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American Muslims Join Long Tradition of Multifaith Chaplaincy
(Muslims serve co-religionists and members of other faiths as chaplains)
By M. Scott Bortot
Staff Writer
Washington — Imam Yusuf Hasan recalls the time he helped a Catholic woman overcome pain and depression after doctors removed half her face in surgery.
“The first thing she said to me was, ‘Pray for me to die.’” That’s when Hasan’s beliefs kicked in. “I said, ‘I can’t pray for you to die.’”
While she recuperated, Hasan, a Muslim staff chaplain from HealthCare Chaplaincy assigned to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, reminded the woman about the family that relied on her love, guidance and wisdom.
By the time she was ready to go home, she told Hasan, “You are my best friend.”
“That taught me a lesson about chaplaincy right there. It’s not about religion; it’s about how you treat that person, that human being in that body that is in pain or is torn. How will you treat that person inside,” Hasan said. “And she never knew until this day that I was a Muslim, but her family knew.”
Hasan, the first board-certified Muslim chaplain in the United States, is part of an American tradition that dates back to the time of George Washington. While fighting the British, Washington employed chaplains as religious leaders for his soldiers, but they did more. They would console the wounded, write letters home for illiterate soldiers and encourage soldiers to stay the course if they thought of deserting.
Although America’s first chaplains were Christian and served the military, the institution grew and diversified along with the country’s population. Today, chaplaincy includes Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and people of other faiths — or no faith. A chaplain is a man or woman well versed in religion who offers spiritual, personal or professional guidance to people within an institution, such as a prison, a hospital or a university or the military.
The U.S. military contacted Hartford Seminary in Connecticut in the late 1990s because of an increase in Muslims serving in the armed forces. By 2000, Hartford Seminary’s Duncan Black MacDonald Center started the Islamic Chaplaincy Program, the first and only accredited college program for Muslim chaplains in America.
Most of the program’s 30 students are enrolled for a master’s of arts degree in Islamic studies and Muslim-Christian relations as a prerequisite for the graduate certificate of Islamic chaplaincy.
Timur Yuskaev, director of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary, said institutions are seeking Muslim chaplains.
“In the past two months that I’ve been here and I’ve been answering the phone, from what I can tell there is a demand for Muslim chaplains,” Yuskaev said. “Right now, it is the military, the prison system and the universities and colleges that are looking for Muslim chaplains.”
Since it was founded, the seminary has graduated dozens of chaplains who have gone on to serve at numerous institutions, including prestigious Ivy League colleges. The seminary welcomes Muslims from all faith approaches; Sunnis, Shias and Sufis are graduates of the program.
Studies to earn a degree in Muslim chaplaincy from the seminary are rigorous. This semester, for example, courses cover Islamic theology, Islamic history and mental health from an Islamic perspective. Along with course work, students participate in clinical pastoral education training. This is where they work in a hospital under the supervision of experienced chaplains.
“In such a setting, they will answer the calls of non-Muslim patients and non-Muslim families, and they have to be able to help them,” Yuskaev said. “Just as a Protestant Christian chaplain should be able to help a Muslim family in a responsible way, in the same way the Muslim chaplain should be able and help non-Muslim patients.”
Leaders in American chaplaincy said clinical pastoral education is a crucial step for anyone who wants to be an effective chaplain. Sue Wintz, president of the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC), described the clinical pastoral education needed for certification by her 4,500-member organization — the largest of its kind in North America.
“Board-certified chaplains are required [to have] 1,600 hours of clinical pastoral education,” Wintz said, adding that many chaplains at her organization train with the military and at hospitals. In her case, “it was like a residency that a physician goes through where you are in the hospital learning the medical environment.”
Hasan, who is APC certified, stressed the importance of clinical pastoral training for Muslims interested in chaplaincy.
“It is unfortunate that some places like colleges and universities and prison systems are hiring Muslims without any clinical pastoral education training,” Hasan said. “I am insisting that they have at least one unit [of the training] because if they don’t have at least one unit or more … you are not giving the counseling that they really, really need when they are distressed.”
With Hasan as its first officially recognized chaplain just over a decade ago, Muslim chaplaincy is a recent development. Previously, institutions reached out to local imams to meet with Muslim families and individuals in need. And, if they could not find an imam, efforts were made to find any Muslim who might be able to provide guidance.
Pennsylvania’s prison system contacted Mumina Kowalski in 1999 for just that reason. Kowalski, who is working on her graduate thesis at Hartford Seminary, said holding a college degree and being active in her Muslim community made her an excellent candidate to work as a chaplain in a women’s prison.
“As a Muslim American, especially for a female, it’s the perfect job that is related to my faith but at the same time utilizes my civic knowledge of American life and institutional building,” Kowalski said of her role as Muslim prison chaplain.
Kowalski worked at the prison for eight years and learned to navigate the challenges of inmate life.
“You have to interpret within the boundaries of the policies about what they can do, and you have a difficult clientele,” Kowalski said. “People have been on the wrong side of the law, and have many personality disorders, addiction issues and violence issues.”
Kowalski praised the education she has received at Hartford Seminary, not only because it has deepened her knowledge of Islam but also because of what she has learned of the Jewish and Christian faiths. Like other Muslim chaplains, she said certification with an association is vital for people serious about chaplaincy.
Organizations also serve Muslim chaplains by providing support. Bilal Ansari, a Muslim chaplain based in Connecticut, founded the Muslim Chaplains Association in 2006. The group’s website says it has about 100 members.
Ansari, a recent Hartford Seminary graduate, said his association connects Muslim chaplains to foster an exchange ideas and information.
“It provides a chance to network and to share success stories and share different views,” Ansari said. “Maybe somebody is new to the field or retired from something else and coming into the field and not experienced and needs advice on how to navigate.”
The Muslim Chaplains Association is modeled on organizations that serve chaplains of other religions. Ansari said the association offers training with psychologists not only to identify issues with clients, but also for chaplains on how to care for themselves.
For young American Muslims interested in taking up chaplaincy, Ansari said graduating from a four-year liberal arts college is crucial.
“They can major or minor in religion so they can understand all faiths,” Ansari said. “But if they don’t deal with any type of religious studies, at least know the history of the field from other faiths.”
Hasan said that working with other faiths, while at the same time working with your own, is what makes chaplaincy uniquely American.
“America is a melting pot of all religions, of all persuasions, and no one escapes illness; no matter who you are, you are going to get ill,” Hasan said. Muslims from other nations who have sought treatment at Hasan’s hospital are also impressed with the chaplaincy tradition. “I’ve had patients that come in from different countries, and they say that they have never heard of this in our country and that this is wonderful.”
(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.  Web site:
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