Liam Adams is an independent journalist in Denver writing for local and national outlets.  

‘Sometimes You Go Home with Tears,': Being a College’s Muslim Chaplain

Originally published for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

When Imam Yahya Hendi became the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University, in 1999, he thought his job would be similar to that of his Christian and Jewish counterparts. Imam Hendi was schooled for the task, with a degree from the Hartford Seminary’s Islamic-chaplaincy program. But he thought it best to approach chaplains of other faiths to ask about their work and the challenges they faced.

"Being the first is always difficult because you have no role model to look up to," Imam Hendi said. He wasn’t just Georgetown’s first Muslim chaplain; he was the first full-time Muslim chaplain at any college in the United States.

Although his colleagues provided Imam Hendi with lots of helpful material, he said, no one could prepare him for the challenges he would face two years later, when members of Al Qaeda crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Somerset County, Pa.

The September 11 terrorist attacks kick-­started a wave of anti-Islamic sentiment in America. And it created a new set of responsibilities for Imam Hendi. He went from mentoring two students a week to five. He also began to organize more retreats for Muslim students, teaching them about self-care and how to deal with anxieties arising from Islamophobia. The "intensity and magnitude" of the job picked up, he explained.

For Imam Hendi, growing Islamophobia meant speaking at more events, both on campus and off, to point out the similarities between Islam and other religions, such as their belief in nonviolence.

Muslim chaplains on college campuses are considered to be the "face and voice of Islam" since 9/11, said Imam Abdullah Antepli, chief representative of Muslim affairs at Duke University. Either by their own volition or at the bidding of administrators, Muslim chaplains have found themselves thrust into the role of defending the peaceful and civil nature of their religion.

And their work has taken on new urgency since Donald J. Trump began his presidential campaign. The rise of President Trump is another "inflection point" for Islamophobia in the United States since 9/11, said Omer Bajwa, the Muslim chaplain at Yale University.

A Muslim chaplain is the "go-to person," Imam Antepli said, "if anything happens anywhere in the world related to Islam or Muslims." Jewish or Christian chaplains aren’t charged with answering for their whole faith. It’s a "mission impossible," Imam Antepli said.

Even non-Muslim chaplains have observed that pattern. "It would be ridiculous for someone to ask me about the entire history of Christianity and global conflict involving Christianity," said the Rev. Kelly Stone, a Christian chaplain at Macalester College. And yet "we are standing by and letting that be asked of our Muslim colleagues," she said.

Other responsibilities for Muslim chaplains include teaching Muslim students, both liberal and traditional, about Islam. They counsel students, often about personal issues. Many chaplains also advocate for Muslim students’ housing and dietary needs.

But though some chaplains feel encouraged by the opportunity to empower and educate, they also feel exhausted addressing geopolitical issues larger than life.

Islamophobia in the Trump Era

Although Islamophobia has been a constant since 9/11, American Muslims say it’s more prevalent in recent years due to the rise of ISIS and subsequent responses from Mr. Trump and other right-wing activists.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," after a Muslim couple shot and killed 14 people and wounded 22 others in San Bernardino, Calif. On January 27 the president signed the first of several executive orders designed to restrict citizens of several majority-Muslim and other countries from entering the United States for 90 days. (Most provisions of Mr. Trump’s travel bans have been blocked in the courts.)

Mr. Trump’s response to the San Bernardino attack is an example of the "vitriol, xenophobia, and racism that has been emboldened and churned up" since he started his campaign, said Yale’s Mr. Bajwa.

For American Muslims, the threat was heightened when Mr. Trump was elected. "It felt like a funeral on campus" the day after the election, said Ailya Vajid, the Muslim chaplain at Macalester and nearby Carleton College. "Students were crying, other students were in shock. People were just in mourning."

Through the Macalester newsletter, the college’s chaplains invited all students to visit the religious-life common space to color, eat snacks, and talk about the election results. Ms. Vajid said some Muslim students had been shocked that an Islamophobic candidate could become president. Other students weren’t shocked, saying the election would make Islamophobia more visible to non-Muslims.

When Ms. Vajid started as a Muslim chaplain, she said, she didn’t expect to hold as many vigils as she has. When Islamic terrorists attack, she is the one to address the matter in a public way. At times, her work feels "emotionally heavy," she said, because she grieves for her Muslim students when Islam is misrepresented by acts of terrorism, subsequently causing Muslims to face "hate, violence, or bigotry."

Ms. Vajid worked at Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania, before she moved to Minnesota, where she found part-time chaplain positions at both Carleton and Macalester. She also was briefly an associate chaplain at Gustavus Adolphus College.

At both Carleton and Macalester, Ms. Vajid has pushed for religion to be more commonly discussed on the campus. People often talk about "multiculturalism, class, ethnicity, race," she said, "but religion is not always part of those conversations." A Muslim chaplain can be a "bridge to bring some of those conversations together," she said.

Although it can be challenging to elevate conversations about religion, Ms. Vajid said, her work is important because she gets to be "present when there is something so real in the world that’s happening."

A ‘Blessing to Serve’

Imam Adeel Zeb said his efforts to foster empathy for Muslims make up for 60 to 70 percent of his stress as the Muslim chaplain at the Claremont University Consortium, a seven-institution group in Los Angeles. Those efforts include rectifying the "garbage" about Islam that the news media teaches people, he said.

Fostering empathy involves showing non-Muslim students the diversity of American Muslims. In a presentation to Claremont McKenna College students titled "Being Muslim in America," Imam Zeb shows pictures of Zayn Malik, in the group One Direction; the rapper Ice Cube; Mehmet Oz from The Dr. Oz Show; and the fencing Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad. Muslims are not just the terrorists everyone sees on television.

Imam Zeb said he wants his work to focus on the sort of tasks other chaplains handle, such as spiritual education and mentoring. If teaching the Quran was "what I had to do all day, that’s awesome," he said. It can be exhausting to have administrators, faculty members, and students from seven different colleges leaning on him for advice about Islam, but it can also be a "blessing to serve," he said.

Eighteen years after he started his work at Georgetown, Imam Hendi is still wrestling with ways Muslim chaplains can defuse negative images of Muslims. "Sometimes, it’s been very exhausting," he said. "Sometimes you go home with tears."

The tears come from listening to students express their anxieties about being Muslim in America. Recently, he said, he counseled a Muslim student who’s worried about facing discrimination in the job market.

Although the work can be heavy at times, Imam Hendi said, "we will not allow the bitterness and rigidness of today’s politics to undermine how we dedicate ourselves to a better future." For him, combating Islamophobia involves investing in the lives of Muslim students more than educating non-Muslims about Islamophobia.

When Americans "discover that Muslims are part of the American family," Imam Hendi said, negative perceptions of Muslims are dispelled. Thus, it’s the responsibility of Muslim chaplains to guide Muslim students to graduate and become part of the American family, he said.

Imam Hendi still considers his efforts to educate non-Muslims about Islam to be important. He recognizes, however, that only some will listen to him because of his academic approach. For others, it’s better that they learn about Islam by observing Muslims in politics, social work, and business.

True "self-care" is "engaging and moving forward with America," Imam Hendi said. Islamophobia is "a temporary reality we have to live."

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