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Robot's Hunt for Faith Wins Prize

Calgarian’s short story top’s national contest, wins $10K

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Calgarian Brandon Trotter has scooped first place, along with prize money of $10,000, in a national contest to explore the best in contemporary Canadian faith writing.

His winning short story, entitled Saint 148, is set in a future world where a robot explores the possibility of finding a soul and thereby discovers if artificial intelligence is capable of faith. It was judged the best effort in the inaugural Ross and Davis Mitchell faith-writing contest.

A total of $25,000 in prize money was handed out — $10,000 to the winners in the short story and poetry categories, with $2,500 going to each runner-up. The awards were announced at a gala evening held at Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum last week.

The contest’s goal was to give voice to those individuals who can help re-awaken Canadians to the powerful truth, goodness and beauty that belief brings.

Lawyer and businessman Ross Mitchell died in 2013 and his wife Davis backed the contest to honour her husband’s life, legacy and love of storytelling. Funding is already in place to continue backing and promoting similar faith-based literature for the next six years.

About 300 entries were received, split evenly between the short story and poetry categories, said Doug Sikkema, the project lead for the Mitchell Prize.

“While we will take the requisite time to celebrate these folks, I should acknowledge that the many unknown writers — perhaps some who saw the prize advertised and decided to pick up a pen and paper for the first time — are what make this prize a real success.

“Our hope was, and continues to be, that the vital role religion plays for so many Canadians today will be shared, not suppressed,” he said.

Sikkema added the judges were impressed with Trotter’s story about a soulless robot’s search for faith in a future world because of the writer’s wonderful imagination, which stretched the bounds of the contest.

“The judges were looking for someone who helped us enter into a unique world,” he said. “Brandon certainly did that.

“What does it mean for artificial intelligence to worship, can it worship and be part of a church? It was fun, it was playful and it didn’t do anything predictable,” added Sikkema.

The Mitchell Prize is part of the Faith in Canada 150 program that is being primarily driven this year by Cardus, the Canadian Christian think-tank.

Trotter — who in addition to being a writer is also a director, actor, playwright and arts chaplain — was delighted and surprised to win the prize.

“Saint 148 is about a robot in the future who decides to become a Christian despite no hope for salvation as it has no soul,” Trotter said. “Throughout the story, it goes through a period of trials.

“It came about through my own wrestling with whether or not Christianity is an altruistic faith,” he said. Trotter, 30, is a graduate of Calgary’s Ambrose University where he studied religion. He had worked as an actor before college and now has a rare opportunity to blend both his faith and his past experience in theatre by working as an arts chaplain. He is affiliated with Rockpointe Alliance church, which has three locations in the city, and the arts chaplaincy is a new and unusual ministry program.

“With this, I’ll serve the arts community in Calgary; specifically, the theatre community for now and hopefully other media as we go forward. I hope to be a spiritual guide and helper, whatever people need,” he said.

“I know of about four of us in the world right now, so this is pretty new. This part of the job only started last month so we are still making connections,” he added.

Trotter said that although many people within the arts community as a whole are often not affiliated with a specific religion, there is certainly a search for meaning and faith within individuals.

“There is far less interest in religion, but most of them have a very strong faith in something. They are often struggling with the greater questions of truth and meaning that cannot be found in the material world alone,” said Trotter.

As for his $10,000 prize. Trotter said he is going to be “quite boring and put most of it on my mortgage.” Rowda Mohamud, a Somaliborn Canadian- Muslim poet from Oakville, Ont., took home the $10,000 prize for her suite of poems entitled Please Find Yourself a Space.

The work of the winners and runners-up will be featured in an anthology to be published in 2018.

Saint 148 is about a robot in the future who decides to become a Christian despite no hope for salvation as it has no soul.

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