Open door, open heart: In new book, Yale’s Muslim chaplain shares his story
Chaplain Omer Bajwa’s office door is always open. He never knows who will visit him or what concern he’ll need to address. And that’s how he likes it.
“I love not knowing what each day will bring,” said Bajwa, director of Muslim life for the Yale Chaplain’s Office. “Chaplains are here to provide a calm, non-judgmental presence to help people work through any number of issues. We inhabit a variety of roles, from providing pastoral care, to serving as a liaison with the university’s administration, to fostering interfaith dialogue. It’s all part of the job.”
Bajwa, who came to Yale in 2008 fresh from his chaplaincy training at Hartford Seminary, has co-edited “Mantle of Mercy: Islamic Chaplaincy in North America (Templeton Press),” a new volume of personal essays by Muslim chaplains working in a variety of contexts in the United States and Canada.
Chaplaincy, a vocation that emerged from a Christian framework, is a relatively new one in the Islamic faith. In 32 essays, the book’s contributors offer insights into the chaplain’s role in the Islamic faith tradition and Muslim community through their varied experiences working in prisons, hospitals, universities, the military, and other settings. It is the first book of its kind to bear witness to the experiences of Muslim chaplains, both the challenges they face and the joy they derive from their work, Bajwa said.
“In conceiving this project, my co-editors and I discussed how one of the most important aspects of chaplaincy is being the holders of people’s stories,” he said. “We sit with people, listen to them, and hold their stories. When appropriate, we share those stories. We decided that the best way to enlighten people about our work is to have chaplains from different spheres share their stories.”
The project’s origins are rooted in Bajwa’s experiences at Hartford Seminary. Ingrid Mattson, his professor and mentor, had urged him and his classmate, the late Sohaib Sultan, who was a chaplain at Princeton University, to collaborate on a book to advance their field. Focused on the day-to-day challenges of their jobs, they never quite managed to launch a book project until Mattson confronted them at a conference in January 2020. It was there, Bajwa said, that she reminded her former students of their duty to share their knowledge and experiences with others.
They had just begun discussing the project in earnest when the pandemic struck. Shortly after, Sultan was diagnosed with advanced cancer and passed away in April 2021.
“Sohaib urged me not to abandon the project,” Bajwa said.
Bajwa kept his promise to his friend and completed the project with co-editors Muhammad A. Ali, a chaplain in both university and prison settings; Sondos Kholaki, a healthcare chaplain; and Jaye Starr, also a healthcare chaplain. Poignantly, the book includes two pieces by Sultan: a reflection on how faith guided him through the process of dying and an epilogue that functions as a farewell letter to his colleagues, reminding them that they are companions, not competitors.
While each of the book’s essays offers a unique perspective on chaplaincy, common themes run throughout, Bajwa said.
“Many of the essays touch on the fact that chaplains work on the frontlines of the global mental-health crisis,” he said. “We’re not therapists or mental health professionals, but we work alongside them, and serve as a bridge connecting people to the care and services they need.”
A second theme concerns the religious beliefs and teachings undergirding the work of Muslim chaplains, Bajwa said.
As the volume’s introductory essay explains, most Muslim chaplains draw on two primary religious sources: the Qur’an, Islam’s central text considered by believers to be the revealed word of God, and the Sunnah, which is the example and practice of the Prophet Muhammad.
“We point to the prophetic example of the Prophet Muhammad,” Bajwa said. “His life and his teachings were heavily focused on Islamic spiritual care. Several of the essays dig very deeply into what we can extract from the prophetic teachings in a modern context to better serve a variety of people in grief and suffering or just in their daily lives.”
Bajwa’s essay, “Open Door, Open Heart,” describes how the Prophet’s teachings influence what he views as a chaplain’s five fundamental roles: spiritual counselor, advocate, interfaith interlocutor, teacher, and minister.
On any given day, Bajwa can be counseling a student through sadness or a crisis of faith, planning a vigil in response to current events, or advising the administration on holiday observances and other matters concerning religious accommodation. His approach, he writes, is constant regardless of the task at hand: seek to nurture the mind, body, and soul through spiritual care, mentorship, and empowerment.
“My pastoral counseling — and care for the souls of my community — are inspired and driven by two pieces of timeless advice of the Prophet Muhammad: ‘All of you are shepherds and each of you is responsible for his flock,’ and ‘Make things easy, do not make things difficult. Give glad tidings and do not frighten them away.’”
In the essay, Bajwa credits Yale Chaplain Sharon Kugler for teaching him that chaplains must be approachable so that members of the community feel comfortable being open with them.
“Although I never know who is going to walk through my door or in what role I am needed, my door is always open, literally and figuratively,” he concludes.