“You Trying to Convert Me?” A University Chaplaincy and Its Pivotal Role in Student Life

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On a sunny summer afternoon in July 2019, five GU-Q students and one alumnus sat down with Professor Sohaira Siddiqui on the bare grass of a park in Tubingen, Germany. Amidst a discussion riddled with questions about private and public spirituality, sexuality and religion, the feminine and the masculine in Islam, we found our focus veering towards religious guidance and the deliverance of religious knowledge. We began to discuss the necessity of a chaplaincy, which wouldn’t embody a religious ministry in the strictest sense but would act as a source of spiritual direction and counseling. Upon mentioning a chaplaincy to someone outside of this discussion circle, one is usually met with frustrated sighs, confused looks, and ill-advised   questions like “are you trying to convert me?” or “we’ve already got a Health & Wellness Center, what would we need a chaplaincy for?” If one is looking to be converted, then perhaps a minister or chaplain would be a good place, but that’s far from the goal of a chaplain. 

Since the establishment of Georgetown University in Washington D.C. in 1789, the Jesuit tradition of the university necessitated it to commit itself to interreligious collaboration and guiding students towards understanding their belonging and purpose. Georgetown DC has accomplished this through the prominent presence of the Campus Ministry, the vehicle through which activities like ESCAPE are run. On the other hand, Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q) does not have a ministry or equivalent body, nor does it have any explicit goals to form one. 

In December 2019, the Muslim Students Association of GU-Q sat down with Imam Yahya Hendi, the Director of Muslim Life at Georgetown DC, during his visit to Doha for the Doha Forum.  Prior to his arrival in Doha, when I had asked what the job of a chaplain is, Imam Yahya wrote up a list, which is summarized below: 

  1. To offer compassionate listening,
  2. To engage students on issues of relevance to finding meaning, purpose in life and belonging,
  3. To empower students to think big and succeed, especially in moments of feeling down,
  4. To ask and answer tough questions about life issues and spirituality related concerns,
  5. To provide spiritual, religious, career, and personal counseling,
  6. To educate on issues of spiritual and religious concerns, especially when it is related to how living in a multi-faith and multi-cultural context,
  7. To inspire students to find meaningful experiences and encounters to help them grow as future leaders,
  8. To help students reflect on their lives, and practice profound discernment for their own lives and dreams,
  9. To offer ways to care for the whole person during their experience at GU and after,
  10. To help students find ways to pursue excellence, learn to respect the world, its history and mystery, 
  11. To help students learn how to develop a contemplative vision formed by hope, critical thinking and effective communication,
  12. To train students to develop an appreciation of things both great & small,
  13. And to practice public service shaped by a sense of justice.

During the MSA’s discussion with him, Imam Yahya commented on how he has never been asked nor thought to outline the purpose of his job as Campus Minister to an audience completely unfamiliar with his position. This was the first opportunity he had to contemplate the true nature of the spiritual service he provides, and to succinctly summarize it in a few bullet points. This signaled something larger – the oblivion of a majority of the GU-Q community towards the very concept of a chaplaincy and campus ministry. Thus, to jump into establishing a chaplaincy would be irrational and impulsive without first educating those whom it is meant to serve. 

At the same time, many questions are raised as to the necessity of a chaplaincy in the first place. Consider the difference: Georgetown D.C. is more diverse in terms of religious differences, while GU-Q has an obvious Muslim majority. Moreover, Georgetown DC was established by Bishop John Carroll and the Society of Jesus, a religious group with a religiously-oriented agenda, while GU-Q was established by the Qatar Foundation, a national institution with goals that aren’t explicitly spiritually-derived.  Students at GU-Q themselves are divided in their opinions, some excited about the prospect, others wary of the need, and some curious to learn more, such as whether the chaplain would be of a specific religious denomination and whether they could cater to all faiths. The biases and level of education of the chaplain in each religion, then, will be deeply scrutinized. 

Before a final proposal can be presented to the GU-Q administration about the necessity of a campus ministry, it’s important for this community to assess the benefits they could reap if such a service was available, and how it might be shaped to suit the local context. From increasing the platforms available for inter- and intra-faith dialogue and the addition of a spiritual component to the GU-Q Health & Wellness Center, a chaplaincy has potential to enhance the versatility of the GU-Q university experience. It provides a chance to break the boundaries around faith-based discussions outside the mandatory theology classes. Chaplaincy in GU-Q means the university will broaden its scope to non-scholarly dialogue of human psychology and spirituality outside the confines of academia.