Muslim College Chaplains Extend a Hand Across Religious Divides

Source: The New York Times

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MINNEAPOLIS — Emma Blom grew up in the Scandinavian heartland of rural Minnesota, reliably attending her small town’s Lutheran church. She spent each childhood summer in vacation Bible school and played the piano for Sunday worship services. “Borning Cry” was her grandmother’s favorite hymn.

Catholics were a scattered minority on the Minnesota prairie, Jews even rarer. As for Muslims, Ms. Blom had never met one. “I knew the women wore stuff on their head,” she recalled. “I didn’t even know it was called a hijab.”

Then, as a sophomore at Augsburg College here in 2014, Ms. Blom felt her faith wavering. She had been shaken by her grandmother’s death, and drew no solace from her church’s rituals. One of her classes scrutinized the Bible for sexism and misogyny. Was she a Christian anymore? Was she even a believer? She didn’t dare to ask any of her Lutheran friends, for fear of being judged and found wanting.

Still struggling this fall, Ms. Blom turned to perhaps the most unexpected counselor and confessor of all: Augsburg’s Muslim chaplain, Fardosa Hassan. And from Ms. Hassan, 26, a Somali refugee who had never seen snow until arriving in Minnesota as a 9-year-old entering fifth grade, Ms. Blom heard words that sustained her.

Doubt was the necessary companion of belief, Ms. Hassan assured her, not its irreversible solvent. Divine texts can be interpreted by human hands and in modern ways. One devout person’s truth is not necessarily another’s.

Two months after the conversation, Ms. Blom is attending church again, feeling more settled in her soul.

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Emma Blom, a senior at Augsburg. Augsburg’s Muslim chaplain helped her through a period of spiritual doubt. CreditBridget Bennett for The New York Times

In this encounter across chasms of difference, Ms. Hassan embodied the vital role that dozens of Muslim chaplains like her are playing at colleges and universities throughout the nation. These chaplains serve as doors that open two ways — welcoming and integrating Muslim students who fear hostility at a time of rising Islamophobia, and normalizing Islam to non-Muslim students who have absorbed a narrative of it as an oppressive and violent religion.

“My role is to help students negotiate this multifaith, diverse environment,” said Ms. Hassan. “I’m going to give them a tool for when they go out of this institution, so they know how to be respectful of others. A lot of times, people are afraid even to ask the questions of people who are different. So I say, begin with friendship. Start by saying hello.”

Across the United States, nearly 40 Muslim chaplains serve private universities, according to Abdullah Antepli, the chaplain at Duke University and a leader in the national association of Muslim chaplains, which also includes those serving in hospitals, the military, prisons and various community settings. (For reasons of church and state separation, public universities cannot pay for clergy of any kind, although a Muslim chaplain at the University of Michigan is supported by private donations.)

Virtually all these chaplains have been hired since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In their polarizing aftermath, the chaplains both chose and were compelled to become cultural and religious interlocutors. For non-Muslims, each one of those chaplains provided a face, if not the face, of the “ummah,” or global community of Islam.

“If you have a Muslim among the Jews and Christians and Buddhists and humanists, you get better integrated into the life of the school,” said Heidi Hadsell, the president of Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, which has a program to train Muslim chaplains. “They act as advocates for Muslim students, but also a bridge to other communities. And that’s critically important. It’s a way of people on campus knowing a Muslim.”

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