism.’”
Satisfied that he has made a meaningful contribution to the sum of understanding, promoting sharing rather than hatred, Bentley remains philosophical about entering the final chapter of life’s journey.
“Que sera, sera,” he said. “Life’s been good to me. I’ve had a wonderful life – I keep saying that, but it’s true.”