If you ask a student what the similarities are between their university and a prison, they’d likely come up with many — if only slightly hyperbolically. When asked to make the same parallels though, Imam Yasin Dwyer offers valuable insight on the challenges and situations of both. Having spanned the breadth between the realms of incarceration and higher education through his chaplaincy work, he reveals the experience brought to him by a long journey of service and pursuit of knowledge.
Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba to Jamaican parents, he describes his childhood as the typical Canadian experience. His mother and father were involved with the Methodist church: “not overly observant, but they would identify with Christianity.” In his studies and readings, motivated by curiosity about his heritage more than a desire for change, he explored Africa and African religions, in which Islam plays a great role. Eventually, “it went beyond history and I began considering Islam as a way of life,” leading to his acceptance of Islam at the age of 21. Later on, following travels and studies in Morocco with his family, Imam Yasin found himself involved in chaplaincy, and prison ministry in volunteering with local prisons in Ottawa. Eventually, the opportunity arose to hire the first full time Muslim chaplain in the correctional service of Canada, and he accepted the position in 2003.
Compounding his work with correctional chaplaincy, Imam Yasin volunteered part-time with Queen’s University in Kingston. With his family remaining in Hamilton and significant amounts of travel in his work, logistical difficulties started manifesting themselves increasingly. At the same time, changes were taking place within the provision of chaplaincy care itself: privatization, bureaucracy, and other shifts changed the nature of the work and added to the factors leading to his resignation from prison chaplaincy. Enter the Muslim Chaplaincy at University of Toronto, who began their campaign to expand university chaplaincy with GTA universities. More than the campaign, however, were the comments from friends, family, and community members insisting that the opportunity presented a perfect fit. With that, Imam Yasin Dwyer started the 2017 year as the new chaplain at Ryerson University.
“Chaplaincy revolves around four things: counselling, mentorship, teaching, and advocacy. Those four remain the same across prisons and universities.” These tenets begin to unravel the unique position of chaplains in universities, who need a strong professional presence to not only serve the needs of the students, but successfully advocate for Muslim students on campus with administration and integrate Muslim students within the visions of the university.
Of course, this work cannot succeed unsupported from the community, but complicating that is the lack of knowledge concerning chaplaincy. It is often seen as primarily a Christian vocation, given their formal programming from prisons to military to hospitals, and their pioneering within the field. However, Muslims as well have a rich tradition of spiritual mentorship that is not to be overlooked. “We can extract from our tradition and use it to better understand how to fulfill unmet needs.” As well, just like with many mosque and Islamic centers, there is often the assumption that to be an imam is to be a chaplain and to be a chaplain is to be an imam. Chaplaincy though, is not gender specific — the example of Dr. Ingrid Mattson comes to mind — and despite the areas of overlap with imams, chaplains are unique in dealing with institutions in our societies that are not specifically religious. Hand in hand with this education is recognizing the importance of chaplaincy – that many Muslims are attending universities and they will need spiritual support systems.
In trying to identify the most common areas of help for our university communities, “anything and everything” is possible. Unsurprisingly though, among the highest is helping students cope with stress during the rigour and difficulty of transitions that amount to an exercise in pressure and expectation. “Many deal, quite simply, with loneliness — there tight circles of high school aren’t readily available, and that increases vulnerabilities to stress and mental illness, among other things.” Guiding students with mentorship and spiritual camaraderie is where the chaplain steps in. Many of us attend university for skills, to become independent and productive citizens, “but we are also social animals and beings of faith, and therefore we need to do our best to extract from our faith practical ways of coping.”
Our learning from Imam Yasin is a result of his own personal takeaways from his work. Prison chaplaincy served as a reminder to appreciate and take advantage of your freedom — as well as learning how to talk to yourself in a more productive manner. University was similar, many stresses and anxieties despite the different context, but it requires a different type of service when dealing with students who have capability to make choices. It is also a reminder of how important university can be to a civilization. This is contextualized too, since “skills and education are one thing, but if they are not in the service of faith, they don’t contribute to making one a more complete spiritual being.”
Along this pathway of chaplaincy, regardless of the setting, the role of a chaplain in any institution is to help individuals — staff, administration, students, or otherwise — remember God in all circumstances.
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اذْكُرُوا اللَّهَ ذِكْرًا كَثِيرًا
(Surah 33. Al-Ahzab, Ayah 41:
“O you who have believed, remember Allah with much remembrance”
Sahih International translation)
With chaplains such as Imam Yasin Dwyer serving across institutions and circumstances, facilitating that remembrance is increasingly accessible, and our faith communities grow ever stronger.
Photo credit: Asim Sheikh